On Navigating Grief and Mourning

The mainstream Canadian cultural context often deems raw expressions of grief as taboo, notwithstanding increasingly challenging times—economically, politically, and socially—both in Canada and around the globe.  After a brief period of mourning, one is expected to move stoically forward—while avoiding outward displays of emotion, particularly in the professional and educational spheres.  Lingering and unresolved sentiments are to be hidden away and managed quietly and privately.

Despite this, the very concepts of grief and mourning, as well as the intertwined notions of death, dying, and the afterlife, are approached from numerous angles by various cultures, many of whom call this country, home.  Many continue to adhere to culturally specific concepts of grief and mourning, such as collective grief, various mourning timelines, visitation customs, and complex notions regarding the hereafter.

Often, discussions of grief and mourning are limited to death, omitting the fact that sorrow comes in many different forms—from major life events, such as natural disaster, illness and medical diagnoses, job loss, relocation, loss of pets, as well as the ruptures of relationships and friendships—none of which are any less painful.   Each requires passage through that never ending cycle of what has been termed the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Many of us also know a type anticipatory, or preparatory, grief that comes with an impending death or loss.  Applied to our current global situation, it also relates to living through an ongoing pandemic, receiving a terminal illness diagnosis, or the daily anguish of family in war zones.

I recently spent Dia de Muertos in Durango, Mexico, which reminded me of the treatment of death in my own Eastern European culture—something that I had begun to forget after many years in Canada.  This day is believed to have “originated several thousand years ago with the Aztec, Toltec, and other Nahua people.”  Death was simply seen as a natural part of life; departed loved ones were still considered “members of the community, kept alive in memory and spirit.”  In more recent times, during these joyful celebrations, it is believed that beloveds return to partake in the ofrendas left on the altars, such as Cempasúchil flowers, pan de muerto, candles, salt, as well as favourite foods and water.  Similarly, traditionally in Ukrainian folk culture, “… death was not a taboo topic … it was viewed as a natural and integral part of human life.”

Partaking in this custom felt like a personal paradigm shift after I had been stagnating in a state of a prolonged grief and a lack of closure.  I am forever grateful for this opportunity to remember and to celebrate.  To be sure, the grief remains and comes in never-ending waves—and at the most unexpected moments—but something has changed.  That immense weight has become unexpectedly lighter to bear.

But that creeping melancholy never truly lifts fully, despite best attempts to heal the pain—if you have ever received that dreaded phone call, perhaps the next few paragraphs will, unfortunately, appear familiar.

Following the initial news that absolutely takes your breath away, and between eventual moments of catharsis and acceptance, the most horror inducing days are the ones that are most mundane.  These extreme moments of grief bubble to the surface during those small but endless moments when you, time and again, realize that they are no longer here—and never will be again.  That beautiful future with all those envisioned plans is no longer a reality.  And it surfaces at the most unexpected moments.  In a brief forgetful moment, you almost pick up the phone to excitedly share some good news.  Birthdays and holidays become unbearable.  The smell of their cologne, an old song, a favourite meal.  That is when you remember, and the sadness threatens to crush you.

Or maybe you have received that terrifying medical diagnosis, which has forever changed your life.  In the midst of a complex mixture of relief and existential dread, you mourn the life that you thought you would have, the plans that you had made, and the dreams you would have liked to accomplish.  Life feels so different now; some days you do not know who you are anymore.

And with rising anger, it feels like you are watching the world unfold behind a panel of frosted glass, with life moving forward, as if nothing has changed.  But your world has—and you are expected to carry on, by any means necessary and preferably, quietly.

So, does that absolutely hollow feeling in your ribcage ever disappear?  No.  And it would be unreasonable to ever expect that unexpected gasp that sometimes escapes your lips—which can only be explained as your heart breaking—to ever become easier.  But somehow it does get more manageable, bit by bit.  And the things that you thought you would never survive, you somehow do.  With unexpected resiliency, the wounds slowly scab over, the days turn into weeks, months, and finally, years.  You make new memories, and you create a new life, as many times as you need, but you will always carry these ghosts of your past—and dashed hopes for the future—deep within your heart.  They are, and always will be, a part of your story—and the price we all eventually must pay for having lived and loved.