Before I begin this week’s post, I would like to reveal the significant changes I made to the blog! Some of you might notice that the website looks different. The main reason is that I added a language switcher, rather than reading a long post with both languages. I had to install a plug-in and rework the website (I also improved the menu structure). So this is now officially a multilingual blog (yay!). Multilingual personal blogs are rare I think, so I’m happy to continue in both languages. After all, it’s good for the brain to practice two languages!
Please note that I write each post in French first, and then translate in English. As my first language is French, if you can read French, I suggest reading the posts in French as they are “better written” in my opinion. 🙂
All that to say, this change will bring a cleaner layout, and you as a reader can easily from English to French, and vice-versa. You will find the language switcher drop-down (EN-FR) at the top-right of the menu in green. In the main menu, you will also notice changes with the groupings of the pages.
Sorry to those of you who were trying to open the last email, it was an error that occurred during my redesign and it was the same post as last week (a duplicate). Thank you still for letting me know!
Another week with the kids at home, time flies! For everyone’s health, I sure hope that classroom-based school will start again soon. Keeping our fingers crossed. Yesterday, we received a message from school: once a week, the afternoon will be asynchronous, and without connectivity. The school says it is to help with the health and well-being of students and staff. It’s a good initiative!
I received some kind messages this week from Isabelle, someone I didn’t know. Isabelle told me that she and her husband Pascal often drive by the accident site on the 323 to get to their cottage. For those who haven’t read the post about the accident site, you can find it here.
Isabelle shared with me that she and her family were deeply moved by our story and they think of us and Zackaël a lot. Receiving this kind of message always touches me; it reminds us that Zackaël is always in our hearts, even for people who did not know him.
What touched me the most was when she told me that she and her husband often stopped to clear snow at the site. What a thoughtful gesture! Remember the definitions of empathy and compassion? Well, this gesture is a great testament to that. They are empathetic people because they are wholeheartedly with us, and saw that it was important for us to keep the monument and photo visible. They are also very compassionate because it is a helping gesture that no one has asked them to do. Isabelle and Pascal, you have a big heart, and I thank you very much for what you do!
Zackaël’s roadside memorial during the Holidays
Zackaël’s roadside memorial at night
I would also like to thank everyone who has taken the time to stop at the monument, some of you even added a little something. Thank you Marielle & Raynald, and Tim & Amélie for the pictures. Since I’m not able to visit the monument because of its location, it means a lot when I receive new pictures. I’m able to see if little items were added, which always warms my heart.
As Zackaël favourite colour was green, don’t hesitate to add a little green something (like a green light or ribbon) if you’re ever on the 323 and decide to stop.
My aunt at Zackaël’s roadside memorial
I would love to share about Zackaël more often and his photos on this blog, but it’s not easy. As some of you know, I am often caught in a battle of emotions.
For today, I’m going to share a poem I wrote last spring. The original language of the poem is French. I quickly did a translation to English. I have to admit that the English version isn’t very good as the flow and rhymes disappear in the translation. If you know French, please read the French version instead.
In my previous post, I briefly described how I felt during the first months of my complex grief. Something I came to realize is that Carl and I are fortunate to be surrounded by people who have been very understanding and patient with our grieving process. Maybe this is because we lost a child and another one was severely injured? Regardless, we are incredibly grateful.
As I write this post, I came to realize that I have a lot to share about today’s subject. This topic is part of many conversations in bereavement support groups. It is something you do not necessarily learn in school, but in my opinion, one should learn more about it. They are said to be a skill and a behavior that are key ingredients of emotional intelligence. I am referring to empathy and compassion.
Empathy and compassion are topics that are important to me. Quite often, it is people who have experienced difficulties who better understand their importance. Admittedly, talking with other bereaved has helped me learn more about these two components of emotional intelligence. Throughout the last year, I was also able to learn a lot from exceptional people who continue to demonstrate great empathy and compassion.
What to Say to a Bereaved Person?
Lately, I was able to participate in online support groups, either through messaging groups or video chat groups. I was also able to interact with other bereaved by private messages.
Upon sharing with them, what I take away the most is that not only do they suffer through their grief, but they feel often misunderstood by others. In particular, one of the comments that frequently comes up relates to the words and actions of others. The bereaved are upset by hurtful comments, such as: “Move on”, “At least you…” or “You should…”. Not only such comments are not helpful, but they also indicate a close lack of empathy for the bereaved.
Being blunt with a bereaved person or trying to tell them what to do are two behaviours that usually do more harm than good. Telling a bereaved person to move on or think about something else will in no way diminish the fact that their person is gone or lessen their grief.
Grief and Depression
Everyone has their own way of coping with grief, and on their own timeline. Some people experience the pain intensely much faster, while for others, the pain comes on much later.
Many factors influence the reactions of the bereaved. The bereaved’s relationship with the person who has died will usually be the most important factor in the extent of the grief, and perhaps depression.
For example, let us compare two mothers: Janie and Pauline both just lost their babies at 20 weeks gestation. At first glance, one would think they are “similar cases”. However, it is incorrect to compare them since there are always underlying circumstances. In this case, Janie became pregnant after 5 years of trying, while Pauline got pregnant immediately. For this reason, Janie will probably go through much more intense grief than Pauline’s. Certainly, after all these years of trying, Janie had developed an extremely strong bond with her baby.
Moreover, other elements are often kept private so people often do not know the whole story. As such, it is wrong to assume that someone who shows symptoms of depression is “weak”. Depression is not a sign of weakness and it is important to be supportive and understanding toward someone who is depressed.
Most of the time, two people will react differently to a great loss. The police officer responsible for our case told my husband Carl that child loss can be exceedingly difficult for a couple’s relationship. Not only that it is painful for the parents, but they also must: live their own grief, support the grief of their spouse, and also possibly support the grief of their surviving children. In our case, the officer warned us: Fathers usually grieve differently from mothers, which often creates a gap between the two of them.
People grieving differently occurs in every type of loss, not only child loss. It is indeed rare for two bereaved to react similarly, even if they have experienced the same loss. Unfortunately, this sometimes creates tension between them since they do not understand each other well.
On that subject, I want to share the story of Célia, who I met through an online group:
Célia lost her mother Rose. Since Rose is in her 90s, those close to Celia were not surprised to learn of Rose’s passing. On the other hand, for Célia, her death was unexpected as Rose was healthy. Coping would have been less stressful if she would have had time to anticipate her mother’s death.
Célia was already having a difficult year. She went through a divorce and her children left her home. Following the death of her mother, Célia is, therefore, more depressed. Celia’s mourning is much more intense than her sister Vicky’s, who also has just lost her mother. However, in her case, Vicky lives with her husband and children, so she is better surrounded.
Celia feels a lack of support from her sister. Her sister is supported by her husband, but Celia has no one left. This becomes unbearable for Celia, who was already overloaded with other issues. In addition, Celia finds that her friends are not there enough for her, even if she needs their support.
It would be ignorant to think that Celia should not be grieving because her mother was elderly. It is even sadder to know that her friends and her sister are not supporting her. Celia feels the need to confide but she is afraid of being judged if she talks about it.
Unfortunately, bereavement is still a taboo subject. People are often uncomfortable “hearing” their loved ones grieving.
Celia suffers more than Vicky because she was simply more attached to her mother, not because she is less “strong” than her sister. Above all, sadness stems from the love (and attachment) one still has for the deceased. Celia needs empathy from her loved ones, but she is not getting enough of it.
What is Empathy?
Empathy is the ability to try to understand someone’s feelings, not just feel bad for them. There are two types of empathy: cognitive empathy and emotional empathy.
Cognitive empathy is the ability to recognize and understand other people’s emotions. It is sometimes called perspective-taking.
Emotional empathy is when you feel physically along with the other person. It is the ability to share the feelings of another person. This type of empathy helps you build emotional connections with others.
Some people who are better at demonstrating cognitive empathy can have a difficult time tapping into emotional empathy. With cognitive empathy, a person will simply understand that the other person is feeling pain without feeling it themselves. With emotional empathy, the person will literally feel the other person’s emotions. The two types of empathy come from different regions of the brain.
“The biggest deficit that we have in our society and in the world right now is an empathy deficit. We are in great need of people being able to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes.” — Barack Obama
What are the Differences between Sympathy, Empathy, and Compassion?
What is Sympathy?
Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone whereas empathy is as feeling with someone. Some common ways to express sympathy are sending a sympathy card or flowers to the funeral service.
What is Compassion?
Compassion is the ability and willingness to stand alongside someone and to put their needs before your own. Compassion takes sympathy and empathy a step further. Someone compassionate will first recognize that the person is in pain (i.e., sympathy), or feel their pain (i.e., empathy), then they will do their best to alleviate the person’s suffering.
At its Latin roots, compassion means “to suffer with.” Someone who is compassionate, will:
not run away from suffering
not feel overwhelmed by suffering
not pretend the suffering does not exist
Instead, someone compassionate will stay present with suffering. As such, showing compassion helps gain perspective because it puts the person in someone else’s shoes.
To summarize, cognitive empathy can be described as “understanding what others feel,” emotional empathy as “feeling what others feel,” and compassion as “caring about how others feel.”
Sympathy vs Empathy vs Compassion
Why are Empathy and Compassion so Important?
Empathy and compassion are needed in everyday life, especially when interacting with others. Without them, it would be difficult to maintain healthy relationships.
Oftentimes, those who are grieving receive more sympathy, than empathy and compassion. Empathy and compassion are both truly needed after a great loss.
It is easy to pretend that we would act differently if someone else’s situation would happen to us. Having empathy is not about trying to figure out all the details of why the person is sad, and why they are still sad after several months. The grieving process is complex and long. It is okay not to fully understand their reaction. This does not mean we should not be there for them.
Helping people usually requires emotional empathy. It is not only the bereaved who deserve empathy: a newly separated person, a sick person, a person with a sick family member, a person who is depressed, or alone and isolated, a person who has difficulties, etc.
Having empathy is not just about showing up once. It is not just about going to the funeral or sending a message of sympathy. This is sympathy, not empathy. For a divorcee, it is not just sending them a one-time message saying, “Sorry about your separation, let me know if you need anything.”
Certainly, a gesture (sympathy) is better than nothing, but to have empathy and compassion is to continue to show that you are caring for them. Empathy is listening instead of talking. “Big talkers, little doers” can have difficulty empathizing. You have to be present in their lives and support them so that they can get better.
Some people can show empathy and compassion. For some others, they will be empathetic but not necessarily compassionate. Others still will show their support by being compassionate even if they are not necessarily empathetic.
How to be a More Empathetic and Compassionate Person?
To have empathy is the ability to sense what is important to others and to be present for them, even for seemingly small things. The first step towards empathy is to put yourself in someone’s shoes without judging them.
To develop emotional empathy requires listening carefully to the person without trying to change the subject and to fully support them.
Having empathy and compassion means not assuming that this person is already well supported. Rather, it is to assume that this person is probably sad, even if it has been months, and that they still need support. It is better to assume the worst than the best when it comes to helping.
Showing empathy and compassion means continuing to send messages, being supportive of their approach, and encouraging them in their projects. It is also offering and being available to meet or visit.
Do not change the subject when the bereaved want to talk about their grief or the deceased. Rather, encourage them to share their feelings and talk about the person who is no longer there. Do not try to fix it; grief is not something that is broken, it is more part of love. Instead of thinking that we have to get out of mourning, we should accompany the mourning. Better to act than to say.
Before I finish, I would like to thank everyone who has been empathetic and compassionate to us over the past year! I have been amazed by how supportive people have been, and I hope you realize it. I should be thanking you more often!
My goal in writing this post was not to get people to be more empathetic and compassionate towards us specifically. Rather, I hope I have provided a different perspective that might help people be supportive of anyone around them who might be suffering in the future, no matter the situation.
Before I begin, I would like to thank everyone who recently signed up to the blog. Welcome, and I am happy to chat with you!
The holiday season is now over. Despite the severe restrictions imposed for the 2020 holidays, I must say that for my part, Christmas 2020 was much better than Christmas 2019. It is true that last year, I technically had the opportunity to see more people, walk around the stores and do a lot more. However, when we are not in good health, being free doesn’t help much. Being healthy is much more important and I wish you all good health as we begin 2021.
Last year, friends and family were suggesting activities that I should do in order to take my mind off things; “You should go see a movie, spend a day at the spa, or go out for a nice dinner!” and more. What they couldn’t realized was that no outing could have brought me any kind of pleasure. A month and a half after the accident was not enough time to be feeling better. No matter the activity, my heart ached, I felt severe pain and a deep void. More specifically, most of the time, I had difficulty standing for more than 5 minutes and literally felt out of breath. Sometimes, I could be okay for a short period (eg. 30 minutes), but it was quite rare and very unpredictable.
Although my sleep was generally adequate with the help of sleeping pills, I was still extremely tired and exhausted. I had trouble answering the phone and would therefore ask Carl to listen to my voicemail messages. This went on for months, which was normal under the circumstances. I’m not saying that today I have no more pain, that I have no heartache, on the contrary. But at least I can say that there are times when I feel like more like myself.
During a dinner over the holidays, someone kindly accepted to be with Adélie at the hospital so Carl and I we could have a nice evening with others. I remember after dinner, it was suggested to me “why don’t you stay a little later to enjoy it and have a little fun?”. Holding on to my tears, I responded “how could I enjoy this? “. It was impossible for me to enjoy anything. Any “beautiful moment” was tarnished by the deep sadness that was eating me.
Even though it was a lovely dinner with loved ones, I just wanted to rest my head on the table in my arms. I was not hungry. My heart ached and I had to catch my breath. I couldn’t stand myself, although I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong. I tried to stay presentable and not appear too sad. People couldn’t tell how bad I felt. After all, there are no lessons on grief in school (unless you study psychology) and grief is a subject that is unfortunately still quite taboo.
At that time, I thought I felt this way because of the bereavement; a deep and cruel mourning following the loss of my child. It is true that I was dealing with complicated grief, but I was also experiencing many signs of depression. I had actually fallen into a depression; a situational depression as experts call it, caused by the traumatic event of the accident and the loss of Zackaël. On top of all that, Adélie was still in the hospital at that time. She almost died, and there were many unknowns relating to her health and recovery. She didn’t speak yet, didn’t walk, her right limbs were inactive, she often had fevers, vomited frequently, and so on. It was all too much for my system to take, a grieving mother with a broken heart.
What is Complicated Grief?
Complicated grief is a persistent grief in which the death of a loved one causes suffering for a longer time than typical grief. It is said that about 5%-7% of bereaved people suffer from complicated grief and I would imagine that it must impact the vast majority of bereaved parents.
In general, death of a child is the most difficult kind of loss, and bereaved family members are at elevated risk for depression and anxiety for close to a decade after the loss. In addition these parents are at risk for a range of physical illnesses.
Now, in 2021, some moms who’ve recently lost a child ask me how I got through it. I am so sorry that those parents have go through such an event. I don’t know if I can say that I “made it through”, but I’m able to say I made it through the first year. And “getting through” doesn’t mean we did it like a pro. It just means that we survived, that we did the best we could, that we are still here and we are trying to improve. Everyone experiences grief in their own way. In truth, the way I lived my grief was very different from the way Carl lived his.
I knew I had to get out of the house in order to avoid sinking into a deep depression. So that’s what I did. Every morning, I would get up and get ready to go see Adélie at the hospital. I went out as often as my weakened body would allow. I talked to people who came to visit. I went to gathering and events organized following the accident, even though I sometimes didn’t feel like it. Despite the fact that I followed everything the books would “suggest” I do, nothing could stop the pain that haunted me. People probably didn’t realize how much pain I was feeling all the time.
Coming back to the question of what I did to “get through”, it’s a subject that I plan to touch on eventually in another post. First, I will admit that I eventually started taking anti-depressants (Buproprion), which I believe helped me with my energy levels. I just couldn’t just go on like this. Sometimes, if you’re not getting better despite doing all the right things… sleep, getting help, going out, essential oils … you don’t have any choice but to try something else. Medication can’t alleviate sadness and grief, but at least it can help with energy and I’m not shy to mention it.
It is often said that the first year is the worst, known as the “Year of Firsts”. I hope so, but I am not sure. In fact, in some groups of bereaved parents, I read that many parents have great difficulty for years, no matter if it is the 1st or 3rd year. This is what complicated grief is, we don’t know if we will be better tomorrow. The loss of a child is far from typical grief. We all expect at some point that our grandparents and even our parents will leave us (at a certain age). But no one decides to bring a child in this world knowing that he or she will die before them, let alone their little body dying in our arms.
We spent most of the 2019 holidays at the hospital with Adélie. In my case, I couldn’t say “holidays”, because really, there wasn’t much to celebrate. I had lost my son, my daughter was badly injured (and with a lot of unknowns), my son was very sad and traumatized (although the extent of his trauma wasn’t as evident at the time as it would later become). Carl and I survived and did the best we could.
Despite all the sadness, we had a lovely family dinner at the hospital on December 26th, thanks to CHEO who gave us access to their meeting room. Adélie could not speak (she had a tracheostomy tube), she did not eat on her own and did not walk. Despite all of this, we were happy to be together as a family with our little Adélie. We had the chance to give her little gifts, to make her smile, and she was so happy to see us all at the same time.
We could not have survived without the help of many, especially those who stayed with Adélie. When Adélie was in the hospital, I wasn’t physically or mentally able to spend nights in the hospital. I already felt like a zombie during the day (with the symptoms mentioned above). Fortunately, Carl didn’t have as many physical depression symptoms. He had more energy and was therefore able to spend nights in the hospital.
Our family helped us for a lot of the hospital nights as it was important that we also be with Maxandre at home. Thanks to our parents, Yvonne and Francois, Michael and Judy, my brother Joel and his wife Mylène, Carl’s brother Malcolm and his aunt Margaret for all the nights you spent at the hospital with Adélie. These were not restful nights, often disturbed by our poor little girl’s nausea, her loud cough from her trachea tube, noises from other patients (shared room), and so on. Thank you also everyone who kept Adélie company during the day. To all of you, we will always be grateful for your kindness and generosity.
You might have found this post a little depressing, but I think it’s important to give you the context before I post more about what has helped me with depression. Finally, for those who are interested, I recommend watching this video (French). I relate 100% everything mom says, even her last sentence about being happy.