One year of Grieve and Grow articles: A collection published by
local newspapers.

What to give at Christmas time

Facing the New Year

Rote and Rude versus Helpful and Heartfelt

Winter Grievers

A Part of the Bigger Picture

Grief is a Journey

Accumulative Grief

Some Flowers like Memories Fade

I Promise - I Do (coming soon in MP3 download)

Catching up - An important part of the Grief Process

What do I say

We find Ways


A child looks into his mother's eyes and asks, "Are we going to have a Christmas tree without Daddy?"

This may be a familiar question to many families this Christmas. It is very tempting when someone dies in the family to change all the traditions in order to avoid familiar customs in the home that bring back painful memories. Granted, there is some truth to this, however, a new void becomes present in the life of the family when certain traditions are changed or eliminated.  

It is helpful to evaluate Christmas traditions and see which ones should be repeated, those that could be changed even for this year and those that can be totally discarded.

"Yes, dear," his mother replied. "We'll put up the tree this year and you can put the star on the very top just like you always do. But, let's not string the cards. Why don't we decorate a box and put the cards all together so we can look through them."

For those of you who grieve the loss of a loved one or a significant change in your life, it is not uncommon to wish Christmas was over. You wouldn't have to hear the song lyrics of joy and merriment every time you enter a mall or coffee shop. You wouldn't have to face a group of cheery shoppers laden with parcels only to remind you that you have one less person for which to buy. Even that family Christmas dinner that everyone expects you to attend holds the power to expose the empty chair.

How does one get through the holiday season with a broken heart?

Perhaps that's where we as friends and family can play a very significant role in preparing a gift for you. Now is an opportunity for the rest of us to acknowledge that you are hurting and to surround you with love and understanding. We can be present to you -- to listen and to care.

We can accept your way of expressing your grief as a natural and normal step in your grief process. We can educate ourselves about the power of healing held within the opportunity for you to talk about your loss. We can approach you and inquire how you really are. We can refrain from trying to fix you. You are not broken in ways that our solutions or reasons will help.

We can also learn those statements that are comforting and those that are rote and rude. We can bring up your loved one's name in conversation so you know he or she is not forgotten. We can provide a safe environment within family and friends where you can shed some tears, tell a few stories and laugh. We can understand that you are exhausted and our contact with you needs to be uplifting. We can just be with you - meet you where you are and follow you where you go even into spaces of silence if that is your choice.

We want to contribute to your Christmas this year in ways that strengthen and comfort you. We also might have to learn a few things about the grief process to know what role is helpful to you and what just adds to your pain.

So what can we give you this Christmas? We can give you an important gift, one that is life giving. Maybe one more appreciated than if it were wrapped in tinsel and gold paper and put under that tree -- a gift of the heart.

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Facing The New Year
Dr. Donna j. Mann

"It was bad enough getting through Christmas, but how do I face the New Year?" asked a young woman who had buried her father in the first week of December.  As she talked, I knew that she had done everything that was important to her during the season. She had lit a candle, placed his photograph in full view, told and retold his stories to those who would listen. But, now the season was over and she was faced with the daily routine of life without him.

As we talked, we came to the conclusion that the latter task may very well be more difficult than managing Christmas. Her pain had been resilient during the festive season - flexible, intense, typical. People knew her sorrow was predictable: they accepted it.  Now she was afraid if her sorrow continued visually, she would risk facing people's embarrassment, or worse yet, their intolerance. So she considered two options: conceal her emotions, and appear to have returned to what others would consider as normal or "getting along well".

If she conceals her emotions, she is shutting the door on a very important part of who she is.  All of her feelings are significant and need to be honoured. Feelings such as frustration, annoyance or sadness are as powerful as anger, betrayal or rejection. The key is to acknowledge her feelings and release them.  When they are not acknowledged they have the power to dictate, manage, limit or block her clear sense of direction, motivation or vision for the future. Until all her feelings are surfaced, processed and experienced, they have an ability to command negative attention. To make decisions from these flailing emotions is a risk I don't want my friend to take.

Her other option is to return to 'normal'. Not a 'new normal' of which she would be comfortable developing, but 'normal' in how people relate to her. From their perspective, this would be a comfortable interaction between her and them, where they can say, "Oh, she's doing fine." It is assurance that they are not going to be embarrassed by what she says or does. This is the danger: while she denies her emotions she lives in ways that keep others happy and comfortable. In the meantime she plays games with herself, rejects feelings, discounts her experience and fills up with unresolved emotions that have the potential to turn into depression, anger, illness or inappropriate behavior.

I suggest to my friend that she develop her own monitor as to what is right and wrong. If we look for others to do this, we can be manipulated into thinking that some times are more acceptable than others to be honest about our feelings. What would this monitor look like?  Talk to yourself. Tell yourself that every emotion that you feel today is valid and needs to be heard. There will be no debate if "this one is stupid" or "that one is asking for trouble" or "should I have moved past the other one". Write each emotion down and give yourself the space to physically rest and emotionally experience each one. Ask yourself, "Now what is this really about: sorrow, helplessness, regret?

The list will be endless. Your feelings are all valid  they are a part of you. Feel them, acknowledge them, release them  it may be a slow process but it will be a time-honoured task that will move you through your grief - to get through it - to the other side.

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"Rote and Rude Versus Helpful and Heartfelt"
Dr. Donna j. Mann

Why are some statements helpful and heartfelt while others appear to be rote and rude? Let me give you some examples. People generally find it difficult to reach out to bereaved people because they just don't know what to say. John W. James, founder of the Grief Institute of Canada says that there is a 95% probability that within the first three days after the death of a loved one, a griever will hear 141 statements offered by people who relate to them. Out of that 141 there are only 19 that are helpful. That means the 85% of the one-liners were not useful to the griever.

'Rote and Rude' is a phrase that I coined for statements that are usually found to be non-supportive. Even worse they can limit one's grief process. We've all said some of them at one time or another. They just come tumbling out from habit or from not knowing what to say at a very vulnerable time. We just say what we've been taught to say - it's what comes natural to us with no harm intended.

One of those rote one-liners that we say without thinking is, "Time will heal." We know as soon as we say it that time doesn't heal anything: it's what we do in the time that heals. Another saying that comes natural especially in a long illness is "It's for the best or it's a blessing." It may or may not be the case, but it doesn't reduce one's grief and it may appear to devalue the loved one's life.

Other phrases that are often used at a tragic or unexpected death are "It's God's will," or "God knows best," or "You can't argue with God." These phrases are seldom comforting to those in grief.

Being told 'Don't worry, you'll get over it' can be offensive. This may not be something they'll easily get over, but rather learn to live with.

Hearing, "I know just exactly how you feel" doesn't help either. Because everybody's grief experience is different, everybody's emotional response is different as well.

The helpful and heartfelt one-liners comfort and give permission for people to grieve openly and honestly. "How are you, really!" tells the person that you have the time to listen, that you are interested in them and that you understand that they need to talk about their experience of grief.

"How can I help?" leaves it open for the bereaved to invite you into their world for lunch, a visit or a card with a verse that fits into the H&H one-liners.

Find your own words rather than using the predictable R/R jargon. Our best response gives opportunity to the bereaved person to review the life of the loved one, to reflect on his or her life and death, and to find ways to rethink memories.

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Dr. Donna j.. Mann

February may be the month for hearts and chocolates, but it is also a month when people experience decreased exposure to sunlight.   
S.A.D. (Seasonal Affective Disorder) caused by the loss of light, increases feelings of sadness and can result in loss of sleep, irritability, overeating and difficulty in concentrating. A decreased amount of light passes through the eyes during fall and winter, which reduces the release of serotonin, an important brain chemical. Melatonin, a sleep-related hormone secreted by the pineal gland in the brain, has also been linked to S.A.D. Depressive symptoms can begin to occur when this happens.
Winter blues is similar to S.A.D. in some ways, but the symptoms are reduced. Winter Worsening is another condition that deepens over the winter months.
By February, grievers who enter the depth of winter already sad, already depressed and feeling that their grief is getting worse, bring with them intense feelings of loss that they've been carrying for an undetermined length of time.
Often grief is misinterpreted or misunderstood. Their symptoms may be similar to those of S.A.D., Winter Blues and even Winter Worsening, but their recovery can be quite different.
Grieving through winter months is often very difficult. Grievers look for ways to survive their personal loss. The root words for survival come from the Latin words 'sur' meaning beyond and 'vivo' meaning live. To survive, then, means to find the resources (experiences and knowledge and support) to 'live beyond' personal loss.
Dull winter days are not very helpful. The landscape reflects personal emotions: colourless landscape, various shades of grey against grey, bushes and trees against grey sky, black tree trunks of various size as they poke through white grey snow.
The elements often offer uncertainty in weather conditions. When you do decide to get out of the house and go shopping or visiting, you are limited.
So what can a griever do during the month of February? Here are a few hints that might be helpful:
Find a suitable place or person with whom to share your feelings 
Buy an amaryllis and watch it grow
Go to a flower show
Look through a seed catalogue and plant a winter garden or indoor flower pots
Buy a bright coloured piece of clothing
Volunteer in a children's program
Visit a senior's residence
Purchase a vanilla scented candle  
Leave extra lights on in the house – hang light reflectors in windows – place mirrors in noticeable places.
Make a habit of going outside for a walk or just to clean the snow off the veranda when the sun is shining
Keep your curtains open during the day as much as possible
If you haven't bought a computer yet, make the investment, it’s a great way to get past you and into the world
If you have a computer and have email, send out ten. When people respond, "You've got mail waiting" is like a breath of fresh air in the morning."
Choose several positive people and send them an e-greeting card 
Even though depression may last longer than winter months, one can anticipate the warm sunny days of spring as an additional resource. (http://www.grievegrow.homestead).

Visit my web site:                                                                or the original site

If you are working the grief process, then you have a few more months toward recovery behind you. Speaking of light, one of my favourite sayings in grief work is, "There is a light at the end of the tunnel and it ain't a train."

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Dr. Donna j. Mann

Michael Schwartzentruber has cystic fibrosis. In his book "From Crisis to New Creation" he states, "I have found the occasional sudden re-recognition of the fact that I am disabled almost as unsettling as the first time it really embedded itself in my consciousness . . .  It wasn't until I began to understand my turmoil and pain as a valid grief response, to a very real loss, that I understood my angry reaction to people's attempts to help me accept and see the positive value of my choices."

To experience the death of a loved one is indeed a tragic loss. Other kinds of loss draw out similar emotional responses such as anger, guilt, depression, etc. Loss is not measured or labeled according to severity or viewpoint. Loss of any type, degree or description elicits an individual emotional response.

Some are surprised to observe this response in other people or to discover it in themselves. It is not always the most obvious loss that demands a painful inner response. For this reason 'other griefs' often go unattended by those who experience them. 

Losing some aspect of self such as an election or contest, a dream or idea, a change of employment or retirement does not earn sick leave, compassionate leave or time out, but is no less a time of grieving loss.

Separation or divorce indicate loss of relationship and often creates a ripple effect perpetuating areas of 'other griefs' such as limiting visitation with grandchildren affecting special family times and day to day communication. Pets, lost and deceased, fit into the category of often missed grief. Abortion, stillbirth and miscarriage cause deep lingering grief. 

'Other griefs' such as the loss or theft of a family ring, the house that has been lost either to financial closure or sold, the special mementos left behind when a senior moves to a smaller residence wait to be acknowledged.

The well documented loss of aging, perhaps too gradual for some to name as 'other grief', is the continual giving up of power, strength and bodily function. Those who have experienced amputation of bodily parts or surgery such as a mastectomy, hysterectomy or vasectomy understand the feelings of loss and grief all too well.

I attended a social function where I met a beautiful spirited woman who later told me it took her more than a year to become comfortable with the terms 'being "disabled", "handicapped", "physically challenged", "A rose by any other name..." she said. A year is a long time to work at coming to grips with a truth. So much of it would have been in silent struggle.

Grief is circular: it comes and it goes and then comes back again when you least expect it. Regardless of the loss, death or other losses, grief progresses and diminishes as the pain is faced and acknowledged. You go through it to get through it.

Those who experience loss of any kind continue the journey together with others. When one has had to give up someone or something valuable, we cannot tell them to be thankful for what they have.We acknowledge their pain and walk with them. 

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Dr, Donna j. Mann

Grief is a natural and normal response to a significant loss. Everyone grieves differently. No two experiences are alike. You will not grieve like anyone else. Your experience will be your own. No one will know exactly how you feel. It will be up to you to tell them.

Grief is a journey. There is a definite beginning. You go through it to get through it. It is similar to making a decision to go hiking, walking or running. You put on the boots, tie the straps or laces. You realize it's going to be an upward climb. You move according to your individual experience and your personal relationship.

The journey is yours to walk, grow and develop as you make your way around the obstacles, over the potholes and through the passages of time. Sometimes the journey seems endless, most times exhausting but always moving towards a goal of remembering without the present pain and suffering.

Perhaps there is homework you will want to do with yourself. "Feel it and you'll heal it" is a catchy phrase to give permission to reflect. Go back to any unresolved feelings that may be lurking. Feelings surface every day masked in unidentified emotions, attitudes and actions. It's helpful to know what part of self you are dealing with. "Did this come out of my anger?" "Did this happen because of my feelings of helplessness?"

Your journey doesn't have to be one sided. Others join you in your walk as you invite them. They listen as you tell and retell your story in the market place, over a cup of coffee or on your morning walk. Because others do not always know what to say, whether to mention the name or the circumstance or to have visible pictures - it is often up to you to open up the conversation and mention your loved one's name. 

Seek out those who are comfortable talking about grief. Bring library books on grief to your favourite chair. Watch videos to learn from other's experiences. Journal your thoughts and name your emotions. Faces of grief have many characteristics, when you name them - you've begun to resolve them.

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Accumulative Grief
Dr. Donna j. Mann

I recently received an email from a friend. "What a spring! I just made a list of all the stresses we've had." She listed fourteen different relationships affected by some degree of loss. People she knew well and loved deeply had either died, were taking chemotherapy, had had major surgery or were losing sight of active life in some way.

We often miss the fact that for the most part, many of us are dealing with loss and are in different phases of grief at any time in our life. For some, it seems that 'it never rains but it pours'. When the telephone rings, we are not surprised to hear about some other area of loss.

One example of on-going grief is found among those folk who live in a small town and know many people. It is natural for them to attend local funerals. Their relationships thread through many generations in the community and are affected by on-going loss.

What happens to us when we grieve continually? Too easily, we trade off much needed emotional energy and time. We require those resources to strengthen ourselves to cope with consistent loss. In the interest and desire to care for others in grief, we often starve ourselves of necessary nurture. The key is not to quit caring, but to find ways to care so that we do not deplete ourselves of the spirit of life.

By her own admission, my friend has some grief work to do. Moreover, this spring won't have been the only time in her life when she has had numerous experiences of loss in relationships and situations - perhaps too many to give individual attention as needed.

A helpful image when thinking about accumulative grief is a cluster of grapes. The stress we feel, with any given situation, is enhanced by unresolved feelings from other times of loss. Sometimes we think we are dealing only with the immediate grief experiences when in fact these feelings serve to remind us of other people and situations where grief still lies unresolved. Thus: a cluster of grapes.

For my friend to remain strong and sustain a degree of personal peace while she relates to fourteen different relational situations, she may need to take some special time for herself. She will need to be selective in order to give her life some balance. She might decide to set herself apart for a short period to be filled up in order to give to others when needed. She might begin to work through some personal grief issues beginning with the immediate losses. Bottom line: "Be good to self" Remember to nurture yourself as easily as you give to others. 

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Dr. Donna j. Mann

Recently my future daughter-in-law asked, "What kind of flower would you like for your corsage?" Without hesitation, I replied, "Peach coloured Sweetheart roses." 

We can often identify men and women with favourite flowers. This is helpful when we want to continue remembering loved ones in our life. 

Flowers symbolize life, fragrance and colour. They have been used in all passages of life to bring beauty. They can also be very helpful in the grief process when remembering.

  It is good to prepare a special place in the garden or in the house to pause and remember the life and witness of the person you love. At our new property, I planted a memory garden: pansies to remember Doug's grandmother who had plates, cup and saucers with all colours of pansies. Poppies for his father, who never attempted to grow another flower, but had a beautiful row of red poppies every summer. A row of African violets in front of my kitchen window reminds me of Doug's mother and a good friend to me.

Dahlias for my mother who carefully brought up the bulbs from the cellar every spring, divided the bulbs and planted them every spring. A rail fence brings to mind my father, who spent many hours fixing fence on the farm. We chose a cedar rail with ivy and wild flowers as a casket covering for his funeral - this seemed more appropriate than perfectly arranged flowers. Why do I choose lilacs to remember my grandfather? After fishing, we would clean the fish on an old board under the lilac trees at the back of his house.

A Calla Lilly, white and pure is how I remember our daughter. Although I can't seem to grow them, I often buy them and place them in church in her memory. What I can grow it seems is a patch of wild sweet-pea and since this was a pet name for her, it gives me great delight to see the stems weaving their way to the top of the rail fence.

Build a memory garden this spring on your windowsill or in the back yard. Remember your loved ones with the flowers that come to mind when you think of them. Place a favourite chair and let this space become holy ground for you as you remember, meditate on and celebrate your relationship with your loved ones.

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Catching Up - An Important part of the Grief Process
Dr. Donna j. Mann

Grief is a journey and like most journeys we encounter some irregular terrain. Our footing can be unsure at times when the ground is uneven, unpredictable or uncertain. We might trip and fall, we might stub our toe, we might fail to read the road signs and enter into consequences of our grief that reap havoc with our identity.

As many of you, I have had school friends who have died of cancer, in tragic accidents and other circumstances. Looking through photo albums often remind us of just how many of our friends have died. No longer can we pick up the phone and talk; nor can we send of a letter of happenings to them. When I look through my "Important Dates" binder, I have many names crossed out: names that bring beloved faces and happy memories to mind.

In this journey of grief, we are often surprised by pleasant turns in the road to offer scenery that capture the beauty of the moment. I had an experience such as this over Christmas. A small red box with a tiny note tied to the ribbon says "Don't open me, I am filled with love" sits on my bookshelf in full view. A best friend gave it to me one Christmas about twenty years ago. She died in 1992. Since then her daughter moved away, her mother (another close friend) died and I went on with my life.

However that small red box continued to remind me of a once cherished love and perhaps some unfinished business.  After many attempts to find my friend's daughter, I finally got the phone number and called her. During the conversation, I was comforted through her laugh and in her stories.

"Two children? Shirley would have had grandchildren."

"A decorated table at Christmas such as that? Your mom would have loved those colours." 

"You're doing what? She'd be in there with you like Jack the Bear!"

Tears, laughter, memories  healing, therapeutic and yes maybe some closure for us both.

That one contact held a time of healing: long overdue - and soon to be repeated.

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What Do I Say When You Won't Talk
Dr. Donna j. Mann

"But, she won't talk to me about it," my friend replied. "She just changes the subject."

What do you do when a hurting person "doesn't need help, thank you"? What do you say when a hurting person says "I'm fine, how are you?"

Within your circle of friends, you probably have at least one person grieving a significant loss. This might be a loss of trust or innocence. It might be the loss of a good friend, relative, spouse or pet. It might be the loss of a dream.

They may have visible signs of a grieving person:

(1) stress from attempting to manage emotions
(2) behavioural patterns that compensate for loss
(3) physical symptoms that express unresolved emotions.

Yet, when you ask them how they are, they might respond, "Fine!"

Is it because they are not aware of their grief, or is it because they don't want to talk with you about it, or is it because they don't allow themselves to think about their loss.

If they say, "Fine" because they are not aware of the grief process, you might suggest some reading material, or with compassion and care, ask them some leading questions. You might  invite them to come and hear a speaker with you, giving them the message that you are willing to invest yourself in them. Buying them a gift of a journal or giving a consoling gift also tells them something.

If they don't want to talk to you about their life situation or the emotions they experience, there is nothing you can do. Sometimes either the trust level is not high enough or their pride level is too high for them to share their feelings. Offer an unconditional openness to your relationship and continue with thoughtfulness. Be aware that they may have already chosen a confidant and may need you to fill another role in their life. A message that you value their relationship, and will be present to them at all times is translated in your attitude and actions.

If they are not allowing themselves to think about their loss or their emotions, you may not have the time, opportunity or endurance to bring about change. If they submerge their feelings or deny the power that unresolved emotions have in their life - simply be available to them. There may come a time when they will need you and you will want to be close. As well, you may conclude that they will never disclose their pain, leaving you to watch the stress, behavioural patterns and physical symptoms take their toll in their life.

As a friend who is willing to listen and wanting an opportunity to care, you may find yourself in a precarious position of waiting. This is a relationship of grace.

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We Find Ways to Remember Lest we Forget
Dr. Donna j. Mann

We are labeled as a death denying society. We tell ourselves that we shouldn't dwell on the loss of our loved ones. People say that remembering only dredges up past hurts. We convince ourselves not to admit that Grampa is dying. All too often, we keep busy, we begin new projects, we run out of time, we fill our lives with 'other' tasks, we avoid silence and we try to evade solitude. It's like we don't want to be alone with ourselves in case we begin to think.

At the time when society tells us to get on with life, to move forward, to get back to normal and let the past be forgotten, a natural part of us is longing to remember. We want someone to give us permission, to invite us to remember - but we don't know how to make that happen. Regardless of what society tells us, we yearn for a connection, a memory, some hope and peace about past situations and people in our life. Deep within us we look endlessly for a place, a structure, an opportunity to express grief openly.

For some cultures, there are still obvious indications of grieving such as the tradition of wearing black. Grieving men wear black armbands as a visible grieving custom. People in certain countries put a wreath on the door. I have seen stationery with dark borders and watched people purchase cards with meaningful words about death. Some of us even remember the song "Letter edged in Black".

The Jewish tradition has the Wailing Wall where people pray, lament, cry and become quiet according to their needs. Women, the chief mourners among Native American tribes cry aloud. They wail so other people can acknowledge loss. The Christian Celebration of All Souls Day held in churches at the end of summer and the beginning of winter welcomes people to remember those who have died.

Remembrance Day offers us opportunity to remember those who have died in wars. Every year at the same hour, on the same day, we are called to remember. Lest we forget, we are invited to reflect on another time, to recall history, to walk, to tell stories, to sit across the table from somebody and listen.

We want to remember those who died at the World Trade Center as well as their families. We think too of the farmer on the next concession who suffered loss in a farm accident. We lay flowers in the ditch where a life has been claimed. We recall the mother whose baby was stillborn. We think often of the young woman with Cystic Fibrosis. We grieve with the young parents whose son died.

Throughout time people have found visible ways to remember in spite of other voices telling them to forget. They light candles, visit cemeteries, place flowers, bring out pictures, read old letters, wear a poppy.

Why does society tell us to be strong and move on - get back to normal when we are trying to find a variety of ways to reflect and to remember? Is it because memory connects us to painful situations that others think we may not want to remember? Yet, is it not in remembering that we find new meaning in life? Sometimes it doesn't make the memory any easier, but most times when we risk joining the past with the present; it brings a sense of reality, closure and peace of mind.

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Donna j. Mann