Learning to Cope with Grief: Jennifer’s Journey Toward Wellness

It was while she was constructing her own “Loss Timeline” — a guided exercise at the Wellness Centre at St. Joseph’s Hospice — that Jennifer Stapleton came to fully understand the depth and multitude of losses that were affecting her life. First, there were the deaths of both grandparents, then her mother’s declining health, and her husband’s spinal cord injury.  All contributed to her feelings of loss and grief while diminishing her sense of personal well-being. And then, bringing everything to a head… losing her beloved father-in-law, Jeremiah at Hospice in July 2017.

Jennifer had been peripherally aware of the existence and purpose of hospices, but before Jeremiah’s admission, she had no idea what to expect. She remembers: “What greeted me was the smell of cookies and delicious soup. Jeremiah’s private room was as beautiful as a high-end hotel room. Family members and friends were allowed to visit, day or night. That brought us all great comfort. Hospice nurses and volunteers were very kind to us, accommodating Jeremiah with quality care. The whole experience was mind-opening for me.”

Following Jeremiah’s passing at St. Joseph’s Hospice, Jennifer remembers being in a fog. “I was shell shocked, just feeling a loss of identity, a loss of a support network.”

Several months later, while participating in the Hike for Hospice, an annual fund-raising event, she learned about the wealth of grief and bereavement services available through Hospice, services offered to the community at no cost.

And so Jennifer’s own Hospice-connected healing journey began, starting with one-on-one counselling. Next, she moved on to the H.E.A.L. (Helping Each Other Acknowledge, Accept and Learn from Loss) grief support group, where she found the safety net remarkable:

“I can’t think of another place where you could process your emotions and feel safe that way in a group, with compassionate individuals guiding you along, all with a grief focus.”

– Jennifer Stapleton

She followed this with a course in “Exploring Grief” through the creative expression including collage, photography, poetry, mask-making and listening to music. Jennifer was drawn to collaging. “In one of my collages, you see people sitting around a table smiling. For me, that said ‘My Thanksgivings won’t be the same. I’ve lost that traditional family unit. I’m feeling that loss. I’m yearning for that closeness. Collage helps access and release emotions I may not otherwise be able to express.”

“We all hold grief in different ways,” Jennifer continues. “At Hospice, I discovered lots of choices available to meet the unique needs of each person seeking support. If you are not into creative grief support groups, there is one-to-one support. There is also a focus on mindful meditation, massage to relieve physical pain related to grief, and energy work like healing touch and Reiki. Some people take ‘Cooking for One’. I’ve even taken a finance management course here.”

For some, the outdoors and exercise also play a part in sharing the healing process with others.

“I love the Tuesday morning Step by Step walking group in the network of trails along the river behind Hospice. Being with the group, releasing endorphins, watching for ducks on the water….. it’s great. Sharing your grief with others is so important.”

– Jennifer Stapleton

Currently, Jennifer is attending a six-week Self-Compassion course, a support group focusing on self-care. “We talk about things like the inner critic and trying to transmute that into self-kindness rather than self-judgement. We focus on our shared humanity. Even if we feel very isolated, we are able to come together and recognize that we are not alone in our grief.I have met some wonderful, supportive people through these groups.”

Jennifer continues: “I don’t know what I would have done without Hospice’s Wellness Centre. It has been there for me from the get-go.  To find support in a neutral, safe place is a big reason I love St. Joseph’s Hospice. The staff and volunteers are specially trained and they have all had exposure to loss. They ‘get’ grief here.”

Jennifer’s experiences with the Wellness Centre have given her the inspiration and courage to live more fully. “I’m on a journey. I have no idea how I will be a year from now. It’s completely open-ended and I’m scared and excited but now I have tools and techniques I never had before. I am currently taking courses toward a certificate in Thanatology: Loss, Grief and Bereavement Studies at King’s University College. I feel that I am being called to support or participate in something in that field.”

For Jennifer, life is increasingly full of good surprises. As our interview concludes, she holds up a colourful cloth bolster. “It’s a neck warmer”, she explains. “Deanne, who leads our Self-Compassion program, made one for each of us. She just did it. For a person going through the ups and downs of grief, it was such a welcome surprise. “

Indeed, along one’s journey’s through grief, life will continue to offer positive surprises. And St. Joseph’s Hospice and its Wellness Program helps make that happen.