In the wake of Humboldt: Our collective grief

Virtual Hospice Clinical Team

The outpouring of collective grief and support across the country and around the world following the Humboldt Broncos tragedy is incredibly moving and inspiring. Moving because of the volume and intensity of personal sharing and caring. Inspiring for the remarkable ways people of all ages and backgrounds have honoured those who died, and supported the injured and those impacted by this tragedy.

We can all relate

We don’t need a personal connection with hockey to feel this tragedy deeply. This event is palpable both because of its magnitude and because we can all relate in some way – as a parent, a sibling, a member of a team, or as a fellow human being simply imagining the shock and grief of family, friends, colleagues and teammates.

We each grieve in our own way

There’s no one “right” way to react to any death whether it’s expected, unexpected or horrific. The grief may be more acute for those who’ve personally experienced a sports tragedy, other sudden traumatic death, or a recent death. It’s important to provide unconditional support, recognizing that everyone is different and each person will find their own way to express grief and solidarity. Some will need to talk, while others will find comfort in action, and many will do a bit of both. Personality, age and previous experience with death will affect how each of us responds.

Remember, too, that children grieve differently than adults depending on their level of maturity and understanding of death. It’s important to talk with them about what they’ve heard and how they’re feeling. can assist.

The need to take action

Taking action of some kind can be a helpful way for many people to express support and find a way through the tragedy. Many kids and adults across the country are connecting with one another by wearing hockey jerseys, propping hockey sticks on porches, contributing to the GoFundMe Campaign and through social media messages #HumboldtStrong and #PrayersforHumboldt. In Uganda, 13-year-old Sadam Lukwago, donned his Oakville Rangers jersey to travel to the headquarters of the Canadian charity, One4Another International, that funded surgery on his club foot. This charity’s funds are raised almost exclusively by young Canadian hockey players. Kerry MacGregor responded with her powerful cartoon depicting the hockey players who lost their lives inviting Jonathan Pitre to join them in a heavenly game of hockey. (Jonathan is the courageous Ontario teenager who publically shared his struggle with a rare and painful skin disease. He died, age 17, two days prior to the Humboldt crash.)

Resilience and being strong

“Be strong and don’t cry” have been common expectations in our society. The response in the past two weeks may indicate that attitudes are gradually changing – that increasingly strength isn’t only defined as “bucking up, dusting ourselves off and getting back on the horse.” Strength can be defined as resilience. We all have feelings, and sometimes strong feelings. As much as picking ourselves up is an element of resilience we admire, it’s also admirable to go to those dark places where we feel the anger, guilt and other feelings that often accompany grief. And to allow tears. These aspects of grief - feeling what we feel and dusting ourselves off – need equal time. It’s heartening to see many positive role models come forward, including former NHL hockey player Sheldon Kennedy, who stressed the importance of supporting people with presence, not advice, and emphasized the need for ongoing sharing of stories and feelings.

Grief doesn’t follow a straight line

Much has been said about “moving forward.” This reflects one of life’s realities and demonstrates an element of our resilience. However, it’s important to recognize that grief doesn’t follow a linear path on which we move steadily forward, free of dips and steps backward. The Victoria Hospice in B.C. uses the labyrinth as a metaphor: the only way forward is to go through grief, recognizing there will be many turns and movement back and forth over what seems like the same territory. “We journey to the centre of ourselves and then slowly return to re-enter the world.”

Grief takes as long as it takes

It will be important for those directly affected – like the family members, friends and teammates – to know there’s no rushing grief. It takes as long as it takes. In the early days of grief, people often live with a “surreal” feeling, also described as “being in shock.” “I feel like my world has stopped and everyone else’s continues to move on” is a common sentiment at this stage. As they live with grief, and the intensity of the feelings begins to lessen, they come to realize there’s no one endpoint to grief. While there’s no time limit, there are many signposts along the way that things are getting better. The thought, “I feel like I’m coming out of a fog” may be one such signpost.

We need to be gentle with ourselves. It’s easy to get caught up in comparisons with others, or creating unrealistic expectations about how well we “should” be doing. Sometimes our emotional pain pushes us to accelerate the whole process.

As a community, it’s important to honour the process of our collective grief; to be aware of the “shoulds” that may prevent us from providing unconditional support; and to recognize our own fears, vulnerabilities and feelings of helplessness that may get in the way. These are all normal human feelings. We can’t take someone’s pain away, but with our love, support and understanding we can accompany them on the long road ahead.

Fred Nelson is a psychosocial consultant with the Canadian Virtual Hospice Clinical Team. He’s a virtually retired social worker with 40 years of experience in palliative care, grief and loss.   

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