Welcoming Grief At The Holidays

Christmas 2017

The game was “Speak Out”. Snapping a photo where one of us wasn’t shaking with laughter and blurry was a challenge. And the tree angel hovered above our heads.

This lovely picture was taken last Christmas. It was taken at the home of the couple that opened their arms to my daughter, her boyfriend, our dog and me the first Christmas after my husband’s death. Are there any pictures from that Christmas? No.

Was the day emotional, funny, awkward, and surreal? Was sorrow present? Was love? Absolutely. It was all there. And if I didn’t know before that love exists quite comfortably alongside sorrow, I learned it then.

We were fortunate. Somehow these friends instinctively knew how to support us. Unfortunately, not everyone does (yet). I know this because caring individuals often ask me about what they might do to help those who are grieving. So for those of you who haven’t yet found a widow of your own to ask, here are my suggestions.

  1. Meet them where they are. Do this by being welcoming, accepting their sadness as valid, and trying to have absolutely no expectations of how the day will go. Realize it will likely be bumpy and that that is part of the process. Christmas (or whatever holiday being celebrated) has been irrevocably changed. This makes the holidays, among other things, disorienting.
  2. Be as open to talking about their loved ones as you are open to not talking about them. Don’t be afraid to ask: “Is it okay if we talk about so and so or remember so and so today? Or would you prefer not to?” Asking these questions helps the bereaved establish that they are among people who care and that they are in a safe place. It is a kind and respectful thing to do.
    If the answer is that they would prefer not to speak of their loved one, then it’s also okay to simply say, “that’s absolutely fine, and if you change your mind just go ahead and bring them up and that will be our cue that it’s okay to talk about them.”
    I also add that if talking about or listening to stories of their loved one at any point in time becomes too hard for them, that no one will feel the least bit put out if the bereaved says so. This covers all the bases and helps those of us who are doing the supporting (because I’m there now too) to do it with love and compassion.
  3. Honour old traditions where appropriate. Continuity from the past creates a sense of familiarity and brings a sense of normal to these days. It also lays the groundwork for the next generation to continue with these traditions when we too are no longer here. Our Christmas includes my homemade cookies, German ‘Bunte Teller” and my mom’s stuffing recipe.
  4. Create new traditions where needed. There are no rules here. I have heard of the dead being included into the festivities in many different ways. Here are a few. Set a place for them at the table and place their picture on the setting. Pour them a glass of wine. Toast them. Have ornaments made with their image. Give gifts from the departed that are symbolic. Create a special small tree for them representative of who they were in life: husband, wife, grandfather, grandmother, silly person, cook- you get the picture. Share stories. I like to be sure that we share stories of Christmas past, and Christmas present. I find it gives some balance to share what we are grateful for, especially when life’s moments are complicated. Always be sure to toast the chef and the good fortune of being together.

It doesn’t seem like a long list but I think it’s a good place to start. Next week I’ll be discussing how to celebrate when some are ready for Christmas joy and others aren’t.

Special thanks to Paul, George and Emily for allowing me to share this picture. It does me much good to have proof that silliness and fun does return. May we celebrate another 20+ Christmases together. Much love to all of you.

Note: For those wondering about pre-holiday support here are a couple of practical ideas. Most people will have plans for key days. So simply checking in and making sure our friends are okay throughout the holiday season will help remind them that they are not alone, and that they are cherished. Plan a simple get together: coffee will do. Be a shopping buddy. Buying gifts is an exercise in maintaining some sense of normalcy in a situation that feels far from normal. Whether it’s shopping in a mall, shopping for a tree, or shopping on-line, shopping in general can be taxing. Regardless of how we choose to support those who grieve, know that being with good friends always lightens the load.

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Holidays after loss


The only tree I could put up that first Christmas came out of a 24″ long box. We do what we can. Thanks C.B.

Holidays after a major loss are messy. There are so many things to disentangle. Holidays and family gatherings are emotional under the best of circumstances. And a holiday gathering after loss is so far from the best of circumstances that I’m inclined to say it verges on the paranormal. Well, not really, but it sometimes feels like that.

It is both a space with established rituals and one that is completely new and foreign. There are bound to be missteps. There will likely be tears, either visible or suppressed. And it’s possible that the act of having to figure out how to do this ‘one more thing’ will push someone so far out of their comfort zone that angry words may erupt; Anger, of course, being a safer emotion to express than sadness, pain and sorrow.

Perhaps the place to start is to agree that all these things and more are possible. To acknowledge that Christmas, or whatever holiday is being celebrated has been irrevocably changed by loss, and will forever more be different than it used to be; And that the very act of figuring out how to enjoy these days will be challenging.

It’s hard to remember when we are grieving to accept all missteps and moments of discomfort as learning lessons and opportunities to stretch our compassion and kindness muscles. But, I know of no other way to build new good memories than to consciously come together and wade through the emotional messiness with all its gore and glory. This can only be tough, especially in the beginning. But it is the way to move forward.

As broken as I was, there was a part of me that also knew that when I was in this space that I was supported by others who loved me and that they too were hurting. I could also see (well maybe not in that first year) that they too were struggling to figure out how to reassemble these ‘coming togethers.’* And looking back today, it is, of course, pretty obvious that we were all doing our best to endure. Isn’t hindsight a lovely thing? And because of this hindsight gifted to me by, yes, major loss, I’m now in the position to remind others that as challenging as these days were, especially in the beginning, that by the time Christmas rolled round that first year that I had already lived through far worse. This holds true for everyone who has had a major loss. So as discombobulated as the holidays may be, this is still a better place. Hold on to this thought. And though it may feel like one more thing we need to survive, know that it is in surviving these days and being present to all that comes with them (including messiness) that we are able to create a space for new joy to appear.

Stay well,

* I do know there is no such word as “coming togethers.” But, we can’t really call these days ‘festivities’ especially in the early years. Words like occasion or event don’t seem right either. So I’ve opted for ‘coming togethers.’ It somehow seems more accurate. If you like it, feel free to use it.


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National Bereavement Day Talk

Dear Friends,

On November 21st, National Bereavement Day I invite you to join me at the Toronto Death Cafe to learn more about and share ideas on how we can all better support those who are grieving during the upcoming holidays. This is a free event and sure to be interesting. Please help me spread the word.  Thank you. Stay well, Heike

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Three Truths

Many of us go through our days on autopilot surfacing into a state of consciousness only when something out of the ordinary happens. Sometimes it’s a moment of joy or something amusing that rouses us. Other times it is a crisis or a challenge.  But, for the most part we putter through our lives sticking pretty much to the script we designed in our twenties or worse yet someone else designed for us. And then suddenly it’s twenty, thirty, forty years later or we’re dealing with a serious health crisis and we desperately long to explore that which we have always been curious about – to do that which we always dreamed of doing but hadn’t~ yet. Maybe we’re lucky and we will be given the time and energy to pursue these things. Either way when this happens we come to place where we must choose to either bury our heads in the sand and forge on or admit that we were mistaken to believe unequivocally that we would grow old and remain healthy. It is at this time that three truths make themselves visible.   No one wants to learn these truths the hard way but most of us do.   We’re not taught of their existence, and so consequently learning them the hard way is the norm. Maybe we can change this. Maybe we can teach our children differently. Maybe we can teach ourselves in the process.

  1. When we die the people we work with, the people we work for, and the people who work for us will be minimally impacted by our absence. Someone else will be hired. They will do our jobs differently than we did, but for the most part, work will remain unchanged. The people who love us, those who share our journey, and those whose lives are deeply intertwined with our own will suffer greatly. It is they who will miss and mourn us for a long time and quite possibly through out their lives, especially at important events like graduations, weddings, and the birth of grandchildren.
  2. Staying well is a challenge. Whenever we feel well we focus less on our health. Re-building our health is even more of a challenge and sometimes it is not possible. My diet is pretty clean and I exercise fairly regularly. I had to learn how to do this. Several minor health crises over the years and caring for the terminally ill taught me how. I do slip up now and then but for the most part I make the effort. It’s not a guarantee but I know it makes a difference.
  3. If we truly understood numbers one and two to be true and that they apply to all of us, then many of us would live very different lives. We would spend more time with those we love, knowing that we or they will not always be here and we would be kinder to ourselves and our bodies. Some would still stick to the script that was laid out and has become their way of life. But, more of us would not. If we were encouraged to live within these truths and to raise our children to make decisions about their own lives taking these truths always into account it would create a very different world. Perhaps a healthier one with more joy and fewer regrets. No one lives forever, not me and not even you. Live for what is important to you and those you love.

Stay well,


image source:PublicDomainPictures. net

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I’m thankful for mommy and daddy, blankie and bear

Those were the words my daughter dictated to her pre-school teacher 20 years ago. In bold marker, the teacher dutifully wrote them onto the strip of sticker decorated bristol board that would become my daughter’s crown for the afternoon’s sharing circle. She did this for all of daughter’s classmates.

It touched the hearts of her daddy and me. Not only did we get top billing but we were without a doubt in esteemed company. By now I suspect many of you are smiling, perhaps remembering your own child’s sweetness or maybe even the uncomplicated innocence we all shared when we were three.

The last years have been hard. There has been a lot of loss. And like any holiday when family gathers, Thanksgiving is a reminder of who no longer sits at the table.

For years, my late husband, daughter and myself would play a game at the dinner table. We would list three things we were thankful for that day. I never tired of hearing one of the things my husband was thankful for was coming home. Kind of hokey, but, when spending time with your family ranks in the things you’re most thankful for it’s always a good thing. On rough days, it meant that being home was a reprieve: on great days, it was a place to share one’s triumphs with those who meant the most to you. It also meant that, regardless of the day, you had a place where you were welcome and loved.

Last year, much to my niece’s surprise, I asked those gathered around our newly configured family table to list three things they were thankful for. It seemed like the place and time to carry-on with this lovely game. This year, I’ve given her ample warning and I’m looking forward to hearing her thoughts.

As for me, I will be thankful for the people sitting at the table, for those who are absent due to other commitments, and for those who are absent because they are no longer with us. I will be thankful for the love and connection I share with those present, for all the love and support that has been given to me throughout the years and the love that I too have been able to give. And I will be thankful that I am here and able to continue moving forward with love. After all, isn’t that what my daughter captured all those years ago? Deep connections, people (and bears) in her corner, and the comfort that having these things bring to us all (soft blankies included).

Happy Thanksgiving,


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Everything is different when we grieve – even Back-To-School

Everything is different when we grieve


The Labour Day weekend marks the end of summer and the beginning of fall. Bathing suits and beach umbrellas are put away and new jeans and knapsacks donned.

Today I am thinking of those that find themselves surprisingly thrown by how different it all feels this year. I’m hoping their teachers, fellow students and colleagues will realize that below the surface may lay struggle. I’m also hoping they will be patient and kind to these individuals, whether they are children or all grown-up. These are courageous people who are letting go of old norms and fighting to build new ones.

The loss of routine that accompanies grief is yet another one of those things those who grieve must deal with. Things look the same on the outside, but they’re not. As with everything else, new routines become established over time. Unfortunately, part of the process involves continually encountering the disappearance of yet ‘another’ unconscious habit. These reminders are painful.

I wrote the following excerpt during the second Back-To-School season after Richard passed. (We all know that first fall was a blur.) I only now realize how difficult that first Back-To-School was and that is why I write this blog today: to let those of you who are grieving know you are in my thoughts and to remind others of your courage.

Hang in. It does get easier. I promise.

Learning to live again is… sometimes struggling to remember, and reaching in your mind to remember the old routines and rituals. The familiarity and comfort of these unacknowledged rituals are gone. What were the back to school routines for the professor and our daughter? New jeans or khakis, or was it both? I don’t recall. Earlier years, when the patterns were being set, are clearer to see, though the feelings that went with them are fuzzy or can’t be felt. Is the absence of these routines and the emotions that went with them the price for feeling less pain?

Excerpted from Grief is… Thoughts on loss, struggle and new beginnings

~Heike Mertins~



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Trigger Days

When you lose someone you love there will always be trigger days that follow. As the anniversary of a friend’s death drew nearer I had my first experience with trigger days. I was anxious and on the actual date I felt a sense of unexplained sadness all day long. It was 1987, I was twenty-four years old, and no one I knew talked about grief.

I had no idea that grief would come with trigger days. It took me a couple of years to figure out it was not a coincidence that I would feel this way leading up to the anniversary of his death. Even though we now know these things are possible, sometimes we don’t want to acknowledge they are happening to us. But, this doesn’t change that they do. Trigger days happen to everyone.

Today is a trigger day. I won’t go into details. Today I have planned to take very good care of myself. I have learned that stepping back and being kind to myself is the best way for me to get through the day. It brings me into tomorrow less stressed and stronger. I highly recommend being gentle with oneself on trigger days.

Stay well,


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