The Work of Grief is Challenging, but Worth It

Greg, grief, and my mother's story

The Work of Grief is Challenging, but Worth It Image Grief can hit you any time. It can be due to many things, such as the loss of a loved one, going to a new school, or a change of living arrangements. It can be overwhelming or like a dull throb in the background. There are things you can do for yourself and others who are experiencing grief.

The following story shows how grief touched one of my former students.

Greg* was invisible when I taught him Grade 10 English. He was 14 and new at the school. He showed up to class in body, but he never spoke or handed in any assignments. He quickly vanished at the end of each class. Needless to say, he was failing the course.

I asked the office about Greg's background, thinking perhaps he had special learning needs. That's when I learned his mother had recently died of cancer. After learning this, I asked Greg to stay after class. Once we were alone, I shared my own mother's story with him.

My mom came to Canada from Hungary as a 15-year-old orphan. The Holocaust set in motion nightmare after nightmare. When mom was 8 years old, her father was forced into a special slave labour unit for Jewish men. Needless to say, he never returned. When mom was 11, her mother was killed at a Concentration Camp. Mom then lived in the ghetto with her little sister, whom she cared for, before being rescued and brought to Canada.

When mom started her new life in Toronto, she had a choice: she could either hold on to her grief or choose to live her life so her parents would be proud of her. She chose the latter. She used the gift of life to become a special education teacher, married my father, raised a family, and took in foster children from both the Jewish Family and Children's Service and Catholic Children's Aid Society. Today, at age 89, she continues to help others through different kinds of volunteer work.

I asked Greg one more thing: "Why don't you try living your life so your mother would be proud of you?"

As the months unfolded, Greg began participating in class discussions and handing in work. His marks improved and he made friends in class. One day he stayed behind and asked me, "Did you see I'm participating more?" To which I replied, "Oh yes. I'm proud of you, and I know someone else who is very proud of you too."

Everybody deals with grief in different ways. Others can offer practical assistance, such as housecleaning and meal preparation. It's important not to tell people how they should feel and what they should do. The person who has experienced the loss needs time to process and express their feelings. Others can be supportive of the person and ask open-ended questions. Sometimes just sitting with the person in silence, or giving a hug, if requested by the person, can help. Ask how you can help.

Some strategies to work through grief include:

  • Seeking support from friends and family
  • Getting professional counselling
  • Keeping a grief diary or memory book to record thoughts and feelings in
  • Joining a support group
  • Taking care of your physical health
  • Crying if and when needed
  • Participating in life-giving activities with others, and not isolating yourself

National best-selling author Laurie M. Martin is a certified trauma treatment specialist crisis intervention support who believes grief shows itself in many ways. Martin has been providing grief crisis counselling for many people involved with several disasters, including 9/11, the 2018 hurricanes, and the current pandemic.

I had the opportunity to ask Martin what can help people who are working through grief. Martin suggested using the analogy of a suitcase: "Allow yourself to go into that suitcase and pull out some thoughts and feelings, think about them, then return them.

"If we did that daily, it would help us to understand and feel, instead of keeping it all locked up with the lid closed," Martin continued. "If a person is feeling pain, own it, think about it, feel it, don't handle it too long, put it back into the suitcase, and go on with your day.

"If grief comes rushing up again, even if it's 15 minutes later, grab it, own it, feel it, think about it, and put it back in the suitcase. The more we do this, the more we're doing the work of grief," Martin explained. "All of a sudden, time will go along and you will notice you're not grabbing those thoughts and feelings as often. This is a good sign, as long as you know you have to do this work once in a while as part of your healing."

When I'm flooded with sadness, I think of my teenage mother living her life so her parents would be proud of her. Then I remember Greg, who is living his life, making his mother proud. The work of grief can be long and difficult, but working through it helps make it more manageable. Doing this work is an important way to honour what you are grieving and move towards leading a happier life.

Illustration by Barbara Salsberg Mathews

* For the purposes of this article I call this student Greg, though that was not his name.

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