Grieving is a long and complicated process and we are not given enough time off work to grieve. Hear Emory’s story of how grief changes over time, how you can manage grief and how to talk to others who are grieving. 

On the morning of February 1st, my mother would smile and like a giddy teenager as she lined up the cereal boxes and state: “it’s only twenty-seven days until my birthday.” As if we hadn’t performed this ritual for as long as we could remember. She was always enthusiastic to celebrate regardless of whether or not she had an actual birthday that year. In reality, the entire last week of the month was all about her. Of course, the leap years were the biggest, but every other year was almost the same. Since there was no actual day to celebrate, “why not celebrate on February 28th and March 1st?” You might think this would be incredibly annoying, and while it was to some extent, it was impossible to be annoyed for long.

A lot of things from my childhood have been forgotten but not those birthday celebrations.

I couldn’t tell you which events happened which year or what years were the biggest parties, but I do remember my mother’s enthusiasm. And everyone would have said she was the life of the party. She would inevitably be found in the kitchen – wine glass in hand, small ice cubes clinking against the glass as she danced lazy circles around the furniture or other party-goers. If you could really call what she did dancing. When she really got into it she would do this thing that can only be described as a jump-shuffle-dance. With her feet together, knees bent and ass sticking out, she shuffled backwards, sort of like a reverse bunny hop or maybe a two-footed moonwalk. It was impossible not to watch her when she danced, not only because it was quite funny to watch, but the way her face shone with joy demanded attention.

When Everything Changed

My mother died just before I turned eighteen years old and three weeks after I graduated from high school. That was more than ten years ago now, but as February 29th approaches I feel heavy. It’s a heaviness that even now as I write this I am having a difficult time describing. It feels almost like something’s missing in my life but not in a way that feels tangible to me. This is because my mother has never been a part of my adult life.

Since graduating from high school I’ve come out as queer and transgender. I’ve legally changed my name and have grown into an entirely different version of myself. One that my mother never got to meet. So, while she’s missing from my life now and that burdens my heart significantly, I also don’t know what her being in my life would look like anymore. This is a completely different type of sadness.

Does grief last ten years or more?

For the last handful of years, I had a hard time describing the feelings I’ve had about my mother as grief. The way I feel now feels nothing like the first few years did.

My mother had been sick for a long time before she died and I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to say goodbye. Unfortunately, these things did little to actually prepare me for her absence. The last year, maybe more, was spent making trips back and forth from the hospital. Picking mom up and bringing her home for dinner, or for weekend visits, when she was healthy enough. Then suddenly everything changed. My family home turned into nothing more than a few two by fours and a roof- a place to sleep and eat but it no longer felt like a home.

That first year, grief pooled under my tongue, it felt like I couldn’t speak or swallow. I became well acquainted with the feeling of tears welling in my cheekbones, learned to lock jaw keep them out when I could. I told myself to be strong. That my younger sibling needed me to be strong. But as I look back now I realize how much this prevented me from healing. I needed to feel my feelings in order to let them go.

Everything was a challenge that year and it felt like I was doing everything alone. The first Christmas felt hollow, I didn’t want to celebrate as there was no reason to anymore, and when we got to the first February I was barely able to function. I somehow managed to maintain my grades in university and show up at work but I was just going through the motions. Doing just enough to exist but nothing more.

The First Leap Year 

The first leap year was 2012, almost three years after my mother passed. I was twenty years old and by then I felt like things had changed, that I’d grown up enough. I was able to look back on the amazing things about my mother and smile rather than just seeing hospital beds and blue gowns. But something about that February broke me open. I felt the hole in my life again and I was completely unprepared to deal with it.

The Second Leap Year

The next leap year was 2016, and this time everything was different. I’d come out as queer, been through years of therapy and was coming to terms with my gender identity. This time I felt like a new person. It had been years since grief had taken hold of me and I finally felt like I was figuring out how to be an adult. But when February rolled around I felt guilty. It felt like I was forgetting and that made me feel nauseous.

It took more effort than I would have liked to conjure the image of my mothers’ smile and I could barely remember the sound of her laughter. Everything was fading and I spent weeks angry at myself for letting go. I didn’t want to forget but I also didn’t want to cling to the sadness that had burdened me so significantly years before.

So, I made the decision to write. 

I’ve been a writer for as long as I can remember, and there is something cathartic about having a place to put your feelings outside of yourself. But this time instead of writing into the sadness – I chose another path. That month I created a chapbook of poems that I titled Unsent Letters. It contained eight poems written as if they were letters to my mother describing my life and how things had changed. In those poems, I was able to come out to her and tell her I wasn’t her little girl anymore. It provided me with healing I never could have anticipated. Of course, I wish I could have spoken those words to her and that she could have met this version of me, but it was the closest I was ever going to get.

Grief After 10 Years

Now, things continue to change when it comes to my grief. I have casual depression. I call it casual because it doesn’t have a significant impact on my day-to-day functions, but it does make me feel lethargic and heavy some days. And I often feel a weight of sadness that is not caused by anything I can put my finger on. My depression gets worse in the cold, grey winter months or maybe it’s just harder for me to manage in the darkness.

In February, even though the clouds are lifting in Vancouver and the sun is starting to shine, I feel heavy. Sort of like I imagine a knight would feel in plated armour, my motions are slower and where I place my energy has to be more calculated. I tire sooner and I feel like I am not able to do as much and I dislike feeling that way. But it doesn’t feel like sadness.

So today I remind myself that sadness does not always show up as tears. That my sadness over losing my mother has changed from a deep sense of grief into a vague sense of emptiness and longing. Both of these feelings are valid and have been a significant part of my process. But dealing with grief is never easy, so let’s talk about grief in a more practical way – and what we can do to manage it best we can.

What is grief? And how does it change over time?

Grief is a natural response to loss. It’s the emotional suffering a person feels when something or someone they love is taken away. It’s common to experience all kinds of difficult and unexpected emotions, from shock or anger to disbelief, guilt, and profound sadness. The pain of grief can also disrupt our physical health, making it difficult to sleep, eat, or even think straight. These are normal reactions to loss – and the more significant the loss, the more intense the grief will be.

The most important thing to know about grief is that there is no one way to grieve. And there certainly isn’t a benchmark for what is normal when it comes to grieving. As time passes, the loss doesn’t disappear completely and it probably never will but it changes.

Talking to Someone Who is Grieving

If someone in your workplace has recently come back to work after time off to grieve you may be unsure how to approach them. It’s normal to feel this way, particularly if you haven’t experienced this type of grief yourself. I experienced that a lot of people didn’t know how to talk to me so they just chose not to be around me which made me feel even more isolated. Granted at that time these people were teenagers and young adults.

There is no one right way to talk to someone who is grieving. It’s likely that at some point you may say something wrong but there are some things you can keep in mind as you learn to navigate it. Here are some of the things I wish people knew or did when I was grieving:

  1. Talk to them like you always would but with slightly more care. Most people have probably spent a lot of time talking about their loss with their loved ones and work probably isn’t the best place to talk about it. They are also likely to want things to return to as normal as possible. Be sensitive but talk to them how you normally would. We really don’t want to be coddled or have people walking on eggshells around us.
  2. Be aware of the intimacy level of your relationship. How you approach someone following a loss can vary depending on the relationship you have with them. This is particularly true in the workplace.
  3. Offer condolences or support but otherwise let them come to you. It’s reasonable to offer someone your condolences following a loss but don’t continue to bring it up unless they do.
  4. Listen. If they decide to talk to you about their loss or feelings surrounding their grief you may not know how to respond but that’s not necessarily important. Give them the space to speak and listen genuining.
  5. Don’t ask too many questions. Depending on your relationship it may be appropriate to ask what you can do to help or how you can support them but don’t overwhelm them with questions.
    • If you are a supervisor of someone who is grieving it is appropriate to approach the topic of accommodations and supporting their transition back to work.
  6. Don’t give advice. It’s important to never offer unsolicited advice, grief affects everyone differently and we all heal at different rates. If someone approaches you and asks for advice, be cautious and approach it from story telling. Tell them about your experience and how to managed it which gives them the opportunity to determine whether or not that same method may work for them.
  7. Forget the Cliches. It may seem automatic, or like the only thing you can say. You know the one’s “they’re in a better palace”, “time heals all wounds”, etc. This somewhat aligns with giving advice, we need to come to these conclusions ourselves and we need to grieve at our own pace. Hearing these types of cookie cutter responses are often just frustrating at first because a lot of us aren’t at a place where we want to heal yet.

How to manage grief

Most of us have probably heard of the stages of grief; denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. While many people do experience these, calling them stages can be problematic for many. Grief is not something neat and tidy – and it is rare for anyone to experience these ‘stages’ in sequential order and in the way that they’re described to us. So, don’t worry so much about the stages or what you ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ be feeling when it comes to grief.

My thoughts on dealing with grief

I have learned a lot about the grieving process over the years and here is what I think about how to manage grief.

  1. Allow yourself to feel your feelings. Of course, many of us have to pick ourselves up and get back to our lives like work and school
  2. Be gentle with yourself. If you’re anything like me it can be natural or automatic to make yourself feel bad for not dealing with something better. When it comes to grief there is no such thing as better, and getting upset with your feelings doesn’t help.
  3. Understand that grief can trigger emotions that you may not expect. It may make you angry and that’s okay, and like with me years later, it might make you feel guilty in a way you couldn’t anticipate.
  4. Know that your experience of grief is unique. If you’re grieving the loss of a loved one, your experience is likely going to be different from those around you – including other family members. Remember that there is no right way to grieve, and no one’s experience is better than others.
  5. Seek out support. When you’ve lost a loved one it can be easy to feel alone but there are many people that care about you; lean on them when you need support.
  6. Recognize when you need more support. There are times when grief is so intense that we are unable to deal with it on our own, and that’s okay. Or life piles on top of your grief more than you can handle. It’s okay to seek out professional support. An experienced therapist can help you work through intense emotions and overcome obstacles to your grieving

Final Thoughts

Remember that grief looks different for everyone and despite the fact that we are only given a short amount of time off work for grieving, that does not mean the grieving process is or should be over at the end of that allotted time. The first year is going to be the hardest because you have an entire year of first experiences without that person.

If you are dealing with grief, no matter what stage you’re at or how much time has passed, and you need support- reach out. Sign up today for a no-commitment referral with a therapist at Dr. Joti Samra & Associates.