Ultra Vires


Living Through Grief in All Its Forms

Sharing lived experience and strategies so you know you are not alone

There is something about this time of year—specifically February and March—that I associate with loss. Maybe it’s that underneath the snow, we can see all of the death of the plants and flowers that we knew so well in the summer months. Maybe it’s the grey and unpleasant feeling that naturally comes with a lack of sunshine. Who knows? The feeling of grief and loss is something that I think is common to all of us, especially this time of year.

While it may be easy to think of grief as the loss of someone we loved and who impacted our lives, grief goes beyond that. Grief can be for any kind of loss—the loss of a friend, the loss of a relationship, or even the loss of one’s own self concept. As grades come out, many of us may feel the pain of losing our idea of ourselves, dependent on success and high achievement. Loss comes in many forms and faces, and contains a deep feeling that many of us know quite well.

I don’t pretend to be any expert in grief or loss—I don’t think anyone can be—but it is important to know that the feelings of pain and loneliness are more common than they appear. Beneath the surface, I think we all know what that pain feels like, and struggle at times with how to cope with moving through a world that lacks the person or connection we are seeking.

As a law student milling through the winter term, how do we begin to find our way through these feelings? I wanted to share some of my ways of living through grief that avoid self-care platitudes and reflect the realities of a difficult emotional time. I add the caveat that these come from personal experience and strategies learned from various places—each person is unique, with  different needs and ways of experiencing grief. Either way, you are not alone in how you feel and I hope these help you.

  1. Take your time

Feelings are feelings. They are complex and have their own timeline. With many deadlines and expectations, it is easy to push down feelings and “save them for later.” While you can hide behind a mountain of readings instead of feeling your feelings for a time, check in with yourself when you feel safe to do so. How are you actually doing? 

At the beginning of my period of loss, I told myself that time away from law school would be enough to take care of everything and somehow move on with my life like normal. That obviously was untrue. Coming up on the one year anniversary of loss, I am still discovering new ways that grief has changed my life. There is no set timeline for resetting your feelings, returning to everyday life, and working at maximum capacity. It’s okay to take your time. The inbox will always be full and the calendar constantly ringing with reminders but there is only one you. You have to recognize the time you need to heal and feel your feelings.

  1. Find your people by sometimes being vulnerable

Brené Brown, a pre-eminent social worker and viral sensation, has discussed how vulnerability builds connection. Don’t get me wrong, vulnerability feels gross. In our success-driven environment, it’s difficult to own up to the fact that maybe you are not a perfect robot who always completes every reading and does assignments weeks in advance—and never lets anyone see you sweat. If you feel like everybody around you has everything under control and never feels the same as you, I think you might be wrong. 

When we decide to be vulnerable in our own way, either by opening up to a trusted friend about how we are really doing or by carefully offering to speak about our own experiences of loss, we build connections with those around us. Our campus is working towards one of care and compassion, and a major step in that is admitting that we are all human and are willing to open up to each other in whatever ways we can. Admitting to feelings of loneliness helps you find your community. As a member of the Peer Mental Health Program who runs Law Chats every week, the feeling of loneliness is so incredibly prevalent amongst our students. We might all be a little less lonely if we admitted these feelings.

  1. Seek a little bit of joy

Bear with me as I insert some cheesy self-care information. Joy cannot exist without loss. Joy doesn’t necessarily mean taking baths or getting a massage. It means an openness to experience. Be open to the fact that joy exists, even for you. Maybe joy looks like sitting in the Fishbowl by the window so you can see the dogs playing outside. Perhaps it’s saying hello to the birds housed in the bushes outside the school (seriously, like 1000 birds live in one bush). It may be a video game, or a comedy show, or coming up with the worst puns imaginable. Whatever it is that you can find, be open to the fact that joy might surprise you and that it’s more than okay to feel it.

  1. Cry, or scream, or not

People experience intense emotionality in different ways, and it often fluctuates. One moment you may feel an urge to cry, while other times grief is expressed through anger, or a feeling of complete emptiness. Whatever it is, let that feeling live if you feel safe to do so. A law school friend of mine got into the habit of avoiding their emotions and told me how they would schedule time to have a cup of tea in their safe apartment. This practice helped them sit with their feelings of grief and loss and better understand them. I sometimes take a solid 20 minutes to sit with a friend while we cry together in the basement prayer/multipurpose space in the law school. It’s whatever works for you. However, it’s important to keep in mind that emotional avoidance is a heck of a lot harder than actually feeling that emotion.

  1. Be gentle with yourself

All of us are over-achievers. I have this set idea of perfect functioning, which includes over scheduling and mountains of to-do lists. We often beat ourselves up for not meeting our expectations, as those expectations are often completely unreasonable in the first place. It’s a “mental health meme” that giving your best looks different everyday. It’s imperative to allow yourself to be less than 100 percent. Give yourself permission to be lazy, to not give your maximum effort, to eat something bad for you, to watch TV that is pointless, or to read tabloids. Whatever you keep denying yourself in the name of being highly functioning—give yourself permission to sometimes not be that person.

  1. Find support

I’ll plug the law school supports first, as I honestly believe that we have a beautiful community here. Whether it’s asking for extensions (an admittedly highly difficult process) or seeking formal mental health support, there are resources from both the law school and the University itself. You could also reach out to your doctor or other clinicians to seek additional formal support.

It’s also important to think about informal supports. It could be family, friends, a craft club, a sports team, or even something like Law Chats. Find your own space where you can be yourself and connect with others—even if it is not specific to grief. My friend and I often walk home together and just vent—it’s my special space where I can both be supportive and supported. I also love my therapist and feel deeply appreciative of her. Whatever support you need depends on who you are, and you can develop that network of support as you progress in your journey.

  1. Self reflection

I’m not necessarily telling you to get a journal and write down all your feelings everyday (although if you do that, good on you). But having quiet time to reflect on how you are feeling and how you are processing things is an important part of living through grief. Maybe it’s checking in with yourself and your emotions everytime you go to the bathroom, or scheduling “me time,” or more structured things like yoga or meditation. There’s no set way to self-reflect, but it’s important that you do it and think about your own emotional health and well-being. I sometimes call this time my “loaf” time: I loaf around my house because I am like a little “loaf of bread” and I am baking. I need time to think and be calm in order to grow and develop. You might need that time too.

If we take this term to begin learning about ourselves and recognize our losses, this dark winter will bloom into a period of renewal. You will notice a changing version of you—one that appreciates empathy and connection through the lens of loss. 

Mental Health Resources: 

Students can contact: 

  • The Health and Wellness Centre (M–F, 9am to 4:30pm): 416-978-8030, or visit the Student Mental Health Portal online
  • CAMH 24/7 Psychiatric Emergency Department: 1051 Queen St. W, or call 416-535-8501
  • Talk Suicide Canada helpline: 1-833-456-4566

See also: ontario.cmha.ca/documents/are-you-in-crisis/; camh.ca/en/suicide-prevention/get-help

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