Publishing stories of fascinating Prairie People and Unsung Heroes

Welcome to the blog of Deana Driver - author, editor, and publisher of DriverWorks Ink, a book publishing company based in Saskatchewan. We publish stories of inspiring, fascinating Prairie people and unsung Canadian heroes - written by Prairie authors including Deana Driver. We also publish genres of healing and wellness, humour, children's fiction, and rural poetry. Visit our website to learn more about our books.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Pookie the Bunny brings some creature comfort during COVID-19

Meet Pookie – the bunny that has decided to relax or just munch on grass and weeds in my backyard when he’s not hopping around elsewhere.

Yes, Pookie.

Pookie came to visit me a few weeks ago and has since decided to make my yard a regular stop on his tour of the neighbourhood. Pookie was much smaller when he first arrived, so I knew he was a bunny and not a full-fledged rabbit yet. I wondered if I’d someday find a whole litter of bunnies out by the back fence or chewing the tops off my daylilies and generally being a nuisance. So far so good.

I watched Pookie chew on what I hoped were thistles and dandelions in my lawn one day. I started to warm up to him a little more from that moment on.

For a few days, when I had to do some serious weed control, I covered up a couple spots where I knew he was crawling under the fence to come in and out of my yard. I thought maybe I would be better off without a wascally wabbit on my property after all. Then there he was one day, just resting by my garden boxes, looking at me with one of his dark eyes, ears down as if he wasn’t the least bit concerned that I was walking on his land. It turns out I hadn’t closed off all the spots where he could sneak in and out of my yard. Now what should I do?

A friend who is a proponent of the “live and let live” philosophy suggested that the bunny may have come to keep me company during the pandemic. I had wondered about this myself, being a person who believes in angels and spiritual signs from departed loved ones. I’ve seen a lot of robins this year – almost every time I think of my late husband, in fact. And a bluebird came and sang loudly in my front yard a couple times when I was working on landscaping and thinking of my departed mother. Why not a bunny bringing messages of love and support?

I have not seen a rabbit in my yard - front or back - in the 12 years since we moved to this busy street. And now, in the 13th year (13 was my late husband's favourite number), a bunny has appeared and a larger rabbit sometimes shows up in the front yard too.

Pookie has certainly lifted my spirits some days. I found that I actually missed him on the days when he was gone.

So be it. Live and let live.

He has not yet figured out how to get up into my garden boxes to eat the peas and carrots, so as long as he sticks to the grass and weeds, he can stay.

Pookie comes and goes as he pleases, of course, and I am pleased and intrigued to see him when he’s here. He has scared the bejeebers out of a me a couple times and I’ve scared him – rabbits are quiet beings and I didn’t see him hiding in the front shrub that time or on the back lawn yesterday while I was watering plants but, for the most part, we coexist quite nicely.

Friends have told me they named the rabbit that visits their yards, so I thought my bunny’s name would be Velvet, after one of my husband’s favourite children’s storybooks, The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams. It’s a story about how a stuffed bunny wants to become real through the love of his owner. I thought I had Al's childhood copy of The Velveteen Rabbit somewhere, so when I went looking for it I was surprised to find that I was wrong. This was not the book I have been holding onto for decades.

Published in 1959 and addressed to my husband from a neighbours’ two children, Pookie’s Big Day by Ivy L. Wallace tells the tale of a bunny with wings who lives with his person, Belinda, in a little cottage in Bluebell Wood.  Belinda is celebrating her birthday and Pookie has woken early to gather violets and elderberries for his friend. Pookie has such a great day celebrating with Belinda and all the woodland friends that he wishes every day could be this much fun, but he soon learns that this wish would not be such a good idea.


It’s a lovely little story so, in honour of both this hardcover, string-bound book from decades ago and my husband Al, I’ve named my rabbit visitor Pookie.

In thinking a bit more about the origin of this bunny's name, I now know that this creature definitely has to be connected to my late husband. Al could not possibly allow my little rabbit to have a classy name like Velvet. Oh no. Not my mischievous Al. I can see him smirking away as he teasingly calls the rabbit, "Heeere, Pookie... Come on, boy! Pookie, Pookie, Pookie!"

Oh my. Al still makes me smile and occasionally laugh out loud.

Little Pookie doesn’t know his name, of course. And I’m not sure I will ever get that friendly with him to call him by name yet. I grew up on a farm and I know that I could be asking for trouble by allowing him to stay. We’ll see.

For the time being, I’ll allow him to seek refuge in my yard and I’ll try not to scare him if he promises not to scare me.

Pookie is a reluctant photo subject but he is sometimes patient enough to sit still or at least mostly within the camera frame while I attempt to take a half-decent photo or video from a safe distance. 

So here you go – enjoy another glimpse of Pookie, my furry little friend.

Maybe he’ll give you a little smile and a mental break from the stress and strangeness that is 2020.

Have a Hoppy Day, everyone!

Thursday, May 21, 2020

A Cat’s View of COVID-19

In 2011, I published Letters to Jennifer from Maudie & Oliver, a wonderful book of humorous letters for children and adult readers. It was written by Winnipeg author Sharon Gray, aka LIP (Live-In Person), from the point of view of her two precocious Siamese cats Maudie, the prima donna, and her brother Oliver, who doesn't get enough love because he lives with the prima donna.

Letters to Jennifer from Maudie & Oliver by Sharon Gray,
published by DriverWorks Ink
The cats share their day-to-day adventures, however maudlin or amusing, with their dear Auntie Jennifer – to lift her spirits while she battles cancer. Whether they are watching friends in the garden, jostling for space on their favourite wingback chair, or vying for the attention of humans, the compassion and silliness of Maudie and Oliver make for some terrific, light reading. And we all need more of that in our lives.

Letters to Jennifer from Maudie & Oliver is available only as an e-book from various e-book retailers including Chapters Indigo and Amazon

Author Sharon Gray recently wrote a new letter from the cats to a friend who has survived two years of breast cancer treatments which, thankfully, led to remission but caused some serious, painful side-effects. Sharon graciously allowed me to share her letter with you. She hopes it will lift everyone's spirits as we all go through COVID-19 together.  

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Only you can make yourself happy

You have to make your own happiness.

This is a lesson that is reinforced daily after you lose a life partner. You learn it early in your grief journey - if you didn't learn it before then - and it hits you in the face often as you work at carrying on in your new life alone.

Isolation heightens the awareness that while there are others who influence your activities, actions or thoughts, you are still the only one in your body. You are responsible for the way you think, feel, and act. You are responsible for creating your own happiness.

I interviewed a fascinating man many years ago who spoke about living in a refugee camp. The physical conditions at the camp were best described as squalor. Still, he had been happy there ...  because he chose to work at being happy every single day.

I am working at that too.

This was a beautiful day in my neighborhood. Since physical activity boosts emotional wellness, I planned on taking a bike ride to distance-chat with a widow friend and compare notes on how we are each doing. She is struggling with this pandemic isolation on top of her grief at losing her husband - a concept that had struck me more times than I care to count during these past seven weeks - so we chatted and sent love by text messaging instead and agreed to connect again in a few days.

I then contacted another friend and rode my bicycle over for a distanced visit with her. I needed that connection, with a few laughs thrown in, to keep me saner and happier.

During my ride, I enjoyed the sunshine, the clouds, the scenery, and the moments of face-masked smiling and saying hello to passersby from a distance. (Here's another positive about wearing a face mask outside, aside from it keeping me safer - I won't have to wear as much sunscreen this summer!)

After I parked my bike at home, I set up a "Gravity Chair" I had purchased at the end of last summer and had not had the opportunity to use yet. I spent the next half hour sitting in that chair and staring at the fluffy clouds while listening to chirping birds. It was the most relaxed I'd felt in weeks. (Guess what I'll be doing a lot more of in the weeks to come!)

I then peered into my garden beds and was thrilled to see green shoots of Springtime!

I smiled. A lot.

When I finally went back inside my house, I saw a small, yet big surprise sitting on the kitchen counter.

A feather. 

A sign of love from my angels - my departed husband came to mind, of course.

This amazingly small yet perfect white feather was sitting on the counter in a house where there are no down-filled jackets or anything else containing feathers.

How did it get there?

Maybe it attached itself to my clothing during the bike ride or in my backyard and flew off my clothing as I turned the corner to enter the kitchen, landing perfectly still on the corner of the counter, where I could see it.

Or maybe not. The "how" doesn't really matter to me.

Because I am responsible for my own happiness, and I gratefully accept any help I can get from wherever I can get it.

And that feather is going to stay right where it is until it decides to go somewhere else to bring a moment of "happy" there.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

9-time Cancer Survivor Gets Good News

In 2011, I wrote (and published) the book Never Leave Your Wingman: Dionne and Graham Warner's Story of Hope. Dionne is one of the most remarkable, inspiring, fun-loving, hope-filled people I know.

Author/publisher Deana J. Driver with Dionne and Graham Warner, June 2011 

When I met Dionne in June 2010 to begin interviewing her and Graham for the book, Dionne was battling Stage IV liver, lung, and bone cancers - her fifth, sixth and seventh cancer diagnoses. She'd already beat breast cancer, brain cancer, and two bouts of liver cancer. With these latest cancers, she had been dressing in different costumes each week and dancing into her chemotherapy treatments, with her wingman (her husband Graham) similarly attired and dancing beside her. They brought hope and laughter - and occasional looks of confusion - to everyone they met during the 77 treatments and themes that occurred by the time the book was published in June 2011.

Some of the "themes" Dionne created for her chemotherapy treatments in 2009 to 2011

Dionne's story has inspired and helped thousands of people around the world and it has been my honour to write and publish book to share our mutual goal of spreading that hope.

And her story continues.

A few months after the book was published, Dionne went into remission. No more Stage IV cancer in any part of her body. To say that everyone was astounded and thrilled is an understatement.

How could this be, you might wonder. For starters, Dionne has a remarkably positive attitude - before, during and after cancer. She lives her life to the fullest in every moment of every day and encourages all of us to do the same - whether we are ill or not. Dionne also has a body that responds well to therapy treatments. She jokes that Heaven is not ready for her yet, but when it is her time, she will be bringing her own radiation-lit, disco-ball body with her! Dionne also received some unique treatment therapies in a hospital in Tijuana in 2010 and she changed her diet as part of that treatment too. (You'll have to read the book for more details.)

Unfortunately, in April 2012, cancer returned to Dionne's liver and she began treatment again. 

A few years later, Graham was diagnosed with cancer in his abdominal area. He successfully underwent surgery to remove the tumour and was cancer-free at his one-year checkup. As Dionne would say, "Woo Hoo!'

Still, how much more can a couple take? Well, these are the Warners ... so the answer - even though no one wants it to be this way - is "a lot".

Dionne had been taking various treatments since her Spring 2012 liver cancer diagnosis, but about two years ago, tumours appeared in her hips and other parts of her body. She has since had several different treatment regimens for these tumours, with differing amounts of success. Hundreds and hundreds of people - whom she calls her Earth Angels - continue to send best wishes, prayers and love to help her fight this evil disease.

And now for the latest news of her cancer journey...

Earlier this week, Dionne received a phone call from her oncologist to come in to his office to hear the results of the latest CT scan. She had not expected a call so soon after the test, so she was nervous. Not to mention having to take her immune-compromised body to the hospital again during these COVID-19 times.

"My oncologist wanted to share the news he had for me sooner rather than later," Dionne reported. "He shared with me that all of my tumours have shrunk.   I had him repeat it more than once as I was in complete and utter shock. Not just one tumour but all and trust me, ,there are a lot. The new chemo regime along with your love, support and continued prayers, Earth Angels, are working. Woo Hoo! "

When I asked Dionne if I could share her amazing, fantastic news, she replied in the affirmative.

"Let's continue to give others H💜PE, I say."

Absolutely, Dionne. And Woo Hoo a thousand times over!

Dionne and Graham Warner in April 2020. Bottom left, she's wearing a handmade mask to go to the hospital to hear from her oncologist.

And just in case you need another dose of happiness and laughter during these uncertain times, here's a video I took in 2011 of their amazing "flappers" theme. Enjoy.

** You can purchase the Never Leave Your Wingman book from SaskBooks and pay no shipping in April 2020. All sales from this bookstore of our provincial publishing group organization will go directly to the publisher members - in this case, my DriverWorks Ink publishing company.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Five COVID-19 Lessons Learned from the Paralympics - Lessons #4 & #5

Ten years ago, in March 2010, I was privileged to be a spectator at various cross-country skiing events in Whistler, B.C. during the 2010 Paralympic Games. 

I was also at the Games to support author and friend Mary Harelkin Bishop as she launched her book Moving Forward: The Journey of Paralympian Colette Bourgonje, which I helped her publish through my company DriverWorks Ink

Deana Driver and Mary Harelkin Bishop (top left and right) with Paralympian Colette Bourgonje's family (bottom left) and Mary's family (bottom right) at the 2010 Paralympic Games

What I saw and felt at the 2010 Paralympic Games reminded me of the ways we need to think and act during this time of self-isolation against the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

In the last few days, I've written about:

These are the final two lessons I learned from my experiences at the 2010 Paralympic Games that I see as important when thinking about "Flattening the Curve" of COVID-19.

Lesson #4 – Cheer For Everyone Until We All Get To The Finish Line.

The most incredible moments for me at the 2010 Paralympic Games came while I was in the bleachers with Mary and her family, watching the cross-country skiing events. Within a few metres of us were spectators and/or coaches from Germany, Poland, Russia, Belarus, South Korea, Japan, United States, and many other countries.

As athletes crossed the finish line in the various races, every person in the crowd stood and clapped and cheered.

Every person in the bleachers remained standing and cheering until every single athlete had come across the finish for their events.

Every. Single. Athlete.

We watched standing cross-country skiers who were blind come across the finish line behind their able-bodied guide. We witnessed blind Canadian skier Brian McKeever out-ski his guide at the end of a race in which he won a gold medal. It brought tears of wonder, joy, and Canadian pride to our eyes.
Canadian Paralympian Brian McKeever and his guide at the presentation of a gold medal 

We saw Paralympians skiing with only one leg or one arm or no arms. Some skiers finished their races several minutes behind the gold medalist, but they finished.

And the crowd waited for each and every one of them and cheered as they crossed the finish line. It was one of the best moments of humanity I had ever witnessed.

We need to be like this.

Each and every day. Do our part in stopping this pandemic from spreading. Cheer on every single person who is doing their part, especially all those who are providing essential services during this difficult time. Let’s cheer on every single person who is running this race. Cheer them on from the safety of our homes.

It has been an honour to share in telling Colette’s story to inspire others. Colette herself chose the title of Mary’s book. Moving Forward. She sees no way but forward in her life, no matter the obstacles. Let’s all do that too.
Colette Bourgonje and Mary Harelkin Bishop sign Moving Forward books at the Saskatchewan Pavilion, 2010 Paralympic Games

Lesson #5 – Pursue Excellence.

At the closing ceremony for the 2010 Vancouver Games in Whistler, Colette Bourgonje of Saskatchewan received a gold medal. It was in the form of the prestigious Whang Youn Dai Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who conquer adversities through the pursuit of excellence in sport.

Let’s be like Colette.

During this pandemic, let’s decide to do our best to flatten the curve of this virus. Let’s stay safe, keep away from others, disinfect, keep connected socially but not in person, and let’s all conquer this adversity. Our lives and our world are depending on us. We can do it.

Colette Bourgonje received a gold medal to add to her bronze and silver medals (above) at the 2010 Paralympic Games

Paralympian Colette Bourgonje happily handed her 2010 Games bronze and silver medals to me and Mary, then hammed it up for the camera, pretending that she didn't know why we had them.

Note:  Mary Harelkin Bishop also wrote the children's picture book Gina's Wheels, about a child who met Colette Bourgonje and wondered what it would be like to be in a wheelchair. Order both books from DriverWorks Ink.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Five COVID-19 Lessons Learned from the Paralympics - Lessons #2 & #3

In celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the 2010 Paralympic Games, I have been thinking about the events I witnessed and the emotions I felt as a spectator at cross-country skiing races and as a book publisher launching an inspiring new book there.

I realized that I learned five lessons which relate to this present time of self-isolating and reducing the spread of COVID-19.

Publisher Deana Driver (left), Paralympian Colette Bourgonje and author Mary Harelkin Bishop flanked by an RCMP officer at the Saskatchewan Pavilion, 2010 Paralympic Games, for the launch of the book Moving Forward: The Journey of Paralympian Colette Bourgonje

At the Paralympic Games, the spirit of caring for all humanity was obvious during every moment of my time there. It’s what we need to practice now too.

The first lesson is to Look After The Most Vulnerable.

Lesson #2 – Age Is Not The Only Factor.

Saskatchewan Paralympian Colette Bourgonje was 48 years old, more than double the age of some of her competitors at the 2010 Paralympic Games. Her age was often brought up in conversations and interviews but, at the end of the day, it did not stop Colette from competing in her cross-country sit-ski races.

Colette Bourgonje (front, facing right) on her sit-ski at the end of a 2010 Paralympic Games race
Colette had been training for years and had already won four Winter Paralympics medals in cross-country sit-skiing and four Summer Paralympic medals in wheelchair racing. She’d been an athlete for decades and had been training toward this. She worked hard and had a better chance of winning a medal at the 2010 Games because of her commitment to her goal.

If we see our race as our attempt to “Flatten The Curve” of the spread of COVID-19, we must all stand on that starting line – two metres away from each other, if you’re imagining it as a physical race. No matter our age or any other factor about our physical selves or lives, we must all work hard toward our goal of reducing the spread of this disease. Do not let anyone stop you from working toward this.

While we can be grateful that most children who have been infected have had only mild symptoms akin to a cold or flu, humans of all ages can spread the virus. This virus is such that we may not even know we are infected, so let's please all do our part and run this race from the comfort of your own homes until our governments and health authorities tell us it’s safe to return to our previous lives.

Lesson #3 – Don’t Give Up.

In 1980, Colette Bourgonje was about to graduate from Grade 12 in Porcupine Plain, Saskatchewan. She’d won many athletic awards and was hoping to become a physical education teacher and an Olympic runner. Instead, she became a paraplegic after she was injured in a car crash near the end of the school year.

She did not let this sudden turn of events stop her. She went on to become the first student with a physical disability to enroll in the College of Physical Education at the University of Saskatchewan and the first such student to graduate from the College. She was the first female student in a wheelchair to graduate from a physical education program at any university in Canada and the first Canadian to win a Winter Paralympic medal on home snow – at the 2010 Games in Whistler.

I arrived at the 2010 Games the day after Colette won that first medal for Canada  a silver in the women’s 10-kilometre sit-ski race. I was thrilled to watch the presentation of that medal in the evening.

Colette Bourgonje, left, after the presentation of medals in the 10-km women's cross-country sit-ski

I was also privileged to watch Colette compete in the women’s 5-kilometre cross-country race. As the competitors made their way over the track into the woods, a large screen showed the parts of the trail that were hidden from spectators.

Spectators watched athletes and followed race stats on the large monitor at the 2010 Games
I held my breath when it was announced that Colette had fallen over on her sit-skis. I remember the vision of her laying on her side in the snow while the race continued. That may have been on the screen or perhaps in my imagination. Either way, it was upsetting.

Was Colette done racing? Would someone have to help her get up and off the track? I should have known better. This was Colette Bourgonje – a strong, independent, fierce woman with a determination she exhibits in everything she attempts.

After what felt like forever but was probably less than a minute, it was reported that Colette had righted herself and was continuing the race. The crowd – especially our Saskatchewan contingent – erupted in cheers. I was amazed, awed and thrilled when we saw Colette racing out of the forest and onto the home track. She finished the race in third place, earning a bronze Paralympic medal. At age 48. After falling.

So don’t give up during this troubling time, people. We may all feel like we have fallen – or been pushed – by this global pandemic. By taking the careful steps prescribed for the safety of ourselves and our communities, we will right ourselves again. And we’ll finish this race too, maybe even gaining new insights into our own lives and actions so we can make our new world better.

Colette Bourgonje, far right, wheels to the presentation area after winning a bronze medal in the 5-km race

Read more... Lessons #4 & 5.

Note:  Mary Harelkin Bishop also wrote the children's picture book Gina's Wheels, about a child who met Colette Bourgonje and wondered what it would be like to be in a wheelchair. Order both books from DriverWorks Ink.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Five COVID-19 Lessons Learned from the Paralympics - Lesson #1

Ten years ago, in March 2010, I was tromping up a trail in the forest near Whistler, B.C. preparing to take a spot in the bleachers at the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Games.

Saskatoon author Mary Harelkin Bishop was beside me, both of us (and many members of Mary's family) proudly waving Canadian flags and wearing bright red “Canada” toques and shirts announcing our support for a remarkable woman, cross-country sit-skier Colette Bourgonje, who was competing in her 9th Paralympic Games.

Publisher Deana Driver and author Mary Harelkin Bishop at Whistler, 2010 Paralympic Games

Author Mary Harelkin Bishop, second from left, and members of her family at 2010 Paralympic Games
We were in Whistler not only to cheer for Colette but to celebrate the release of a new book about her life – Moving Forward: The Journey of Paralympian Colette Bourgonje - which Mary Harelkin Bishop wrote and I published in partnership with Mary.

While we were at the Games, Mary and I sat beside Colette to launch Moving Forward at the Saskatchewan Pavilion of the Paralympics Games. My time at the Paralympic Games was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for this and many other reasons.

When I think back to the events I witnessed and the emotions I felt at the Games, I can draw parallels to our current COVID-19 situation.

The spirit of caring for all humanity has never been more evident to me.

It’s easy for me to understand the need to stay at home right now, insist on two metres of physical distancing any time I absolutely have to leave my home, and keep washing my hands and disinfecting any surfaces that could have become infected during this crisis.

It’s all about caring for myself and extending that self-love out to the world.

Lesson #1 – Look After The Most Vulnerable.

To get to the Paralympic Games cross-country skiing venue in Whistler, we were driven up the mountain in a transit bus and dropped off in a parking lot partway up the mountain. We had to walk the remainder of the way.

It was a long but beautiful walk through the forested mountains, over a small bridge, past a bubbly stream amid gorgeous scenery.

Anyone who had mobility issues was driven all the way up the mountain as close to the entrance as possible. 

With the coronavirus, steps have been taken in most jurisdictions to protect and care for individuals in hospitals, long-term care homes, and other facilities. Many grocery stores and pharmacies are inviting seniors to shop during special times to avoid contact with the virus. There are many others who need our care and support, however, including those who are new immigrants, on a low income, homeless, abused, alone, or battling some illness but not hospitalized.

We need to do what we can to help everyone in our communities while we are self-isolating ourselves in our homes. Reach out. Support the organizations that are helping the most vulnerable people in our midst. Self-isolate and keep physical distancing if you absolutely must leave your home. Contact individuals you know with a phone call or through social media. Make arrangements to help individuals or organizations financially if you can. Give others information about resources that may be available to help them. Check in with others regularly so you both know that you are not alone.

We can do this together.

Note: Mary Harelkin Bishop also wrote the children's picture book Gina's Wheels, about a child who met Colette Bourgonje and wondered what it would be like to be in a wheelchair. Order both books from DriverWorks Ink.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Look for the Good - in Publishing and in Life

Recently, I was privileged to attend the PubWest 2020 conference in Portland, Oregon along with other book publishers from Western United States and Canada. The conference was educational in focus and participatory, with many opportunities to connect with and hear other publishers' ideas, concerns, and successes. 

At an awards luncheon, Malcolm Margolin of California was honoured as the recipient of the Jack D. Rittenhouse Award for important contributions to publishing in the West.

Malcolm began his book publishing career in Berkeley in the 1970s, about 30 years before I wandered into this business. I found his speech inspiring.
Malcolm Margolin addressing PubWest 2020 

He told his fellow publishers that the goal of publishing should be "to serve the underserved."

I'm paraphrasing here, but he also said we should not find purpose and fulfilment from our inbox. That's an important reminder to people in all industries and lines of work. 

"Tell the stories of the people - the good people, the activists, and the world changers," he said. 

When a manuscript came in, Malcolm would tell his staff, "Don't look for the faults. Look for the strengths and build around the strengths. The faults will take care of themselves."

This last piece of advice is the way I always approach new manuscripts that come to my publishing house in Saskatchewan and I know other colleagues who do the same. Still, it's good to remember this concept, whether we're in publishing or some other industry. Or maybe even when we are just walking down the street. 

Look for the strengths. And help build on those.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Grief is Like the Waves of the Ocean

I was recently invited to share a "Message of Hope" at an all-day Family Grief Retreat in my community, hosted by Palliative Care Services, Saskatchewan Health Authority. This is what I said:

Have you ever been to the ocean? Have you dipped your toes in and felt the saltwater washing by or gone swimming or walked along the beach and felt the waves coming in – sometimes gently and sometimes with a fierceness that takes your breath away?

I find myself thinking a lot about the ocean lately. Not just because it’s wintertime in Saskatchewan and, although it’s unseasonably warm this year, this is the time of year when Prairie people head south to warmer climates – often staying at ocean-side resorts with gorgeous, palm-tree-lined views. Yes, I have been one of those people on occasion, but that’s not why I’m thinking about oceans.

Oceans are how I have come to think about my grief journey.

My name is Deana Driver and I am a former journalist, an author, an editor, and a book publisher. I am also a mother to three adult children and grandmother to six precious little ones. And until four years ago, I was a wife. For 40 years. I didn’t like the word “widow” at first, but I am slowly accepting that it is now who I am.

My husband Al was a big, tall, vibrant, fun-loving, teddy bear of a man. He grew up in Regina and worked at the Regina Leader-Post for all of his adult life, so he had many friends and acquaintances in this city. We met in Calgary while going to journalism school and we basically grew up together, getting married just before I turned 20, and learning about life together as young adults, parents, and all of that.

In August 2015, Al woke up with a sharp pain in his abdomen. By the end of the day, he had undergone traumatic, emergency surgery to remove a mass. It was Stage IV colon cancer. We had four more months together, in which we both thought he’d be okay. That was not to be, however, and after a second tumour suddenly appeared and was inoperable, he passed away in January 2016 at Regina Wascana Grace Hospice at the age of 61. It was a shock and surreal and sad and heart-breaking, yet it was okay. He died peacefully, with dignity, knowing he was loved and will always be loved, missed, and remembered. It’s what all of us at this grief retreat offer to those we mourn and remember. We will always love them. That’s as it should be.

I’ve been asked to tell you some of the things that helped me on my grief journey. There are many pieces, but words are the first thing that come to mind. I am a writer, after all.

I immediately sought out information and searched the Internet and local resources for bereavement pamphlets, news articles, blog posts, lists of suggestions and, of course bereavement support groups. I attended the five-week bereavement support group program that many of you have attended and, although it was originally overwhelming, I was comforted to learn skills that have helped me many times on my journey. I have also been pleased to volunteer with various five-week bereavement support groups and these day-long retreats. It’s one way I can give back and find something good out of such a devastating loss.

When you’re grieving, the heart and mind don’t always work together. Sometimes writing my feelings helps. It still boggles me that just two months after my husband’s death, I had already attended my first session of the five-week bereavement support group and had written a blog post about what I’d learned about grief at that point in time. But then again, if we go back to the ocean analogy, I had been hit and knocked under by a huge, unexpected wave and I knew that I was a weak swimmer and that I didn’t want to go under. None of you do either. That’s why you’re here. Even though your loved one is gone, you are still here and fighting to be here, even if it means the waves are going to knock you around sometimes and you’re going to have to fight to come up for air or hang on until the water calms down.

So I write in a journal – not every day, but whenever I feel like it. I write blogs if I think I have something to say that might help others. I have a friend who writes all her negative thoughts down, then burns those pieces of paper to release those thoughts while also erasing them from the view of anyone who might find those journal entries years from now. It works for her. I, on the other hand, write down all my thoughts – good, sad, happy, mean, or otherwise – on days when I feel like journaling. Anyone who finds my diaries long after I’m gone will have to be okay knowing that those were my feelings at that moment in time. Feelings change and feelings are not right or wrong. Which brings me to the second part of what’s helped me heal.

The most important part of healing for me has been mindfulnessbeing aware of my thoughts and feelings and being somehow okay with them. It doesn’t always work and I struggle with the strangeness of having two apparently opposite emotions at the same time sometimes – sadness and laughter, gratefulness and fear, grief and joy. It doesn’t make sense sometimes, but that’s okay too. We are complicated, complex human beings. We sometimes didn’t make sense to others before our loss, so why should we make sense now?

Feel Your Feelings. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing – especially early on in your grief journey. It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to not cry. I’ve cried in grocery stores, at sports events, at church, at concerts, in public, with friends and family, with strangers, and of course when I’m alone. I’ve not cried in movie theatres when everyone around me was crying. Who knew? It’s important to recognize how you are feeling in the moment. It’s okay, for example, to take your own vehicle to an event and leave if you are feeling uncomfortable in a place or situation where you would have been fine before your loss. You don’t need to explain your feelings or to apologize for them. You don’t even need to understand your feelings. You just need to feel them and express them if and when you can. And if they’re especially negative, you need to get help.

Just Breathe. This has become my mantra. I’ve said it to myself – out loud and in my mind – dozens and dozens of times in the last four years. "Just breathe. Get through this moment. Then get through the next one." In my second year of grieving, I participated in a Mindfulness and Grief group led by Debra Wiszniak and Marlene Jackson - two wonderful human beings that you will know from this grief retreat (Debra leading the meditation sessions here and Marlene being our inspiring leader as the palliative care services volunteer and bereavement co-ordinator). Debra puts her hand over her heart to take deep breaths when she’s feeling overwhelmed. I usually just stop and stay still, and I focus on my breathing. I try not to think too far into the future and not too often about the past. I stop and take a deep, long breath and try to be present in this moment. I still use mindfulness exercises and tools I learned from Debra and Marlene and through other resources, especially at night before trying to fall asleep, and I go to an easy yoga class once a week in an effort to better take care of me.

Aside from making sure to schedule regular visits with family and dear friends, I distract myself from the quiet and lonelier moments by playing music or watching a television show or movie. I read all day every day for work and I highly recommend throwing yourself into a good book. But that’s also the author and book publisher in me – just saying...

And I rest or have a nap if I need one and I can do so. I try to remember that I shouldn’t let other people tell me what to do or feel too often when I’m grieving. I should also question their ideas on what might make me happy in this new life of mine. I’m a work-in-progress on that front.

So yes, be kind to yourself. Give yourself a break

And now we’re back to the ocean.

You may have hoped that your life would be more like a beautiful ocean scene with warm sand and calm waters that welcomed you in and refreshed you. Instead, the stinking waves came up and hit you from behind, from the side, in the face, and pretty much everywhere else.

A couple weeks ago would have been our wedding anniversary. Beautiful, caring friends and family wanted to make sure I would be okay that day, so they invited me out to places and events to ensure I wouldn’t be alone. I was reluctant and anxious, knowing I might not be good company for other humans that day, but I accepted the invitations I thought I might enjoy. Then I fell apart the night before instead.

The wave hit me. Grief visited.

I sat with my feelings. I cried. I sobbed. I talked to God. I talked to my late husband. I watched TV. I cried some more. I wrote in my journal. I tried to sleep.

The day of our anniversary was okay, but for days after, I was still rocked by that wave. I didn’t realize it at the time. I just knew I felt sad. Of course, we had just passed the anniversary of his death too, so that didn't help either. It took a lot of self-talking, journaling, and rethinking before I figured out my emotions and moved past the sadness. In a real-life ocean scene, you might say that I was cleaning sand out of my underwear for days!

I took some time to remember that I need to be stronger in saying and determining what I should and shouldn’t be doing on my grief journey – which will be happening for a long time, by the way. Even if I have another partner relationship somewhere down the road, I know I will miss my husband and love and remember him forever. And I was grateful that I had loving friends and family trying to help me through that potentially rough day, even though some of their suggestions pushed me a little farther past my comfort zone and into the water.

But it was all okay. Good even.

I’d felt the ocean. I’d felt the water. I was alive. And I was grateful that I had been blessed with a love worth crying about and worth remembering.

At the end of the day, I will look out at that water – in my mind and maybe in real life too – and remember its story, its beauty, the salty taste, and the fun times I had splashing around in it.

May your grief have good moments for you too.

Grief Retreat participants sanded down the newly carved, wooden "Comfort Birds" and then took these precious gifts home to hold onto in times of sadness or other emotions.
At the memorial service to end the day, Grief Retreat participants placed ornaments on a tree, each paper ornament holding a name or wish or some other symbol of their departed loved ones.