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Rethinking grief

Grieving - a black man is distraught, sitting on a bed, hands clasped, leaning forward on his knees, his long braids swept aside.

The swallowed cries of mourners

If you have never experienced a grief presentation from Serena Lewis, there are two things that may surprise you: 

  1. How cathartic it is
  2. That she can’t abide being called a “grief counsellor”

Serena, who was until recently the Bereavement, Grief and Wellness coordinator with the Nova Scotia Health Authority, spoke with the staff and network of Inspiring Communities recently. Serena lives in Great Village, close to neighboring Portapique, a community in healing after last spring’s mass shooting. Her calling to work with grief in community has uniquely positioned her to offer perspective from inside the turmoil caused, first by COVID-19, and then by the events in April of last year, followed by other very public losses affecting Nova Scotians. Our province has demonstrated a high level of resilience and compassion, but Serena questions whether we overplayed the “Nova Scotia Strong” sentiment. Her mission: to help us be aware of where and how grief shows up, and to make space to be with it.

Where does one – a person, family or community – go for support when grief is unspeakable? We have limited hospice care services for expected dying, and we have mental health services for when the grief manifests to diagnostic criteria, but where do we apply the social determinants of grief in a proactive approach that supports our well-being?

Grief and social change – article by Serena Lewis on NS College of Social Workers

The presentation revealed the many facets of grief any of us may experience at one time or another: loss of a pet, a job, a relationship, a meaningful place, or a loved one, illness or a huge loss of normalcy, like what happens during a pandemic.  Over all of these, Serena pointed out generational grief and the role that plays across our province in the lives of the Mi’kmaq people, African Nova Scotians, and Acadians.

Grief, she notes, rarely arrives in neat, progressive stages and we have done ourselves a disservice in characterizing it that way. She challenged us to consider how our reactions to the grief of others (or even ourselves) can be affected by bias or unvalidated expectations. How long should someone need to grieve? Why do we think there is a time limit? If a friend loses their mom, how do you react if your friend is 30 and their mom was 50, versus if your friend is 65 and their mom was 92? Or if their mom was suffering dementia versus if she were hit by a bus? Or if your friend was estranged from their family? 

Grief shows up for each of us eventually, and it often shows up in unexpected ways. It is a natural process, to grieve, and it can be challenging to support another through it. As Serena points out, we are by far more a society of “do-ers” than a society of “be-ers”… and often what is required is to simply be with the grief.  How much easier to bustle into action, making casseroles and arrangements!

Serena’s presentation would be beneficial to any group, though people might be resistant to the idea initially. After all, it hardly sounds uplifting to talk about grief for an hour! But there is an important release in understanding that grief is part of being human. No one has all the answers, so you might as well practice sitting with the discomfort of the questions. 

You can reach Serena Lewis at serenalewis@eastlink.ca

Photo by Alex Green from Pexels

Other links you may be interested in:

Grief and social change – article by Serena Lewis on NS College of Social Workers

In the session Serena highlighted a few resources:

Grief and Loss through Black Eyes in the Time of COVID 19 (from the Nova Scotia Network for Social Change)

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