The Shape of Grief

I lost my father at the end of April 2018. He had spent the last 18 years (!) in residential care, with the last 5 in long term care. What I can tell you about that is that it’s just plain awful. And seeing as how it was clear my father was never going to get better, his end came with a certain relief.

I have had a challenging relationship with my father. I have understood him as a narcissist. How I see that is that he was a bon vivant, loved to have people around him and was fed by that, but never gave back emotionally in a way that would keep a relationship going. I think my hypothesis is correct because not a soul showed up for him in 18 years. I always saw that as a consequence of how he lived his life.

When we were in the “sphere” of his attention, … hold on, when I was in the sphere of his attention, I felt loved. I felt we had some warmth and that he cared about me. But I also knew very well that it was out of sight out of mind, that it wasn’t ever my need of something that drove the relationship. And so I repeatedly felt abandoned by him, a bother to him. And he was cruel to me, psychologically, physically, emotionally… so ya, it was very complicated.

I expected my “grief” to be non-existent to tell you the truth. I thought the “job” of taking care of him would be done and that was that. I was not prepared for the tsunami of emotional work that hit me after all. My narrative for so long was that my father was a jerk, uncaring, narcissistic, an asshole. That the reason I stepped up to care for him was because of who I was, who I wanted to see myself as, a person with compassion and decency, and not any silly romanticized version of love. And yet … it was important to me that he be shaved – because that was something he did without fail, and he was the “Aqua Velva Man” (I smile). So when I would show up at the residence and he hadn’t been shaved in a long time I got upset. That seems to pass the threshold of obligation doesn’t it? I didn’t like it when I showed up and he wasn’t dressed properly. Is that obligation? I’m not so sure any more.

So then he passes. My sister and I always knew we would have him cremated, and spread the ashes at the lake where once we had a cottage. That cottage has been a part of our family story for 57 years now. It will be a part of our story until our end. It has occurred to me since we spread his ashes that this is the place where I knew the warmth of my father, the playfulness, where I could count on some kind of care. The “countryplace” was also a place of consistency, groundedness, something received me there … all of us I guess, but it’s in my bones, I don’t know how else to speak of it. And I know it was in my father’s as well. I was so happy when my sister, two of her kids, my husband and myself, went and took a swim, spread his ashes on the beach side, on the rock side… it was so meaningful to me. And it connected me to the care and love I have hidden from myself that I felt for my father. I also notice, the loss of him, frees me from any further disappointment, any further abandonment, so I can freely love him now. Let me tell you, that’s some big work right there (there is of course lots more to do!). And as these thoughts occur to me, a certain peace blooms. A calm. Knowing that I can decide how the story goes now, I can choose an ending .. or maybe not even an ending. No harm will come to me if I let the good of things bubble up. I can have a more rounded narrative of what it was to be his daughter, and what it was to have him as a father. And that’s all really wonderful if you ask me.

Let’s talk about how grief is other things too. Grief can feel like anxiety, a gnawing at your stomach that seems to show up for no reason. For several weeks l was just not able to go to the gym. The thought of expending that effort knocked me off my feet. So for the first time in quite a number of years – I threw myself into my garden. I dug two 25 foot trenches, and wheel barrelled the dirt away. I went a little over board but who cares… it all looks fabulous. That being said – I know I poured my grief into that.

I also walked on the mountain. This I was able to do even if my muscles ached. That’s the physical side of grief; I might as well have had the flu – which I didn’t. I would tell you, do what you can. If it’s a walk around the block so be it. If it’s just sitting outside, so be it.

Grief can feel like depression, making you think everything is wrong with everyone else, making you irritable. Or that something is wrong with your relationship, or your job, or what have you. I think the single most important piece of advice any of us could hear – is don’t make any major decisions at this time. Just don’t.

Grief can be distracting. I ran a red light for the first time in my life. I found it hard to focus. It’s not nothing.

Grief can make you reach for food or drink when neither is necessary. Be mindful of your vices. Grief can make you turn inward, pull away from people – when believe it or not, you need them most.

Grief though, can also be soft, and gentle, and warm … really. There’s a real need to sometimes sit with this loss, to feel it, to let that loss, but also the love, come up. We may choose to weep when that happens, or some of us may choose to feel grateful that such depth is available to us and actually exists.

Getting Through the Holiday Season

 Hi everyone… posting this again. Reach out to people who are more vulnerable, be kind, help, connect… we are all in this together. Peace to you.

Holiday seasons are tough on a lot of people. Those of us with “special” families have our share of Christmas horror stories …. too much drinking, too much drama, too much expectation. The media doesn’t help. We are bombarded from mid November on with the expectation that this is a time to be happy, to be connected to family which is supposed to be in and of itself a good thing, that we should buy, buy, buy, … Little wonder why the Help hotlines are overwhelmed at this time of year.  Those of us with out of step families feel, well, out of step. We ask ourselves how is it that we don’t have the pie in the oven, the merriment around the tree, the peace and love we surely all crave.

When it comes to the media unfortunately their message will never change. They are geared toward making people believe that spending money will bring back that family feeling. It doesn’t. Know that.

What can change is how we talk to ourselves. I can mind my expectations by not creating a fantasy of what I want my family to be. This will be helpful because what I want it to be and what it is are a lifetime and a world apart. So what to do? How about I work on accepting what is? How might that be helpful? Well for starters, if I take the stance of accepting what is, it’s easy to go from there to being grateful. Gratitude I have come to learn is the great equalizer of shitty stuff. Have a parent with dementia? Being grateful for the small moments in between gives one the strength to make it through the harder moments. Have a relative with mental illness? Again, being grateful for the small moments means being able to cope with the bigger ones that make no sense. Being grateful for the small moments means being present to that. When you’re present, and grateful, the mechanism to blow things out of proportion whether good (fantasy family) or bad (every thing is ruined) is limited.

As this year comes to an end, and we, by definition of the holiday, get together with friends and family, be real .. both with yourself and with others. Mind your expectations and look for gratitude for the little things. Doing so has a way of making little moments grow just a little bigger…. Just enough to make things fine, just as they are.

Peace be with you.

Boundaries.... repost

One of the things I do when working with a client is an interpretive exercise about boundaries. Clients are given a roll of masking tape, my chair is moved out of the way to give them as wide a berth as possible, and they are asked to “give us a visual representation of your psychological/emotional boundaries”. I almost always get a “what?” kind of look, confusion, worry about “getting it right”, and lots of questions. I leave the instructions as vague as possible so as not to influence what might come about. I usually offer:  “there is no wrong or right, no good or bad, this is about where you end and the rest of the world begins”…. And off they go. I have done this exercise with almost every client over the last 15 years and have witnessed something different every single time. That’s kind of why I love doing it. It’s fascinating! 

Some examples: taking the tape and taping the entire office, leaving me to stand outside in order to continue with the exercise (because I will NEVER stand inside your boundary!); staying sitting in the seat and taping just the peripheral around the self; putting the tape around one’s waist, chest, finger, ankles; making boxes so tiny one needs to stand on their tip-toes; making the box so small one’s arms can’t move; taping around one’s neck or one’s head; putting the tape across one’s mouth, making a shape that includes a back door, a front door …. Some people have handed the roll of tape back saying they have no boundaries.

Boundaries are what protect us from other people’s stuff. If I have no boundaries, and you are anxious, I will be anxious. If I have no boundaries, and your are sad, I will be sad.  If I have no boundaries and you have a need, my need will be secondary, or gone altogether. Boundaries are what give us the strength and ability to say no, to say I matter, what I need is important, I have needs, I count, this is me, I am capable.

For the longest time in doing this exercise, I understood it as the “other” coming into my space, transgressing my boundary … but the other day I had a bit of an epiphany … sometimes we bring the essence of the “other” (mother, father, lover, husband, kid, friend….) into our space without them even being conscious of it. It’s as if their spirit inhabits us (this is just an analogy) – so that within our boundary there are now two. In doing so, I allow this “spirit of the other” to subsume me, to render me less important, in the end to render me powerless – I render myself powerless. We become angry because “if they cared” they wouldn’t expect this of me … but they aren’t conscious of what I am doing – there’s the catch.  I come home from a hard day, feel it would be great for me to go to my yoga class, step in the house and feel that would not be ok with you, I would be dismissing your need for my company, my care of you… and I drown out my own need without even noticing .. except for the part about getting angry… angry that your needs come first, that mine get dismissed ….  And I haven’t even said hello.

That’s a very different stance than being overwhelmed with the “other’s” emotions, or being made responsible for them.  It’s a different stance than having to suffer the emotional contagion from another – that emotional energy that you get affected by.

So how to shift, how to begin healing a compromised sense of self?  The hardest thing you will ever have to do is believe that you are worth it. If you begin to cultivate that belief then you will have to begin saying no; you will have to start recognizing when some feelings are yours and some don’t belong to you; you will have to tolerate someone else’s sadness, anger, loneliness and not take responsibility for it. No small feat! You will have to speak up to make your own needs known. You will have to do the work of getting to know yourself to know what those needs in fact are – because you have been putting them aside and dismissing them for so long that you are somewhat out of touch with them.

Take heart though, the work is worth it. Inside that boundary that would go around your own physical being is something spectacular … you! Someone who is curious, lovable, deserving of respect, unique, worthy, beautiful …. No I’m not making this up. All that you are, all that amazingness, all that potential, all that worthiness, lives inside your boundary and very much deserves your attention. We are all so very worth it.


A landmark is defined as “a feature of a landscape that is easily seen and recognized from a distance, especially one that enables someone to establish their location” (Oxford Dictionary definition from a simple Google search). I can translate this into psychological/emotional language as “an emotional landmark is a place inside of us, our psyche, that can be brought back to memory in the right circumstance, that comes also with all the feelings that moment once came with, reminding us of who we were, where we were, how we were at that moment in time” (by me).

Emotional landmarks will “reverberate” when the circumstance is right. If you have had a challenging family life, it’s very likely that no matter how much therapy you will have done in your life, finding yourself within the family context will “feel like something”. Therapy can do so very much in helping us understand ourselves, where we came from, how we were taught to respond. It can help us see ourselves from another perspective, it can help us understand our parents, siblings, partners - ourselves so much better. It can help us forgive and accept. All great stuff.

What therapy can NOT do is erase these landmarks. I will never have different parents. I will never have a different family story. But what I can do is recognize that when the circumstance “looks” like what my history looked like - in my case chaos, alcoholism, violence - I’m going to have a very understandable reaction. What therapy has helped me do is notice this - so that I can make a different choice for myself should the need arise. One that serves me, a choice that is not reactive, a choice that recognizes my person and respects and honours that. A choice that recognizes my strengths - so that I don’t shut down in fear like I did as a child. Among other things, that is what therapy helped me do. 

So clients come to therapy and say when will this be gone - and we all need to learn that we are all like a tapestry, with ALL of our stories weaved in to create a fabric that is us. We can’t remove the threads of this fabric or we lose our integrity, we lose our strength and risk unravelling. We can lean on the fact that we are made up of so many different parts, stories, threads - strong ones, reliable ones, so that the challenging ones can be carried along and no longer be the central force behind how we feel, react, see ourselves in the world. But they will always be there. We all have the strength to change our “relationship” to those parts, to those memories, we really do … But they will always be there. 

Therapy, in my humble opinion, is better thought of as a tool to learn how to live in the world with who we are. The image of walking around a “landmark” and knowing what it once was, and seeing beyond ourselves and recognizing how far we are from it - can help a lot in managing our feelings. Of course change happens. It really does. And also, we come with our stories and we need to honour and respect those stories, not erase them - because that’s not possible. 

Peace to you.

What We Can Learn From Comedy


Neal Brennan's 3 Mics 2017 (Netflix. is a Netflix comedy special (which I get it, I’m late in coming to!) divided into three parts - one liners, stand up comedy, and “emotional stuff”. In the “emotional stuff” segments, Brennan tells his story with brutal honesty. He shares with us his life long struggle with depression and the challenges of having had a violent, alcoholic, narcissistic father. 

There was so much wisdom in what he shared about depression - and depression as a consequence of a narcissistic parent, that I had to explore and share. I have been privy to so many similar stories, my own included - and I just felt how he talked about it gave a new vocabulary we could use to help ourselves. 

First of all, how Mr. Brennan “defined” Clinical Depression.. He likened it to a virus. This virus has your brain spew out negative thoughts, sadly, mostly about your imagined shortcomings. What I love about this definition, is that it “personifies” depression, it “externalizes” it. When those negative thoughts come now, I can say - ah there is that virus! - rather than slip down the rabbit hole of believing these thoughts. That's an important line of defence!! 

In talking about having a narcissistic parent, we can all relate when he shares that “the entire mood of the house was determined” by the narcissistic parent, so as children we learned to “minimize feelings to appease” that parent. The problem is we minimize to the degree that these feelings “atrophy - and we are incapable of having them”. That “muscle” to feel joy, satisfaction, love, has atrophied - but not disappeared! What makes it hopeful to me, is that an atrophied muscle can be woken up! We can start the exercises that allow us to feel .. our own feelings again. I am sure this happened for Mr. Brennan as he discovered he was a “lover” :). You have to have that muscle to be able to love. 

In therapy we often discuss and work on “poor self-esteem” as a consequence of growing up in a narcissistic family system. Brennan talks about having NO self-esteem, not necessarily poor self esteem. “I don’t have the architecture for good feelings. You could give me a trophy and it would just slip through - I have no shelving”. So very powerful. When you look up the definition of self esteem you find: “personal overall subjective sense of personal worth or value”. Well if you don’t have the “architecture” to “hold” the naturally positive sense of personal worth, you’re going to struggle. I think therapy in part is about building that shelf, remodelling the inner landscape so you can hold on to something positive about yourself - no matter how small. 

One exercise I often give clients from narcissistic systems is writing down what you do know about yourself. What’s your favourite colour, what's your favourite food, favourite ice cream flavour and so on. Doesn't matter how small the detail.. It's YOU. Learning to listen to that voice is the beginning of building the structure needed for some of this real and positive sense of yourself to stick and become your new reality.  

And that’s how we begin, one tiny Lego block at a time. 

If you recognize yourself in any of this, give the show a listen. The comedy is cheering, and the honesty is healing. Thank you Mr. Brennan, I deeply appreciate your contribution to my well being. 

Peace to you. 

Feel the Feels

The session starts:

Hi there how have you been?

Well, I’m really frustrated. I have done all this work in therapy and the other day, I woke up blue. It stuck with me all day and I couldn't shake it.

Oh that’s too bad. Are you still blue?

No, it only lasted a day - but still. It makes me feel like I’m failing at what I learned in therapy.

Oh. So there’s no room to have an off day? To be crabby or grumpy? Is feeling sad or lonely no longer part of the human condition?

Hmm .. I never thought of it that way.

Sometimes it seems, we lose sight of how things are “supposed to feel”. It is important to understand that some of how we feel on any given day is “normal”, and certain responses to events are “appropriate”. Many events in the course of ordinary life will elicit “feelings”. When applying for a new job or not getting chosen for one .. wouldn't some amount of “feelings” for either of these situations seem “appropriate”? Sometimes our brain fools us and has us believe our "feelings" (anxiety? rejection? simple adrenaline?) are a sign that we aren’t good enough, ready enough, suited enough to the task… when really all it is is an appropriate response to a pretty significant stressor. The “rejection” of not getting a job can sting to be sure, those are some strong feelings. But again, we shouldn’t interpret that as proof of something flawed about ourselves.

Anxiety is our body’s way of letting us know there is danger, something is amiss, we should prepare to flee or fight. Something as huge as a pandemic for example, will understandably set your nervous system off. Here is a great Podcast with Dr. Christina Runyan talking about the physiological impact of the pandemic on so many of us. Our feelings of sadness, numbness, anxiety - are appropriate responses to a huge, life changing event.

To the legions of young people (and also not young people) struggling with loneliness in this crazy time - that loneliness “feels” like something. And again, I believe our brain then creates messages that undermine our sense of our self, our confidence.. Because we “feel” this .. we must not be good enough, not worthy of love, destined to be alone. This is not true.

If we accept that certain things feel a certain way, maybe we won't be caught off guard by those feelings and then make the mistake of misinterpreting what they mean. If you feel lonely, it means you’ve been alone more than you can tolerate and still feel good. It does NOT mean you are not lovable.

I tell a lot of my clients that therapy (I hope!) can help untie a bunch of old knots. It will help one understand where their intentions and motives spring from. It helps to understand one’s self in relation to others. What it does not do is get rid of life’s stressors. What it does not do is make it possible to feel good and happy all the time, because that's just not realistic. Life is hard, hard things happen, you will wake up on the wrong side of the bed. Yes we can be resilient, most of us are, but it’s all going to feel like something.

Be kind to yourself.

This is for all the lonely people...


I think it's fair to say that social media is making a wreck of how we understand ourselves socially. Many now use Instagram, Snap Chat, Tik Tok and what have you, to gauge whether they are living “right” or “like everyone else”.  I remember pre-internet (yes, I’m that old) – when we would compare ourselves to just those people around us. While that is not great either, at least it was in doses that didn’t overwhelm and numb. The “media” of the day was not as insidious, not as damaging to our self-esteem. 

One of the many messages we get from social media today is that you are supposed to be surrounded by friends. You are supposed to be part of a “pack”, have a group of “besties”. The real truth of the matter is it’s not like that for everyone, in fact it’s not like that for most. Many people have a few close friends, many people have one or two. 

So here we are, so many of us growing into adulthood –  surprised at the loneliness. And worse, using that loneliness to somehow qualify who and how we are as people. We let our self-esteem take a punch because we don’t have the same social game going on as those we see on Instagram. If you think back to high school do you recall how you were socially? Were you part of a pack? Were you someone like me who engaged with different groups but never really joined one? Were you solitary with just one or two close friends? Your social network and relationships will probably look a lot like that in your later adulthood. 

People struggle with loneliness. It’s a hard thing – but inevitable in the course of a lifetime. When we are lonely we look at those “friend” images and wish we were different, wish our circle was different, and think it’s because something is wrong with us. 

There is nothing wrong with us. We have to carry loneliness no matter the context of our social life. There will be times where we are more connected, more in touch, more engaged with those around us – and there are times where the ache of a lonely heart will not be soothed. These are all conditions of the human experience. There’s no pill, no real intervention in my mind – other than to acknowledge that sadness, and accept that this is part of the journey. Sometimes there are hard truths. 

We can live in the world believing that we are no good and hence “deserve” to be lonely. We can also say that sometimes life is hard, sometimes we will feel alone and lonely – and this too will pass. I will cherish whatever relationships I do have. I am worth loving and being loved. That, THAT, can be a salve. I love myself enough to accept that life will get lonely from time to time and it’s not a reflection on me. I am strong enough to carry that, and I will also have better days. 

Peace to you.  

What does your anxiety look like?

So many of us struggle with anxiety. In fact, some level of anxiety is just a normal experience given the world we live in. But what do we k...