Aug. 25, 2021

Support others through grief and loss

Two front-line campus workers pilot workshop for UCalgary faculty and staff
UCalgary fall campus

Editor’s note: The following article appeared in UToday on Aug. 25. A second workshop is now being offered after a successful pilot session earlier this month. This article has been updated to reflect the new registration details.

For the past year and a half, many of us have become more familiar with or witnessed loss and grief. Whether it’s the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, sudden job loss, a medical diagnosis or other cause, these experiences are diverse, and the way individuals react to them can vary wildly. 

Although grief and loss are necessary parts of the human experience, they are not always treated that way, says Master of Social Work candidate Keeta Gladue, BSW’19, and Julie Stewart, MSW’19.

After piloting workshop Supporting Individuals Experiencing Grief and Loss earlier this month as a Campus Mental Health Strategy initiative, the two registered social workers are running another session on Sept. 28. In the online workshop, they will explain how helping people feel equipped to support one another in the grieving process is a valuable and necessary part of fostering caring communities.

Impetus for resource-development

Although there are immediate and follow-up supports and services offered by Student Wellness Services and Staff Wellness when a campus community member dies, a gap exists in resources that normalize and support folks through the many kinds of grief and loss that are a part of the human condition.

“I found that, while our campus has a lot of resources on certain mental health topics, we didn’t have any to really specifically support grieving and loss,” says Gladue, program advisor and team lead with Writing Symbols Lodge.

Stewart, a counsellor at Student Wellness Services, also sees the benefit of being able to provide more support.

The lovely work you get to do as a counsellor is to open a space for someone to make meaning of their loss, and to choose the kinds of relationships they want to have with lost loved ones.

Both Stewart and Gladue wanted to bring their work with clients, community and research to a broader audience. After a scan of what other campuses were doing and researching best practices, they decided to create a workshop with the aim of normalizing grief and loss and providing tools to help support others.

“When we encounter grief (in others), it can look very different. Sometimes it can look or feel overwhelming, and we can panic, trying to say or do the ‘right thing,’” says Gladue. “But, if we can remind ourselves that grief is a natural process, find a sense of calm and groundedness, and feel confident in our caregiving, then we can provide good support. When you are supporting someone who is grieving don’t panic, remember this is a human hurt, and all you may need to do is be there with this person.”

Personal experiences of grief and loss can help inform how to show up for others

Gladue and Stewart hope to guide the workshop in a way that’s in part informed by past experiences, to normalize and help teach other in supporting the process of grieving.

Gladue has found that intercultural ways of grieving have helped her cope and support others in the past. "Cooking and cleaning for community helps me show up for others and process my own grief,” she says. “During the pandemic, I wasn’t able to support in this practical way, and that was hard.”

However, during COVID-19, Gladue was surprised by elements of change in the grieving ritual. “I was apprehensive about online Zoom memorials, but I found I was able to connect to others I might not have otherwise,” she says. “I heard more stories of a person I really cared about at different stages of their life ... I was able to bask in the glory of this person’s wonderful, weird, whimsical nature — in full living colour.”

For Stewart, who grew up with “a lot of older family members,” feeling comfortable with death and grief happened at a young age. "The person I experienced the most intense grief for was someone I wasn’t necessarily that close to,” Stewart says. “So, I learned that our proximity to someone doesn’t predict the grief response. I hold a lot of room for loss to be experienced in unpredictable ways."

Grief is a complex, whole-person experience. Our bodies and minds have different ways of expressing that. There is not a right, single reliable procedure or process for grieving. That is where laughter, anger, numbness, even motivation are all things that can occur in response to grief, and they don’t have a particular timeline.

“I think grief can tell us something about someone or something we care for,” adds Stewart. “Honouring what we care for and what others care for, looking out for each other, holding space for grief, not treating it like it’s a problem, are all dignifying ways of responding. This is a moment where I think we’re in really close relationship with grief as a community, more than we’ve maybe been aware of in the past.”

Faculty and staff can register for workshop pilot, Supporting Individuals Experiencing Grief & Loss here.

For those unable to attend the workshop

Gladue and Stewart have compiled helpful ways to support those grieving--by relying on a comfortable form of expression (e.g. through words or acts of service), understanding our relationship with the person who is grieving, and knowing that by supporting we are not there to fix or be perfect.

Something to say and something to do

  • Say:
    • Something simple. e.g. I know it's not ok, I don't understand, but I'm here with you.
    • Give yourself permission to not say the perfect thing
  • Do:
    • Consider offering practical support   
      • Ask when, suggest what, like proofreading a cover letter after a job loss, cooking a meal, dropping off or picking-up kids at school
      • For managers, look at your employee’s calendar to offload meetings and tasks
      • For faculty, understand deferral policies, giving room for flexibility around supporting students

Key take-aways to understanding grief as a unique experience

  • Experiences are not one-size-fits-all; there is no right way to grieve and no timeline.
  • We can’t fix losses, but we can show up for people with care.
  • It’s important to give space and have appreciation for all types and forms of losses.
  • Collect resources before you need them, e.g. know about workplace policy, deferrals.
  • Listen when someone is sharing.

The University of Calgary’s Campus Mental Health Strategy is a bold commitment to the importance of mental health and well-being of our university family. Our vision is to be a community where we care for each other, learn and talk about mental health and well-being, receive support as needed, and individually and collectively realize our full potential. Learn more about the strategy here.