Swan Song Festival launches in 16 Cities across Canada

One of the interesting things that has happened since my book came out is the number of people I have met who are actively involved in raising awareness about what it means to die here in North American. Though my work focuses on better supporting the grieving, I’ve come to understand that how we die and our ideas about dying can impact our grief. Because we have lost much of our knowledge around the dying process, when someone is dying and it doesn’t look like it does in the movies (because it often takes days and not minutes) we can get freaked out. So I find it very interesting that we now have a “Swan Song” Festival that will run in 16 communities across Canada on October 19th (pretty good for a first year event). Local members of Community Deathcare Canada (CDC) are hosting each of these events.

Judith McGill, the CDC national lead, for the Festival agreed to satisfy my curiosity this week and share with me what exactly these events are about and what CDC is hoping to accomplish by organizing this initiative.

Heike: Welcome Judith. Thanks for taking the time to do this with me. Let’s start with you telling me a little bit about the Swan Song Festival?

Judith McGill: Thanks Heike for making this possible. The Swan Song Festival invites the public to come together and collectively “imagine better” when it comes to dealing with the dying and death of a loved one. People whose beliefs reflect the vision of Community Deathcare Canada are hosting these events. The festival marks the formal launch of Community Deathcare Canada as a national organization.

As you mentioned events will be held in 16 cities across Canada. These events will help communities, families and individuals, such as you and me engage with and add to our personal and collective knowledge and understanding of death, dying, loss and grief. Our collective aim is to reclaim death as an honoured part of life. For example, here in Toronto, there are 4 events being hosted. There is a death café, cemetery tours, a dance workshop that explores loss and dying through movement, and an evening Extravaganza of poetry and song on the themes of Grief and Sorrow. Every event creates a different type of opportunity to engage.

Because member organizations in different cities host their own events the best thing to do is to check out our website at Swan Song Festival to see which events are being hosted in what cities.

Heike: That’s a great overview. I know a lot of people are uncomfortable with the idea of dying (myself included). Yep, even though I’ve witness several deaths, I’m still uncomfortable with this great unknown. My question is how do you think these festivals will help demystify death and help us, individually and culturally to be a little less afraid of death and deathcare?

Judith: Shared experiences help us to move forward in our thinking. Coming together in these ways helps us to understand that we are not the only person who has questions and is interested in figuring out how to do this part of life better. We expect the festival will draw people who have been intrigued by the mystery of death and who have an appetite for opening up to a new way of thinking about and experiencing death. Many will be ordinary people who have already re-discovered how they as a family want to deal with the dying and death of their loved ones. Some have been part of or born witness to powerful ceremonies and have had meaningful conversations that helped them to “normalize” death as something to contend with as a natural part of life. Some will just be curious. We’re very excited about the possibilities.

Heike: You are absolutely right. It’s only through dialogue, in whatever shape or form it takes, that we’re able to explore what’s working, what isn’t working and how we might do things better. This is a big undertaking. Thanks for spearheading this. My next question is about Community Death Care Canada. Would you please tell me a little bit about CDC itself?

Judith: Community Deathcare Canada is made up of individuals and organizations that want to transform the way all of us meet dying and death within our families and our communities. We believe a more intimate and participatory relationship with dying and deathcare can create healing and transformative experiences. We believe that death is a profound, mysterious and universal part of life, which presents opportunities for loving and compassionate encounters between individuals. We offer help and guidance to local communities to better support people and families to create more sustainable and holistic options when it comes to caring for the dying.

Our members include death educators, death midwives, death doulas, shroud makers, home hospice workers, community activists, grief counselors, celebrants and home funeral guides to name a few. I’ll send you some info. Maybe you’ll want to become more involved.

Heike: Thanks. Please send it my way. I do see the many overlaps in what we’re both trying to do. And as we both know, it’s a big job and the more of us working on it together the better it will be. That about wraps this up. So in closing would you please let my readers know how they can get tickets and where to learn more?

Judith: Some of the events are free and some charge a nominal amount, mostly to offset the cost of hosting the event. We are encouraging people to register and get tickets for any of the events they intend to attend. That way they won’t be disappointed. Details on all of the Swan Song Festival events being hosted across Canada and ticket sales are available at https://swansongfestival.ca/events. Anyone interested in learning more about Community Deathcare Care can check us out at https://www.communitydeathcare.ca

Heike: Once again, thank you Judith and I’d like to also thank all of the folks who are working on trying to dismantle the death/dying taboo. I know that as we re-familiarize ourselves with death, we will also become better at supporting those who grieve.


Toronto Events:

In Toronto, tickets for the Moving/Still dancing workshop and the evening Extravaganza on Grief and Sorrow through Poetry and Song are $15. You can get tickets by going to the Eventbrite link at the Swan Song Festival link here: https://swansongfestival.ca/toronto-on-variety It is also possible to get tickets at the door for the Extravaganza in Toronto.

The Death Café discussion in Toronto on how talking about death won’t kill you and the Mount Pleasant Cemetery tours from “Millionaires’ Row to Potter’s Row” are absolutely free.


Looking for previous “Widow Wednesdays? Start here with Widow Wednesday #1

To learn more about Heike (Author: “Grief is…”) click here

Buy Heike’s book “Grief is…”  click here

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Widow Wednesdays #5

Widow Wednesday

Welcome to Widow(er) Wednesdays. A new way for me to share what worked, what didn’t work and what could work better. This week I continue tackling the subject of safe people.

Who are the safe people? (Part 2)

Many of the problems we encounter when we are grieving are due to the many misbeliefs surrounding grief and the grieving process. In part 1 I wrote about how safe people are those who listen without interrupting. I also suggested that listening without interrupting is a skill worth practicing. Another component that needs to be present when listening to someone who is grieving is being non-judgmental. For those who are grieving being judged is tremendously painful, adds to our sense of aloneness and can stop us from being honest with others about our grief and our challenges. So…

  1. Safe people listen without judgment. When we feel someone is judging us because our grief is painful (see my blog on ugly crying) or because we haven’t “moved on” (see my blog on moving forward) it can feel like we’re failing. With everything else we are feeling, having someone imply we are failing is just plain wrong. Grief is harder and can take longer than anyone can believe unless they too have lost someone they dearly loved. This needs to become an accepted truth. However, until it is an accepted truth, if you’re grieving acknowledging these individuals as unsafe people is a good place to start. It is not the job of those grieving to educate others about grief (but feel free to send them this blog if you think it might help).

Everyone grieves differently, every loss is different, everyone struggles differently and we must all find our own way to live again without our loved ones. We need safe people who will support us no matter what this looks like.

Remember, it’s okay to avoid unsafe people who are not helping you to heal (at least for now). Once again, this is self-care. And when you have healed enough, I do encourage you to speak up so that together we can, as a community, better understand grief. This will create more safe people who will try to listen without interrupting and without judging. And that would be a very good thing.

Till next time,

Stay well,


Looking for previous “Widow Wednesdays? Start here with Widow Wednesday #1

To learn more about Heike (Author: “Grief is…”) click here

Buy Heike’s book “Grief is…”  click here

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Widow Wednesday #4

Widow Wednesday

Welcome to Widow(er) Wednesdays. A new way for me to share what worked, what didn’t work and what could work better. This week I begin tackling the subject of safe people.

Who are the safe people? (Part 1)

Whenever I speak to groups about healing from grief I always tell them that when they are grieving they have to make sure the people in their lives are supporting their healing. When we grieve we are vulnerable and people who do not support us well, for whatever reason, are unsafe people and whenever possible, they should be avoided. This is self-care.

But, how do we know if someone is safe? There are many tell tale signs. Let’s start with these three.

  1. Safe people show up more than once- sometimes in different capacities. For example, they may send regular texts, cards in the mail or give us a call.  They may also simply pop by for a few minutes just to see how we’re doing. They do not invite themselves in and they do not stay for more than a few minutes unless  they are invited to do so.
  2. Safe people provide practical support in many ways. They may send food (very common), offer to take our kids for a playdate or invite us to their homes for dinner. Sometimes they show up with tea and a scone. Other times they join us when we walk the dog. They make our days a bit easier with their thoughtfulness and kindness. They lighten our loads by pitching in and letting us know they are there.
  3. Safe people listen without interrupting. I’m going to get more into this in the next installment of Widow Wednesdays, but, for today I want to sign off with two simple exercises that will help you determine if a) you’re a safe person when it comes to listening and b) if the person in front of you is a safe person. Good luck!

Are you a safe person? (the exercises)

If you think you’re a safe person I’m challenging you this week to sit back and listen to someone without interrupting or verbally engaging: no words though nodding, smiling and gestures are encouraged. The person you are listening to must be completely finished speaking before you speak. I suggest making sure they are finished by creating a pause of 3 seconds before you begin talking. I suspect it will be more difficult than you thought but it will be worth doing. I know because it’s something I, myself, must continuously work on. Because I too wish to be a safe person.

Is the person ‘listening’  a safe person?

If you’re grieving and finding yourself drained after being with someone I encourage you to sit back and think about whether or not the time you’ve spent together is helping you to heal. That’s the whole exercise. Of course, if you decide these encounters are not helping you to heal then please try to avoid these people (at least for now). Once again, this is self-care.

Till next time,

Stay well,



Looking for previous “Widow Wednesdays? Start here with Widow Wednesday #1

To learn more about Heike (Author: “Grief is…”) click here

Buy Heike’s book “Grief is…”  click here

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Less is More

The tee-shirt says it all or does it?  Marie Kondo and her philosophy of tidy changed the way many people view their stuff. On a recent donation run to Value Village the young man accepting donations said to me “Man, that Marie Kondo has done an awesome job for Value Village.”

I did enjoy her Netflix series and it did encourage me to do another purge. Yet, somehow even though I apply all of her criteria I still find the hardest things to part with are what I call the “just in case” stuff. This includes the boot cast I had to wear when I broke a bone in my foot, the lovely but itchy wool turtleneck sweater that I can really only wear with another turtleneck underneath- I don’t have any turtlenecks that I could wear underneath. And the magenta or pink fleece lined shell that I bought for practical reasons. I needed something I could wear on misty rainy days. After all I didn’t have a decent raincoat. Maybe that’s a ‘stop gap’ purchase and not a ‘just in case.’ Either way I’ve had it for over 8 years and still don’t have a decent rain coat. Hmmm.

I suppose this means that, rather than following a ‘Less is more’ philosophy, I’ve opted for a ‘Less is more except for these things that I must hold onto just in case’ philosophy. I know this is far from brilliant. Actually, as I’m writing this I really do realize that it’s kind of stupid- well maybe just silly. All the same I’m not big on being either stupid or silly when it comes to things like this.

So… the solution is: the boot cast will go to my local church and they will send it to a clinic in a third world country where it will get far more use. The sweater in need of more clothing items in order to be wearable and the pink shell will go to Value Village.
Maybe I’ll see that astute young man again, maybe not. In the meantime I think I’ll let myself ponder about “what and who else I may be holding onto ‘just in case.’ Because sometimes it isn’t just stuff that we hold onto ‘just in case.’ Hmmm

Widow Wednesdays returns next week with “Who are the safe people”

Looking for last week’s “Widow Wednesdays #3- Don’t give up on your friends (Part 2) click here

To learn more about Heike (Author: “Grief is…”) click here

Buy Heike’s book “Grief is…”  click here

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Widow Wednesday #3

Widow Wednesday

Welcome to Widow(er) Wednesday, where I share what worked, what didn’t work and what could work better.

How to support the grieving: Don’t give up on your friends (Part 2)

What about all those friends who disappear after the first few months (or even weeks)? It’s very tempting to say: “Just let them go. Don’t worry about them.” “ This is one of those weird things that happen when people die.” There is a lot of truth in those statements. Many times our lives are better in the long run without some of these people. Death and grief does remove people from our lives and yes, that is more than okay. Yet, for some reason I also believe that we don’t need to give up on everyone who disappears.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting we pursue those who disappear during those early painful days, months, etc. Nor am I suggesting we welcome back everyone who suddenly reappears after an “appropriate’ period of time (like that one year mark). We have to be wary of those who expect mourning to be over and that we can simply pick up where we left off. Those of us who have lost loved ones know this is not possible to do. Grief changes us. Coming to terms with the reality that life no longer exists as it once did is one of the hardest things we have to come to terms with; being pressured by others to do this impossible task should at all costs be avoided. So if the person sitting across from you can’t understand that you’ve changed the first time you reconnect, chances are pretty good they’re just not going to ever understand  (or at least until they lose someone they’ve loved deeply.) Until then steer clear of these people.

However, there is still another category of friend. That is the friend who more than likely would have stuck around had they understood that being available and initiating contact would have been helpful, comforting and helped us to heal. Unfortunately, because we don’t culturally know enough about grief they didn’t know this was the better way. This does not mean that those who are grieving need to take on the responsibility of educating their friends. Their plates are full and it is up to the rest of us to do the educating- not those who are hurting. It’s one of the reasons I now blog 😉

But, as our grief becomes lighter and we become better at carrying it, it’s worth revisiting the question of whether or not we want to reach out to someone whose company we’ve missed. It’s better to know than not know whether or not someone is open to reconnecting and rebuilding a friendship, even if that new friendship will both different and similar to the old one. Core values remain the same, the rest really is just details.

The truth is some people drift away because they don’t know they’re needed or because they’re afraid they might make things worse. They disappear, not because they want to, but because they simply don’t know how to stay. These people deserve another chance.

Regardless, I know you’ll be careful and watch to see if your old friend does indeed understand that you’ve changed and that it’s okay. And if they don’t, then you’ll know that time spent with this person will not help you rebuild your life. Self-preservation must always be our top priority. Save your energy and lovely personality for someone who will see your value.

Bottom line: People disappear from our lives after the loss of a loved one for all kinds of reasons. We don’t always know what those reasons are and won’t until we are strong enough to ask those questions. Intuitively, we know which people we don’t want to reconnect with. Intuitively, we also know whose company we’ve missed. Trust that, when you are ready, you will be find the strength to step into that space of uncertainty with those you’ve missed. Remember to always put your healing first.

Giving up on our friends because they were at a loss as to how to help us is something we can fix. After all, they, no doubt, have missed us too.

Looking for “Widow Wednesdays #2- Don’t give up on your friends (Part 1) click here

To learn more about Heike (Author: “Grief is…”) click here

Buy Heike’s book “Grief is…”  click here




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I ain’t old school

Whenever I need to understand what someone else is thinking, feeling or creating I suggest we have a sit down conversation. If that’s not possible I pick up the phone or set up a FaceTime or Skype call.

I’m not old school.

I simply know that computers and all of their offspring (text, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, etc.) were never designed to replace talking. They were designed as a tool to 1) improve efficiency and 2) support new connections that previously did not exist. Over time technology has morphed into an incredible marketing tool and in many ways an expensive toy. But, no one can argue that being targeted by advertisers or playing a game online are forms of rich communication.

Given this is what I think, it’s not much of a surprise that I believe texts of any type are similar to leaving a note for someone or sending them a card in the mail: great at stating facts, not so great for sharing ideas.

When it comes to preferred methods of communication I consider text to be a step up from not being able to communicate at all. It’s a quick and efficient way to touch base, but that’s about it. Full disclosure, I even consider it to be a step down from passing notes during class. (Do kids still do this or do they just text one another?) Regardless, when a note has been passed or a text sent, at least the recipient can sneak a peak at the sender to see if they’re serious, joking, angry, or just fooling around. That reflex to sneak that peak, to better understand what’s going on, kind of says it all, doesn’t it?

Stay well,



Widow Wednesdays will return next week. Looking for “Widow Wednesdays #1click here

To learn more about Heike (Author: “Grief is…”) click here

Buy Heike’s book Grief is…click here


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

Everything is different when we grieve


Re-visiting last year’s Back-to-School post because some things do not change.

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~


To learn more about Heike (Author: “Grief is…”) click here

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