Your Story: The Persistence of Grief


Strong in Body, Strong in Mind aims to address all over health, including mental health. As you know, physical and mental health are closely related. Losing a loved one is considered a significant life stressor. That means it can have lasting effects on your physical and mental health. Dawn Ross is a palliative care nurse who addresses grief from both sides of the story in this article about grief.

The Persistence of Grief

September has always been a month in which I feel restless. I think it’s the start of the school year, the start of all the kid’s activities; it makes me feel like I should be starting something too. The September of 2008 I was feeling particularly uneasy. I was moody, would tear up for no apparent reason, couldn’t sleep well, had my “normal” September restlessness, but it was much worse. I couldn’t get a handle on why I was feeling so ill at ease.

Midway through the month, it dawned on me. I was grieving. September of 2007 I had cared for my maternal Grandmother during a short illness, and it had become evident that she was not going to get better. She died before the week was up. With the help of her niece and daughter, I cared for her at home. It was sad when she died, but she had had a long good life, and I had been able to grant her wish of staying home. Overall as good a death as it could be. I was okay with it, or so I had thought.

Wake Me Up When September Ends

Now, a little background on me that might make you think, “Well, duh, you should have been able to figure that out,” I am a Palliative Care Nurse. I work with people with terminal illnesses and try to improve their quality of life by controlling symptoms they experience. It’s my job to try to support them and their families through till the end of their life. I visit with grieving families after deaths and keep in contact with some for years if they need that support.

Caring for my grandmother was sad, she was a vivacious woman. She was energetic and fun, and she was 95. The week had started with her having a non-injuring fall while racing another elderly lady back to their apartments. “I was winning, Dawn Marie, but when I turned to see where she was, I fell.”

“Oh, Grammie, you never look back in a race!” and we laughed together. That was the kind of woman she was. Yes, she had flaws, we all have flaws. People who die don’t all of a sudden become perfect, but she was my “fun” grandmother. I loved her and long before her death had resolved any issues we had had.

How Grief Works

So why was I swept into feeling grief so deeply a year later? Grief is cruel like that. It doesn’t go away; it stays in us and can rear its head at any time. I could make a sidebar joke here about it being like the Chicken Pox virus in that way but that’s nursing humor, I regress.

It might be an anniversary of the death, a birthday, a holiday or a song. It can come back as viciously as when the death initially happened, or it can just hover around and in us so that we feel it every day. If the death is tragic and unexpected, we experience it differently than when the death is expected. When the death is by suicide, or there are unresolved issues it can become more complicated by other emotions like guilt.

A dear wise friend of mine pointed out once how almost everyone has some form of grief: men and women who divorce, people who have lost their homes in disasters, people whose pets have died. We live in a safe country; imagine the grief you live with growing up surrounded by war. She also pointed out how complicated it can be for some people, the drunk driver who kills a family, for example. Society has some strong ideas on “who” is allowed to grieve. Empathy sometimes only stretches so far.

Grief and Our Health

Grief can affect our physical health. It can cause us physical pain. There are lots of studies that discuss working with people with unresolved grief and addiction issues. Dr. Gabor Mate is a physician and author that worked in East Vancouver with the addictions population; he discusses that relationship in some of his writings. People can also actually die of a broken heart (scientific name is stress-induced cardiomyopathy).

Grief is Love

I often do a few follow-up visits with my families after the death. The first one may be the day of or a few days later just to check in. They are often living in a very surreal world at that point. Trying to do arrangements and such but sleep deprived and almost in shock at times even though we had been preparing for this (anticipatory grief).

The next visit or call is a few weeks later to check in once the visiting relatives have left. I talk about self-care, eating and try to healthy food, water, sleep and exercise (a walk not a marathon). The message is now it’s time to care for yourself if you were ignoring that at all (although it is my ongoing message). People grieve differently: some people get busy, some sit and cry. I think in the year after my Grammie died I picked up and carried on once the funeral was over and forgot a key piece of information I heard teacher Stephen Jenkinson say “Grief is the love you feel for someone who has died.”

Septembers have gotten better.