Toronto Talks Death (Pt.2)

Join us February 13th as we further explore how to better supporting the grieving. Always thought provoking and lively. The snacks are pretty wonderful too. Thank you to Life Celebrants Linda Stuart and Lisa Myers for making these evenings possible. grief talk part 2

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Dear Mean Girls (when you’re not mainstream)

Dear Mean Girls,

Thank you for making me an outsider. The view from here is so much more spectacular than you will ever be able to imagine.

To all the Carlas, Julies and Sues out there, I want to let you know that the kids who did think I was interesting enough to be friends with, are the best. My worldview is so much larger because of the Trinidadian, Guyanese, Greek and Chinese foods I ate in their parents’ homes and out of their lunch bags. My body dances on it’s own whenever it hears Southern Baptist Gospel, Island Reggae and The Blues. Through discovering the beauty of other cultures I have gained a love and appreciation of fine lines and vibrant colours and the joy that they can bring to a home. I am part of a diversity based on mutual respect, and not taking oneself too seriously. If I’d had to ‘like’ only mainstream pop music, food and clothing, I’d have never learned to recognize innovation and talent (something the mainstream generally fails to see). And face it, Mean Girls are, if anything, mainstream and status quo.

As an outsider, I did not peak in high school. Instead I have excelled in one way or another in each of the decades that followed. Hallelujah.

As an outsider I learned that being accepted as we are is a gift and a relief. It let’s us be who we are and not as others or society tells us we should be. It teaches us to worry less about fitting in and more about speaking our truth.  It is both freeing and empowering (though sometimes scary).

It took some time but I also learned that kindness often follows acknowledging that someone other than ourselves is now in a situation where we’d once been. These are the great moments in life where we get to choose whether we will support those who are hurting or add to their burdens, the way the Mean Girls did back then and unfortunately, still do. You see Mean Girls, I now know that you chose to be mean.

Perhaps the most interesting thing I’ve learned from not being part of ‘in’ crowd is it costs us nothing to be kind. It actually makes us more powerful when we choose to be kind (and not mean). Anyone who has been on the receiving end of kindness will vouch for this.

I do not know why some girls choose to manipulate and humiliate others. I do not know if it’s due to their own deep insecurities or if they are, in lashing out, exorcising the demons from their own lives. I do not know if they believe that possessing the power to hurt and wielding it is a worthwhile endeavour. I do know your actions taught me that simply because one can do something does not mean one should. There are bigger questions that call to be answered before choosing how we will act. Questions such as “who will benefit from our actions and who will lose? Will the loss cause greater pain than the gain provides pleasure? Do I want to be the person whose gain causes pain for others? Is there another way?”

The truth is many feel threatened by the power of kindness. After all what can you do when someone chooses to treat you with kindness and not be impacted by your particular brand of nastiness? What can you do when someone chooses to smile and not take part in your game? It is kindness that strips meanness of its power.

Thanks Mean Girls. From you I learned to step back, to try to understand and assess the context of a situation. Your misbehaviours gave me a point of reference from which to build my own core values and yes, they include being kind, innovative, and solution oriented. I value the voices of others; they teach me. So, truly, thanks for being so awful. I’m a much happier person today because of your insular and petty actions. Yes, that’s a bit of a dig. I may be grateful, but sweethearts, it was what it was.

*Note: the names Carla, Julie and Sue belong to three extraordinary women whom I dearly love and greatly respect. They have all granted me permission to use their names. I see no point in shaming the Mean Girls from my high school days. Hopefully, they’ve confronted their past behaviour and have become kinder people. Besides, we all remember who they were. We always will.

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The Lighting of Three Candles

Original art work by Emily Nutbrown

Special thanks to Linda Stuart, Life Celebrant who recently introduced me to this ritual.

The first candle is lit for those who have come before us and are no longer with us. We light it to acknowledge the gifts their presence in our lives bestowed upon us, whether they were mentors, friends or family.

The second candle is lit for those of us who are present: to acknowledge that we have gathered together to create together. It is also lit to honour all that is present in our lives that makes it possible for us to be all that we are and can be: especially the people who love and support us unconditionally.

The third candle is lit for those who are yet to come into our lives: those who have not yet been born and those who we have not yet met. We light it as we commit to being present to building the future. We build knowing that creating is messy and that though we may not witness the completion of that which we are building that this too is part of the natural order of things.

That’s all there is. And yes, I light my three candles regularly and yes, they will be lit when we gather round the table next week.

As always, to those who are struggling this holiday season, know that you are in my heart. As hard as these days may be, they too shall pass and this time next year, things will again look different. Take care of yourselves and stay well. Heike

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Introducing Holiday Joy to Grief

Recently someone pointed out to me that the holidays can be further complicated when some family members are once again ready for the joy of the holidays and others are not. This is true no matter what holiday is being celebrated.

First, I want to say that I don’t know why some people are able to move forward and others cannot. I suspect it has something to do with how deeply old neurological patterns that no longer make sense are imbedded in our brains and how hard it can be to create new patterns and habits. In other words, for some the holidays will always be painful. The only solution in these situations is to accept these people as they are. They have been broken so badly that they are unable to heal. This makes me sad, but there are things in life that do.

Yet, where there is the possibility of creating new neurological pathways there is also the possibility of again feeling joy; it will be a different type of joy, but nonetheless joy. It’s perfectly all right if one person is less jovial that another. It’s to be expected that the joyous person’s joy may be slightly dampened by the grieving person’s grief. And the grieving person’s grief may be slightly lifted by the joyous person’s joy. Most encounters have some of this dynamic. It just tends to be more pronounced when someone is grieving. By recognizing this we gain insight into how our experiences change who we are and how together we can create something new. This is a good thing.

Some may believe that being our joyous selves in the presence of someone we know is hurting is disrespectful or even a betrayal. I don’t think it is. I think when we are not true to who we are and how we feel that it creates a new type of hurt. Because when we do this we are not trusting in the other person or our connection to one another. There is of course a respectful way to do this. One must refrain from cajoling or insisting that the griever participate fully in one’s excitement. Guilt is never a welcome guest.

The place to start is, as always, accepting others as they are. When we acknowledge that the person in front of us is still hurting and we are able to accept them as they are, then we must also have faith that that person is capable of accepting us as we are. That we will be accepted by them even if we have moved towards a place of greater light and away from the darkness of grief that still is prevalent in their lives.

When our hearts have healed to the point where we long for the love and joy that comes with the holidays it follows that we must have enough faith in our loved ones who are still grieving to know that they love us and wants us to be happy. It is to also trust that they will understand we are introducing joy into the situation with the intention that doing so will create a more joyful experience for all. Sometimes this needs to be said out loud.

Sharing our joy is about bringing forth a part of our relationship with this person that existed long before grief moved in. Those who are ready to move forward are the ones who are now in a position to bring this back. It’s a gift when our souls long for joy and we are called to share it. But be warned, like all creative enterprises, doing so can get very messy, emotional and results will likely not be immediate. Doing so takes courage and it is worth it. It takes a leap of faith to walk into the unknown not knowing what this new joy might look like. And it’s a leap of faith that must be taken by not only those who are grieving but also by those longing to express their joy.

Full disclosure: This is my first attempt in writing to explain why this is worth doing. Like all first attempts it may be a little messy. I’ve often spoken and written on accepting those who grieve unconditionally. In this blog I’m writing that when the griever is no longer raw* they must make an effort to unconditionally love those who unconditionally love them. They will have to dig deep into where their love lives, because in the early days grief can overpower feelings of love. When one reaches for feelings of love, one’s grief is challenged. Instinctively the griever knows that when they make space for joy, even small splinters of it, to enter the soul, they also make space for other less pleasant emotions. This can be painful and messy. It too requires courage and in the long run it too is worth it.

Healthy relationships are a two-way street. There will be times when one of you carries the other, and when we are the broken one and let others carry us we learn that at some point in time we will become the one who will do the carrying. What is more subtle and sometimes missed is that as we move through this space we learn from one another. We are exchanging knowledge about what it is like to be on both sides of this experience. One bears witness to suffering, the other to compassion. In this knowledge we surrender to what it means to be human, to be broken, to trust, to give, to accept, and to receive. Simply put, if we are going to heal we are going to have to try and be open to what we can create together, messiness and all.

May love enter through the cracks in our hearts made by grief so that we will again feel joy.

“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” ~Rumi~

Stay well, Heike

* I do not suggest trying this with someone who is still emotionally raw or experiencing acute grief. The best thing to do at that time is to simply accept and to support in any way possible.

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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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