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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.


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