How to Companion Someone who is Grieving

Birth, life, death….the 3 inevitable stages of life and yet the dying part is kept in the shadows of our collective experience. While we know it’s coming, we are so afraid of dying – our own death and of loved ones. So many people don’t know what to do when someone they know loses someone. We are not sure what to do as we may be afraid that thinking about their beloved makes them sad. I can assure you, they are already sad – being alone in it is much worse.

Where are the casseroles that everyone gets in movies?

I think people are hoping that i have moved on and don’t need to check in. For the most part, i am moving on because i have to. But that doesn’t mean i don’t want people to ask me how i am. I can be okay and still sad. And my sadness is proportional to the new grief i am experiencing.

I’ve also noticed that people assume that since time has given space to the newness of the loss that they don’t have to ask me how i am. I still only just lost my mom. It’s still the only news that is consuming me. It doesn’t matter that i am a therapist and trained to support others with their grief. I am a human who has experiencing a significant, life-changing loss. I need care as well. We all do.

When i reflect on these last 3 months, i have noticed both what i needed and what i didn’t get. I can’t help but keep track of what disappointed me. I think that’s the learner in me, the human experience researcher. The biggest learning is that i want people to acknowledge the loss of my mom. The biggest hurt is when people (who definitely know) and have not said anything to me in person. Not saying anything hurts way more than just saying “how are you doing these days.”

Trust me on this one.

I first learned of the terms ‘companion’ and ‘holding space’ from Amy Wright Glenn, who credits Alan Wolfelt for this. I love how these terms really do capture what is needed when someone is grieving. With that in mind, here are some of my take-aways:

companion

1) Sit with Them as They Grieve
We are not meant to carry these feelings alone. We need to know that someone is holding us. Don’t be hesitant to reach out. People who are grieving don’t always want to do it alone. In fact, as grief is based on the loss of a relationship, it is relationships that help heal. This is what it means to ‘hold space’ and companion someone.

Ask them stories about their loved one; tell them stories about your own experience (of loss, or if you knew the person); help titrate the hard feelings with stories about everyday life. Be there with them as they cry.

There is no right way to grieve. Don’t assume they’re doing okay just because time has moved on or that they are presenting as okay. There can be a cognitive dissonance when it comes to being okay. Don’t ask “how are you,“ try instead with saying “I was thinking of you.”

Being able to laugh is as important as being able to cry.

Being able to talk about it is as important as taking a break from thinking about it.

Don’t try to keep joys apart from tragedy or pain. Let them co-exist and forge ahead with feelings of joy and heartache – choose the beauty over the rain. Their sadness is a testament that what they are grieving is important to them. This may be hard for you to relate to if you haven’t experienced this type of loss. Instead think of your own meaningful relationships, or the one that they have lost. This is a reflection of what was meaningful and special to them and it is not longer.

“The way i see it, if something makes you sad when it ends, it must have been pretty wonderful when it was happening.” William to Rebecca, This is Us

2) Hug and Hold Them
Hugs are a catalyst of helping people to release the feelings of sadness. They also help grievers feel less alone. They truly help people feel comforted.

Other things that are similar to hugs are flowers, books, playlists, ready-made food, cards, donations in their name, and send texts to check in.

Social support should include rest and comfort, a break from the grief so that we can titrate feelings.

“We are all just carrying each other home” Ram Das
Not saying anything at, especially the first time you see them after the loss, is definitely the WRONG thing to do

3) Companion Them
While the concepts of companioning someone and holding space for them are interconnected, the subtle shift is in the action. When we hold space, that means we are staying with them in their moment of sorrow; when we are companioning them, we are on the journey with them to heal and are more active in the path.

Martín Prechtel writes poignantly on grief work in his book from The Smell of Rain on Dust: Grief and Praise:

“Grief expressed out loud for someone we have lost, or a country or home we have lost, is, in itself, the greatest praise we could ever give them. Grief is praise, because it is the natural way love honors what it misses.”
Invite them to events and activities. Don’t take it personally if they say no. Keep inviting and offering. Help them to re-enter world. Give them time and help by reminding what they love to do and can do now.

Remember their loved one’s name and when they died. Dates like this really matter.

In my last journal article, i shared this: “we are not meant to grieve alone. We are grieving the loss of someone we loved. We grieve what matters so need community to companion us as community is what helps us heal.”

4) Check in Often
Don’t just check in once, do it repeatedly; Put together a meal train and have a team so you can take turns.

A lot of us may assume that there’s someone else who’s doing this for the person who’s grieving. In our society right now, chances are there isn’t that person or village. Don’t assume others are doing it already – assume that it’s helpful to reach out. Just show up.

5) Take Time to Learn about Death
Because it is an inevitable part of life, we need to better prepare for its end. Think about what you would need, when you are faced with a loss. One of the things that has touched me the most is when friends and acquaintances alike have reached out with a resource that helped them in their grief. If you are looking for helpful books and resources, here are a few:

*Being Here, Human; a program for grief literacy
*Motherless Daughters and Motherless Mothers by Hope Edelman
*Julia Samuel, Grief Works
*David Kessler Finding Meaning: The 6th Stage of Grief
*It’s Okay that You’re Not Okay – the title says it all!
Orphan Wisdom
Pema Chodron’s words have been an ever-present companion
*Amy Wright Glenn’s book Holding Space: On Loving, Dying and Letting Go as well as her work at The Institute of the Study of Birth Breath Death
*Broken Open by Elizabeth Lesser

I am Now a Motherless Daughter: A Club i did not sign up for

My mom died recently. It’s beyond words to have such a loss happen. While a part of me knew that it would come eventually, none of us were prepared for it to be so soon and so sudden.

Having my own personal experience with loss and the grief that is tethered to it has been an awakening. I don’t love all the new insights i have found and yet they have been transformative.

For instance, i see more clearly just how scared we are of death. It is not the death itself but how to hold the feelings that come with it. It reminds us that our own end is inevitable and that feelings that are messy and raw will be attached to it.

We are left alone to grieve. On the other side of life, we celebrate birth and rebirth – we have customs and rituals for rites of passage like the birth of a new being, graduation, getting a new job. In death, while we have rituals, they are still left to do in the shadows of the day. People may come to an event and then leave us alone in the aftermath.

They say grief is a type of trauma. While not all grief is trauma, all trauma has grief: Of what didn’t get to happen. Some grief is trauma because a person may die unexpectedly, in a painful way. Too quickly.

Like my mom.

We were just starting to see each other more, after 2 years of playing it safe for her. We were just starting to talk about sleepovers for the kids, and adventures to do together. I have been doing my own inner work and healing and was planning to reach out to know more about my ancestral line, my Family Tree and all the recipes and rituals of my heritage.

Those dreams are not dashed away with her ashes. There is so much regret there, in that grief and loss.

I have never lost someone close and important to me. When i was told my mom died unexpectedly, i was leaving to pick up my sister from the airport so that we could be with my mom. We were on our way to visit her together. I don’t think i will ever forget the scream that came out of my body when i was informed of her passing. I remember collapsing on the floor and my partner’s hesitant understanding of what i had just heard.

I went into auto-pilot and feel like it’s been that way since. As the eldest daughter, one who is trained to hold others’ grief and support them, it fell on me to do that for my family. No one stepped in to help guide us and hold space for us. No one offered companionship in what was needed to be done, or how to do it.

We had to learn each step on our own.


Ways to Care for Yourself after a Death
I don’t wish that for anyone. So, i wanted to share a few observations with you now, as a possible resource for when you lose someone. Because you will – death and loss are an inevitable experience for us all.

1) Get Help
We are still figuring out what help we need. But we need help to be fed and calls to make. We need help to distract us and to hold us when we cry. Ask a friend who you know has experienced a loss who may be able to help put you in the right path. Find a friend who will provide you the support you need.

Think about reaching out to a Grief Expert. That can be a Death Doula or companion, a grief therapist or group, a Wills lawyer, or even some of the many books out there. Like this one, I’m Dead, Now What. I’m also reading Finding Meaning, and am so grateful for the work of Amy Wright Glenn, who i have trained with several times.

I’ve been taking this training with Janina Fisher and am so grateful for its timing. It’s serving as a guide for me in a way that helps me make sense of things, when so much doesn’t right now.

We are not meant to grieve alone. We are grieving the loss of someone we lived. We grieve what matters so need community to companion us as community is what helps us heal.

2) Take Time to Honour Your Loved One
My family doesn’t have any rituals for death to honour, so my sister and i found ways to do it for ourselves. We created rituals that felt right and meaningful for us.

For instance, my sister and i carefully, lovingly, and thoughtfully put together what my mom would wear when she was cremated. We also put together a care package for her journey into after-life. She did this a lot for us, so it was fitting we would pay her back and honour her this way. We collected things that were meaningful and important for her – her reading glasses and a notebook for her thoughts and ideas, a favourite book, some yarn and knitting needles, letters from us and photos of us all. We also included some crystals and lavender to help her be cared for.

While this was a big emotional task for us, it was also so cathartic to honour her this way. It gave me a place to put my feelings, and to show her the love i was not always able to display.

3) Keep Talking to Her and About Her
I think people are afraid to ask us how we are, not just because it can bring up our sad feelings, but also because it is a fear of needing to hold us in them. And yet, it is so helpful to have a space to unpack our thoughts. That is what Holding Space is – and not everyone can do it. I want people to ask me about her. I want to talk about her, even if it makes me sad. It reminds me that even though she is gone, my thoughts and memories of her are still ever present.

That’s why i’ve come to chat with her. A give her a simple hello, or “Good morning” Mom.” Ironically, i know she wanted that more in life, so i guess i am trying to make up for that now. It helps to hold my grief in a more softer way. Seeing things that remind me of her are quite hard and yet also wonderful, as they keep me tied to her.

4) Take time for Pleasure
This may feel selfish or counter what we are told about grief. As we know that grief is tied to trauma and our nervous system, it is so important to titrate the hard feelings and stay in your Window of Tolerance. That’s why i kept my special date with my partner. I wanted to have a place to soften, and stay present in the here and now. That’s why the fresh flowers we get in ritual are so healing. They may forever be connected to the loss (i’m afraid of seeing peonies next year) and they help us see something beautiful right here right now.

So, make sure to take time to laugh a little, indulge in a gift for yourself, savour a glass of wine or chunk of chocolate. That is doing your body and healing process a favour, i promise.

5) Hold your Feelings

Just because you’re sensitive that doesn’t mean you’re not strong

The difference between holding your feelings versus holding in your feelings is where the healing starts or stops. When we keep them in, we start to feel more sorrow and suffering. That dance of feelings keeps us tethered to the loss in a way that does not honour our own place in the world. We grief what we loved. So we need to come back to feeling what was loved. It does not serve us to keep them in – we need to let ALL our feelings be felt and seen. This is the hardest part of grief – we don’t know how to hold some of these harder emotions. One place i start is to name them and see what my body needs in relation to the feeling. If i’m sad, i let the tears out. If i’m angry, i scream or dance really fast. If I’m lonely, i reach out to a friend.

If any of these tips is hard for you to put into practice, that is the place to start. I think it serves us to start to prepare for loss long before it shows up at our door. My own inner work was not enough – i had just started to tell people about my mom’s health and my worry of losing her. I wish i added the parts of what i need to care for me.

Another way that i hold my feelings is by writing. As a Narrative Therapist, i treasure this part of me. Here is what i wrote to my mom and for her when i said goodbye.

Motherless Mother: In My Own Words
My mom was so much more than my mom. And yet I think her role and identity as Mom is what shaped her life.

Her new role of grandmother was probably one of her favourite parts of who she was. And she was more than a grandmother.

She was a chemist and knew so much about herbs, plants and the science behind them as healers. Her thumbs were the greenest I’ve seen.

She’s creative – she could knit anything and had such a beautiful eye for detail in her paintings.

My mom has such a gentle soul and yet such a fierce spirit. She’s been through more than anyone needs to be in a lifetime. And yet she also fought for what she wanted. She chose to go through those adventures with an open heart.

My mom was more than just my mom and yet she’ll always be my mom. I’m so grateful for her guidance and love. I’m the mom I am because of her.

She gave her all to us so that we could live our best life. She martyred herself in how much she devoted her life to her family.

While I’m still in disbelief that she is gone, I know in my bones that she wanted to let go before she become a bother. Even in her last days, I think she was thinking of us. I also love that this was her last bit of control, choosing death over a long painful last chapter.

The woman who died was not my mom
She was a woman who needed peace in her body
My mother was magic:
She was a beautiful soul
She was complicated and strong
Brave and vulnerable
Creative and a collector
Gentle and fierce
And under it all, it was all love

I will miss my mom when
I see hummingbirds
I hear rain hit the glass windows at the cottage
I need a hug
I eat Burek and crave Ijvar and poppyseed strudel
I reach for a tissue or hard candy
I lean in to smell my peonies

I will miss her when
I put my hand out of the car and feel the breeze
i see catch the rainbows in the sky or when they dance on the floor
i am curling up with a good book
i need guidance with how to mother my children
i am planting in the garden
i am knitting
I want to tell her about something i’m proud of at work
i set the table for our gatherings

“There is a wild woman under our skin who wants nothing more than to dance until her feet are sore, sing her beautiful grief into the rafters, and offer the bottomless cup of her creativity as a way of life. And if you are able to sing from the very wound that you’ve worked so hard to hide, not only will it give meaning to your own story, but it becomes a corroborative voice for others with a similar wounding.” Toko-pa Turner

My mom is now with the wild women, the wise women that guide us. May she rest now and be my wise woman from beyond.

Thanks Mom for your love and care, your commitment and the foundation that you created for us. You are now a child of the universe and i will forever seek your guidance.

The Shape of Miscarriage

Easter weekend is early this year. While I’m not a religious person, I am in tune with the seasons and feel attached to dates throughout the year. Easter weekend 10 years ago was when I miscarried my first child. So, each year at Easter, I hold space for this memory, pain, and what could have been.

I have written about key dates that we remember before. This is a different kind of post, one that may be hard for some to read. Today I’m writing to share what happened to me when I miscarried. I feel like I need to share this here but please don’t feel like you have to read further.

I was 12 weeks along in my pregnancy, and had already met my lovely team of midwives. I was planning to announce the pregnancy at the various family get-togethers over the long weekend. What better time than Easter and the resurgence of Spring to announce a baby is to be born, right?

No, that’s not a good time after all.

Instead, my partner and I spent the weekend going back and forth to the hospital. We canceled most of our plans to be with others, and hibernated from the world as we knew what was happening.

I had begun spotting at work earlier that week, and instinctually figured out that it was not something to ignore. I have had my period since I was a mere nine year old child, so have always been in tune with my body. A call and visit to the midwife confirmed that my pregnancy hormones were dropping and she couldn’t hear a heartbeat. As it was a long weekend ahead, she suggested I go to to emergency if anything happened. Sure enough, the spotting turned to blood and I got 3 blood tests and a “lovely” intrauterine ultrasound over the course of the weekend.

Instead of eating scores of chocolate eggs, being surrounded by family, and sitting around talking about life with a baby, I cried and changed MANY pads that were soaked with blood. Each day.

Luckily for me, I was able to complete the miscarriage naturally. I mean “luckily” in a sarcastic way of course, and yet a part of me is gratified that I was able to avoid the dreaded D&C. I say dreaded as I had worked at an abortion and reproductive rights clinic and know what ordeal some patients have to go through. I also chose to wait out the inevitable instead of taking the meds that would help quicken the process. Looking back, I can’t quite remember my reasoning for that decision. Other than a hope that we were all wrong, and that I had such trust that my body knew what to do. I have absolutely no judgement for any one who makes a different choice: clearly I am all about choice and doing what is best for our own selves. For me, this is what felt right.

But that week, when I still was off from work, my body expelled what was left of my ovum. It came out with such a force, that it was intact and full. It fit perfectly in my palm. My partner was at work, and I remember how scared I was. I was so depleted, both emotionally and physically. I had to call him to come home as I knew my body was in such turmoil. I left what was left of my pregnancy in the sink. I was able to catch it when it came out, but after that, I remember not knowing what to do. I had lost a lot of blood, and I remember being as white as a ghost. I left it there to hold space for the baby that never was, and also to show my partner what I had to endure. We chose not to give it any more weight. So instead of burying it and doing something more meaningful, I said bye and discarded it. I remember the polarizing mixed feelings I went through – as a Feminist who believes in having choice, for being in charge of my own body, it felt like I shouldn’t do more. And yet as a woman who wanted to have a baby, I felt like I needed to grieve more.

Soon afterward, I remember events that will always be tied to this part of my story. Maybe that same week or the one following, I went to one of my favourite restaurants with my partner. No one there knew our secret. We went there during lunch, when things are typically quiet. And yet there I was beside a very pregnant woman, who was sitting beside a new mom and her tiny newborn. What are the chances of that – it felt like a Klimt painting come to life – the Stages of Motherhood.

Soon after that, I was in a therapy session with a client. She had news for me – she had been unexpectedly pregnant recently too and miscarried. While she was not as far along in her pregnancy, it was just as painful for her. I was not ready for this news. I did not self-disclose then as it was much to raw, but I realized I was not ready to return to work yet. Sometimes, going back to a routine is key, but we also need to the time we need to process, grieve and heal.

I had scheduled a follow-up with my midwife. I had to have some final lab work down to confirm that I was no longer pregnant. But since I had officially miscarried, I was told that I was no longer a patient of the Midwife clinic. While this made sense logically – their services are for pregnant people after all, I felt abandoned and left alone. And I remember being sad that I couldn’t say goodbye to them. I still had the continued support of my family doctor, but I remember wishing that I could have more. This article was recently published and the author also talks about how confusing it is, to feel at fault when there is nothing to be at fault for.

This is one of the reasons i now do this work, providing support to women who experience miscarriage or stillborn loss. We can’t do this alone. We deserve better than that. The stigma of miscarriage needs to be addressed and abolished. I really admire the work of such organizations as The 16 Percent, We the Mamas initiative and I Had a Miscarriage Instagram account. The stories that are shared bring a communal voice to something that had been quiet for too long. I was told to “wait” until I got past the 12 week mark. My own mom experienced 2 miscarriages and 1 stillborn loss before (and after) I was born. Forty years later, we are still being told to wait. Well, I sure could have had the support of my village when I experienced my loss.

I recently read this article and it really resonated with me; when her therapist suggested that the journal she had been using was not as helpful as she thought. I also learned that when I write, it needs to be cathartic, and not just a place to purge.I started to write in my journal and turned even more inward. When that wasn’t enough, I started to practice the tools I suggest to my own clients, around mindfulness and body work like dance classes and yoga. I started telling people about my experience, and friends shared their experience with me.

For months after, going my period was such an ordeal. It was messy, heavy, and triggering. The first cycles were especially hard as they were accompanied by severe cramping, a different colour and level of blood, and they were filled with worry that I may not get pregnant again. I will always remember my trip to New York City with my mom and sister. One of our only trips with just the 3 of us and it was July. It was such a hot month and my period came early and with such a vengeance. But I fought back and am glad that i had already told my mom what I had experienced – we have that in common now, and I trusted I would have her compassion. After that month, my cycle returned to my normal.

And I conceived again in October that same year; my first-born Earthside will be 9 this year. That’s another story for another time.

If you have had a similar experience, please don’t hesitate to contact. WE don’t need to do this alone.

Holding Space for Your Loss


Today is October 15. Besides being a windy, cool Fall day here in Toronto, it also marks a global day of remembrance for those families that have lost babies either during pregnancy or as a young infant. I’m sitting at home watching the evening sky come into view. After a day of rain, the hues outside are a very fitting shade of pink, blue and purple – the chosen colours of today.

I am one of those 1 in 4. And before i started this work, i didn’t share the info so openly. Now, it’s a part of life both as a quiet identity and one that knows i need not feel shame. In my own journey as someone who has lost a baby by miscarriage, and as a therapist now supporting families and women with their own loss, this past year is a very meaningful one for my own growth and healing. It seems fitting, then that i wanted to share with you some helpful ways we can hold space for others and companion them after experiencing a loss like this.

While i have found ways to heal from my own miscarriage, i still take time to acknowledge this loss. One thing that i do still is to keep this Desert Rose crystal near my bed. As my children who are alive Earthside sleep down the hall from me, this beautiful creation from nature is close to my bed. Desert Rose helps to support grief especially related to miscarriage. It is very grounding and i love how fragile and strong it is at the same time.

I took a course this past year that really confirmed for me what ‘holding space’ means. Amy Wright Glenn leads a very healing and comprehensive course that is open to anyone to participate in. She talks about how holding space means to deliberately check in with your friend, to not shy away from being direct and asking they are doing. Those of us that have lost do want you to ask about how we are coping with this loss, and to acknowledge our grief. This is a key tool as so many of us are afraid to go down that road, like asking may bring up feelings for the person experiencing grief that we ourselves are not sure how to support. It’s a good reminder that to truly companion someone, we may need to be a bit uncomfortable and step outside our small talk zone. it’s not about our comfort but rather their pain.

There are some amazing ways to hold space and heal, and still find a way to keep the baby we lost close to us. Molly Bears is a great example of this: you can order a teddy bear that is the exact same weight as your baby. To be able to feel and hold all over again, to be able to connect with this feeling in your body can be really healing and gratifying. You can plant a tree or garden, or have a special place in your home that your baby sits at. I know some women who have gotten a commemorative tattoo or beautiful necklace with their baby’s name on it. Carrrying something with you is a powerful way to feel connected.

We can hold space for others in so many ways too. For instance, i recently flew my favourite butterfly kite in honour of a couple i work with. They were acknowledging the anniversary of their child’s birth by flying kites with a group of family and friends. While i wasn’t there with them, i was definitely there in spirit. This can be done in so many ways – light a candle for someone else like the Wave of Light campaign, say hi to the sunrise, donate to a children’s charity of some kind in honour of a baby you never got to meet. Send your loved one a text or call them on an important anniversary or just to say you were thinking of their baby when you saw someone who would be the same age. The website October 15 has an amazing and thoughtful list of ways you can support someone who is grieving this devastating loss.

Finally, remember there are so many different ways to grieve, and it is not up to anyone else to decide when we have moved on or not. Grief and mourning are not as linear as the Stages of Loss proclaims. I like the idea of a river, that has ebb and flow and change. It can be quiet for a bit, but then a trigger (like a baby the same age yours would have been) can make the water turn into intense white rapids.

So, if you know someone who has lost a baby, take a moment for them today or this month to let them know you were thinking of them. You could send flowers, or a meal, or just hold space by being present with them and letting them know you were thinking of them.