A transplant to Los Angeles since 1988, Joseph Leahy was familiar with mortality. His family was in the funerary business. His family often took him to the cemetery as a child. “I’ve spent a lot of time around death and dying,” Leahy said. It was only when he moved out West, however, that he discovered the traditions of Día de los Muertos and identified with it. His enthusiasm for the celebration was so much so that his altars were often lauded in the early years of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery’s annual celebrations. Today, he continues to honor its sanctity with a yearly ritual commemorating his loved ones through a personal altar made at home and with the help of his daughter. His appreciation for the sacred tradition has also influenced his work in the HIV positive/AIDS communities. Apart from his yearly personal altar, Leahy has also helped these communities celebrate the ones they’ve loved and lost through meaningful remembrance.
For dogs, the loss of a human or another pet can have a traumatic impact on their lives. Much like humans, dogs grieve the absence of someone they love so it’s important we know how to help them.
Dogs experiencing a loss can show signs of confusion, fear or depression. If it’s the loss of their owner, you may notice dogs trying to figure out where that person has gone. If it’s another pet who has died, your dog may spend more time in their bed or favourite space, often with the hope that their friend may return.
A recent news story highlighted this sad truth when a dog owner shared heartbreaking images of her dog regularly returning to the bed where his best canine friend once slept. The dog left the same space for his deceased friend to sleep in night after night, despite him passing away a year before. Tugging on the heart strings of many, it created a discussion around how dogs grieve.
Claire Stallard, Behaviour and Training Manager at the Blue Cross tells Country Living: “The loss of a person or another pet may have a huge impact on your existing pet’s behaviour.
“Not only might they experience grief themselves due to the absence of a family member, they are also likely to pick up on the subtle changes in your behaviour too during this difficult time.”
What are the signs your dog is grieving?
Some dogs may show visible signs of grief, while others may completely withdraw and mourn quietly.
“Dogs’ ability to form strong social attachments with us and each other means they can have difficulty coping when they are suddenly separated from their companions. If their owner is grieving, the change in their behaviour and their normal routine can also have an impact,” Lisa Hens, RSPCA dog welfare expert tells Country Living.
“This varies greatly depending on the individual dog, and some owners report that, when one dog dies, the remaining dog seems very affected and may stop eating, for example. While others report that the remaining dog seems unaffected,” Lisa says.
Some of the signs that will indicate a change in your pet’s behaviour include…
Losing their appetite
They might cry a lot or be searching in areas where they expect the deceased family member to be
They might be wanting your attention more than usual
More time sleeping
Changes in apetite
Loss of interest in going for walks
How do I know if my dog has separation anxiety?
“Sadly, many dogs simply don’t know how to cope when their owner isn’t at home. Some dogs will bark or destroy things to show their feelings. While, others will simply sit there quietly, feeling worried,” Lisa from the RSPCA tells Country Living.
“This can happen on a day to day basis, not just after loss, and research suggests that 8 out of 10 dogs find it hard to cope when left alone, and worryingly half of these won’t show any signs, which means you may not always know if there’s a problem.”
What can you do to help your dog?
“Try not to worry too much about your pet’s behaviour during this time and try to stick to their familiar routine as much as possible. Losing a family member can be a difficult time for everyone, our pets included, but grieving is a natural behaviour. Like us, they can recover and move on in time with the support and care of their loving owners,” Claire says.
Remember, always talk to your vet if you are overly worried about your pet’s health and behaviour.
Some of the practical ways you can help include…
Be observant for any change in their behaviour
Try to keep to their normal routine as much as you can
Be patient, as it will take time for them to adjust to their new situation
They may need more quality time with you
Should you get another dog?
If it’s a family dog who has died, it can be tempting to get another one quickly so that your surviving pet has a companion. “Try not to rush into this decision too quickly, and if you do decide to get another pet, take things slowly, making sure the introductions are carried out carefully,” Claire explains.
When Carla Sofka’s mother died just before Thanksgiving 2017, Sofka didn’t immediately post the news on social media. She was busy planning the funeral, making travel arrangements and getting an obituary ready for the weekly newspaper in her mother’s community.
“We had 23 hours to get the information to them if we didn’t want it to be 10 days before Mom’s obituary was in the local paper,” said Sofka, a professor of social work at Siena College in Loudonville, New York.
Then the phone rang.
Unbeknownst to Sofka, the funeral home had posted the obituary on its website, and almost immediately a childhood friend had spotted it and shared it on Sofka’s Facebook page.
“The minute that obituary showed up on my feed, people who saw it started posting comments and messages to me,” she said. “I didn’t even know this was going on, because I didn’t know it was there.”
What makes Sofka’s story ironic is that she has been writing and teaching about the impact of technology on grief and dying for decades. She even coined the term “thanatechnology” (“thana-” means death in Greek) in 1997. But in her moment of grief, she never thought to say to the funeral director, “Please don’t post Mom’s obituary on your website until we tell you that we’ve notified the people who need to find out another way.” (By the way, that funeral home now asks families whether posting is okay.)
Lee Poskanzer, CEO of Directive Communication Systems, which helps clients safeguard digital assets in their estates, experienced a more pleasant Facebook surprise in 2010 when he posted news of his mother’s death on Facebook.
“A very close friend of mine, who I would never have thought about calling, actually hopped on a plane and was able to make my mom’s funeral the next day,” he said.
The Social Media Rules Have Changed
As Poskanzer and Sofka’s stories illustrate, digital technologies have changed the rules surrounding grief and dying.
“How does one decipher a uniform approach when our society is using technology in so many diverse ways and each one of us has a different approach to our online presence and our digital footprint?” Poskanzer asked.
Fortunately, experts like Poskanzer and Sofka have begun answering those questions. While the landscape is still shifting, it’s possible to discern some basic rules of “netiquette.”
Here are eight tips about death and social media:
1. Leave the scoops to CNN and Fox News. If you’ve heard about a death but haven’t seen a Facebook post from the next of kin, that could be because family members are still trying to contact people who need to hear the news firsthand. Sofka said a good question to ask yourself is, “Is it your story to tell?”
2. Think before you post. Even when it’s appropriate to share, make sure what you’re sharing is appropriate. Don’t post painful or disturbing information without the family’s consent — and even then consider whether sharing is appropriate. “We may not recognize that we could be harming someone by posting or tweeting or putting a picture on Instagram,” Poskanzer said.
3. Avoid being cryptic. Nuance vanishes in cyberspace. A post that said “I’m praying for the Johnson family at this difficult time” could refer to anything from a death to a job loss to a house fire. “You have to know the poster in order to understand a little bit where they’re coming from,” Poskanzer said. When in doubt, pick up the phone.
4. Remember that news travels fast. When Sofka’s aunt died unexpectedly, she elected not to tell her teenage daughter, who was on vacation in Florida and didn’t know her great aunt well. Unfortunately, cousins began posting stories about the deceased woman on Facebook, so Sofka’s daughter quickly found out and wanted to know what was happening. “I can’t believe I didn’t expect that,” Sofka said.
5. Be patient. “Sometimes people watch how many people like a post or how quickly they acknowledge it,” Sofka said. “Somebody who’s grieving doesn’t have the time or energy to focus on that.” And if you’re on the other side of the situation, consider posting something like Sofka did after her mother’s passing: “I’m overwhelmed by the caring and the kindness of the postings. Please forgive me if I don’t have time to respond right now.”
6. Watch out for problems. Unfortunately, online death notices can attract everything from negative comments to fraudulent GoFundMe campaigns allegedly set up to pay for funeral expenses. “As family members and friends, if we see that, we need to contact the family immediately so somebody can contact GoFundMe,” Poskanzer said.
7. Be helpful — but not too helpful. It’s fine to offer to monitor the family’s online presence for problems, but don’t go too far. Poskanzer recalls a woman whose husband had just passed away. “While she was sitting shiva (mourning in the Jewish tradition), somebody had memorialized the page to her husband’s Facebook,” he said. As a result, the grieving woman no longer had access to the page. Facebook also has information about legacy contacts; people chosen in advance to oversee memorialized accounts.
8. Adjust your response to the situation. Poskanzer lost a friend recently who was very active on social media — to the point of chronicling her cancer battle online — so sending online condolences after she died made sense. On the other hand, Sofka talked with a woman who’s not active on social media and had recently lost her father. “She said, ‘Nobody sent cards; that was the hardest thing for me, because if felt like nobody cared,’” Sofka recalls.
As the rules of netiquette change — funeral selfies, anyone? — perhaps the best rule to follow is the Golden Rule: Blog, post and tweet about others as you would have them blog, post and tweet about you.
Death is, in general, a bummer, and there’s nothing really “sexy” about it. Yet some percentage of people find themselves improbably motivated to fuck as they mourn the loss of a loved one. It turns out that grief, the emotion that should be the least horny, is actually…quite horny.
This is kind of an uncomfortable premise, which could perhaps explain the (very disappointing!!!) lack of substantial, peer-reviewed research on this topic. (One of the only studies in the horny grief vein focuses on “sexual bereavement,” and basically just establishes that people who lose their long-term sexual partners will miss the feeling of sex, and not just the person they shared it with.) Therapists and sex researchers, though, say it’s a normal and fine thing to feel inexplicably horned up after someone close dies. “It’s really about filling the void — literally and figuratively,” Patti Britton, a clinical sexologist and sexuality educator, told Mel Magazine in 2018. “The grief trajectory is about a loss of closeness — a loss of intimacy. That’s why our libido kicks in: To fill that void.”
This makes sense. Living through the death of a loved one can put people in a very YOLO state of mind; faced with the fleetingness of life, you may as well bone while you can. It’s like humping away as the world burns around you (which is…kinda what we are already doing right now). Life will end, and so perhaps the way to feel most alive (at least for some people) is to smoosh your parts against another warm-blooded person.
But beyond filling a void, grief sex is also a pretty solid distraction from the pain and/or numbness that death brings. “The body becomes quite broken [after a death], and having sex— decent sex—drives the dopamine system,” Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist and senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute, told VICE. “Any stimulation of the genitals drives the dopamine system in the brain, which gives feelings of optimism, energy, focus, and motivation.” The flood of dopamine can, at least for a little while, calm you down, Fisher explained.
Writer Anjali Pinto echoes this theory in an April 2018 essay she wrote in the Washington Post. Writing about the string of sexual encounters she started five months after the sudden death of her husband, Pinto describes a “rush of feel-good chemicals [that] created an overwhelming sense of happiness, even amid my loneliness.”
But more than the biological thrill of the dopamine hit that comes from good, consensual sex, Pinto wrote that seeking out casual flings with strangers gave her a sense of control in an otherwise bleak time. “Having sex with strangers healed me in ways that therapy, friendship, travel, writing and photography could not,” she writes. “These encounters made me feel empowered, desirable and more in tune with my body. They gave me agency when my life felt out of my control.”
Of course some people in “””polite society””” are going to poo-poo the banging of strangers (or banging anyone, TBH) in the aftermath of a major traumatic event, Pinto noted. Sex, especially when a woman is doing it, is still just taboo enough to feel like a manic response to a bad thing. But, I don’t know, man… losing a spouse is like a top-five bad thing that can happen to a person. Losing any loved one is. Barring legitimately destructive or dangerous behavior, it sort of seems like someone going through that hell of an experience should be able to do whatever it takes to feel better. As the saying goes, ‘Everyone grieves differently.” And experts say that some people grieve by boinking. That seems, in the grand scheme of things, very fine.
Sometimes we block our blessings when we avoid grief instead of welcoming it.
Running away from pain was a trick I learned at an early age.
When I was a kid, I was surrounded by adults that scared me about making my own choices because they were so sure it was all going to lead to pain. Being exposed to that kind of life tactic all my life gave me the impression that grieving is a negative experience, and anything negative was not the best feeling in the world.
I am the kind of person who needs to know why? What is the logic behind it? What rational explanation do you have that can convince my mind? I need to be educated so I could make informed decisions. But they just saw me as a child, a child who should follow what they say.
Having nobody to teach me about love and life properly, I just assumed that when it hurts — you have to push it down or
AVOID IT AT ALL COSTS.
As I grew up, I navigated through my existence, making so many mistakes, failing at every turn, and breaking my heart every single time. I ran away from the pain by depending on numbing agents like shopping, eating my feelings, sleeping, watching TV, or seeking love from people who would only hurt me in the end anyway.
But you know what they say, what you do not repair, you repeat.
Repeating those patterns for years cost me my heart, my soul, and myself. I was functioning daily, but I was like a zombie. I lost sight of who I was; I was nobody but a conscious passenger with no control of over my own body. It was no way to live, and I badly wanted to put an end to this disturbing cycle.
They always said that you’d get farther in life if you’re brave enough to take the risk and ask smart questions. The only way I could do this was to put my foot down and take charge, look within myself, and deal with my fear of being alone with my thoughts and feelings.
From that moment, I realized that I’ve been going about it all wrong. Running away and avoiding pain was like drowning in quicksand. The more you move around and try so hard to get out of it, the more you sink.
I learned that the most effective way to cope with grief and pain is
When we start to feel pain, we kind of panic, don’t we? We know it hurts and we want to get rid of it FAST! But the thing is, we won’t know how to get rid of anything if we don’t know what caused it in the first place. We need to make ourselves aware by asking:
Why are we actually in pain? (Was it our fault? Is it hurting us or our ego? Is it pain or guilt?)
What caused grief?
Are there other healthy alternatives to solve what caused it in the first place?
ADMIT IT YOU ARE IN PAIN WITHOUT SHAME.
A lot of us are so afraid to admit we are grieving for fear that people may see us as weak or stupid for feeling that way. Honestly, I can’t blame you. In my experience, there were people in my life who would laugh at my grief. They would tell me I deserved to suffer.
I consoled myself by holding my pain prisoner inside of me, but you hold on to your anger for so long the lines tend to blur. At first, you are the one holding it captive. You think you are still in control, the next thing you know the grief has detained you.
Hiding behind your grief like you are the dirty secret is a way of giving up your power, and allowing your emotions to take control over you. We must remember, it is only a feeling; it comes and goes.
There is power in admitting you are in pain. Put your foot down, take charge, and free yourself from the grief that has taken you hostage.
BEFRIEND YOUR GRIEF
Ever noticed that when you are in the company of someone you cannot stand, sharing a room with them for an hour seems like a thousand years?
You want it to be over ASAP.
That is how it feels when we are grieving. We want it to be over because having that awful feeling makes days seem to go by slower, the sky is gloomy, and food seems to have lost its taste.
We want to get back to the rainbow and cotton candy stage.
But to be honest, befriending your grief is the easiest way to make it go away. Treat it how you would treat a good friend.
Get to know it, look forward to the lessons each decibel of grief is trying to teach you, enjoy its company and just like a good old friend — you will realize that the time you have spent with each other was not enough, but they have to go.
You will say your goodbyes, and you give thanks for imparting you with all the wisdom you gained during your short time together.
Grief doesn’t come into our lives to punish us; it occurs when we need to be taught a lesson that helps us break the vicious cycle of mourning and recycling pain from reliving toxic patterns.
At the end of it all, grief isn’t all bad. Grief exists to help us shed older and weaker versions of ourselves so we can grow into a person who’s braver, stronger and capable of reaching our full potential.
Tony Rose, the co-author of Beautiful Grief, shares a lesson he learned upon the death of his 28-year-old son.
Jonny was a month and a day shy of his twenty-ninth birthday when my wife, Chris, found him dead in our pool house. This was four years ago, and it began my experience with vast differentness.
“Jonny is dead,” she told me over the phone. I was in Oregon golfing with my friend when she called.
Chris’s phone call—and Jonny’s death—began a journey through what I came to know as the “liminal space.” The word liminal comes from the Latin word limen, meaning “a threshold.” The liminal space is the place wherein you have left one phase—one set of rituals or traditions—but have not yet established new rituals. You no longer hold your pre-ritual status, but you have not yet begun to transition to a new status of rites and rituals.
During the liminal space, you are standing on the threshold between your previous way and what will become your new way.
When someone you love dies, it is as if a tsunami has hit. The world as you know ceases to exist, so the word “different” feels like an understatement. When you enter the liminal space because of grief, you begin the process of being something new. The liminal space can seem permanent, and certainly so when grief accompanies it. This loss of a person or a relationship or an extreme shift in conditions—this differentness—changes the dynamic and balance of your life in such a profound way that the circumstances of joy that persisted before the liminal space cannot be recaptured.
This loss can seem enduring. After all, how can you be okay when the joy you once had can never again be realized?
Jonny’s death created a different world for me. My life is not the same as it was before he died. He does not sit in his seat at the table during holidays. I will not attend his wedding. Never will his laugh fill my ears again.
When he died, this difference felt, at first, staggering. It was as though my boat had crashed, and the ocean was tossing me around.
But as the months and years passed, I began to realize that the differences in my life were not differences of a lesser quality. They were differences of a different quality. I have more sadness than I had before Jonny died, but my joy is deeper. I notice moments that I would not have noticed before Jonny died, and I notice that my feelings are becoming purer and more accessible.
Here is just one example: I was recently honored to be a guest at the wedding of an employee, Carmen. To be honest, before Carmen’s wedding, her fiancé, Fernando, was an acquaintance. He and I had met a handful of times prior to the wedding. We had exchanged small talk and pleasantries. I liked Fernando, but had Jonny not died, I am certain that his wedding with Carmen would never have been as extraordinary as it ended up being. Absent the differences in me that occurred due to Jonny’s death, Fernando would still be a person I think of as an acquaintance.
Yet, I can say without a doubt that I will never forget watching Fernando dance with his mother on his wedding day. I found myself crying, watching a mother so tenderly celebrate the love and happiness she felt for her adult son, mixed with the bittersweet emotion of seeing her baby turn into a man.
I watched them dancing, aware that I will never have a memory of Jonny dancing with his own mother but sure that had Jonny not died, I would never have recognized the beauty and the quiet confluence of melancholy and joy that existed in that moment.
It was—even as I think about it now—a moment that will always move me.
There’s no question in my mind that it was almost as consequential as Jonny’s birth itself. I will remember Fernando dancing with his mother until my dying day.
I can, at this very instant, see a picture of them dancing in my mind.
As I watched them, it occurred to me that those empty places that I thought would never be filled can be filled if I let them. They will be filled with something different, but not something less.
Watching Fernando dance with his own mother did not have to be a reminder of what I did not have: It was better as a great substitute, a beautiful replacement, a differentness, for a hole that would otherwise be vacant—a small, surprising moment I could treasure in my mind as its own memory.
This is the closest I have come to being grateful for the context given to me by Jonny’s death. It was the first time I really articulated that there would be many glorious moments to come. They will be different than I would have imagined four years ago, but they need not be less.
I began to realize that the moments did not have to come from my wife, Chris, or from my daughter, Katie, or from me, or even from someone in my immediate circle—they could come from an acquaintance. I could share in a moment with my employee’s fiancé and his mother—a moment that he will never forget, but equally, a moment that I will never forget.
I could have thought, Jonny will never dance with his mom, and I would have missed the moment between Fernando and his mother. I would have equated different with less.
Instead, I was able to share in a beautiful moment between Fernando, Carmen, and their families. Absent the context of Jonny’s death, I would have been an attendee at Fernando and Carmen’s wedding. Given the context of Jonny’s death, I was a participant.
The world, and all of the moments that unfolded at that wedding, seemed so much richer, with more depth of color, than I could have otherwise seen them.
Would I trade this to spend time in the company of my son? Of course I would. But I do also hold that my memories of Jonny, and the new memories I have made since his death, are not of a lesser quality.
I think this is important to remember because differences happen. We change jobs or move to new cities. We become parents, and then we become empty nesters. We divorce. People we love die.
What I observe of people who are grieving is that they sometimes choose to dwell on the fact that their life is different, and they stop there. Instead of saying, “Oh, this is different. I am going to experience life in a different way,” they say, “Oh, this is less. My life is less. I will never be okay because my life is so different than it was before.”
My experience is that when you decide that different and less are synonymous, you fail to see the moments. You cannot see joy and beauty when you have already decided that your life is less-than.
For me, the ocean has settled. As I look around, the view is new. It is also beautiful, rich with colors I have never before seen.
My father passed away from cancer six weeks ago. The days after his death were characterized by the expected: disbelief, morbid Hallmark cards extending condolences, and dishes of limp lasagna left at the door. But the period following his passing was also colored by the unexpected.
I wasn’t expecting panic or anxiety. Nor was I expecting derailing flashbacks to the last week in the hospital, night after night of insomnia, or the decimation of my formerly robust immune system. In short, I wasn’t expecting grief.
Theoretically, I knew grief happened after a significant loss. I’d just somehow made it to 34 years of age without ever really experiencing it firsthand. In essence, grief is a common emotional response to a distressing situation. But although it’s normal, it can be utterly annihilating. Grief gathers up feelings and experiences—that are challenging enough to deal with on their own—into one giant, messy package that spills out over everything.
A Small Piece of Cannabis-Infused Fudge
Deep down, I knew the grief and pain I was experiencing was something I had to work through. “The cure for the pain is in the pain,” says the poet Rumi. I wasn’t looking for benzodiazepines, antidepressants, or anti-anxiety meds to numb the feelings. But I did feel like I’d benefit from something that would allow me to elevate myself from the depths of the grief swamp, make sense of it, and muddle through the funeral and weeks that followed.
I found it in my refrigerator. One small piece of cannabis-infused fudge forged a small window of space in my head, allowing me to observe what was going on both inside and outside. A sense of peace descended, and I slept four hours that night.
Any grief-stricken person will tell you that grief can place you at the behest of your emotions, causing you to swing wildly between panic, sadness, regret, and anger. Compound this with sleep deprivation, and your ability to reflect and retain a sense of perspective is severely compromised. Ironically, a functioning reflective faculty is one of the things a grieving person misses most.
During the week leading up to the funeral and for a few days after, nuggets of fudge provided not an escape, but elevated respite. Throughout the constant coming-and-going of family, friends, funeral directors, and total randoms who stayed lingering long after they’d worn out their welcome, cannabis was my grief aid, helping me find presence in the moment. Those little nibbles of fudge enabled me to appraise the more challenging events with a sense of equilibrium and calm.
Openness to Insight and Meaning
Mickey Nulf, a cannabis educator and patient consultant, leaned into cannabis after he lost his mother to a drug overdose. For Nulf, cannabis helped him to confront his grief in a healthy way.
“Cannabis kept my mind level as I was being rushed with emotions from the feelings of grief and sadness that I had. It allowed me to feel the feelings, but understand them at the same time,” explains Nulf. “It kept my anxiety down while the grief hit, and encouraged me to actually deal with the grief instead of just burying it.”
Grief is often tinged with moments of profound insight and meaning, and openness to these moments can make testing times easier to weather. Nulf recalls the most impactful moment he experienced was seeing his mom lying in the funeral home. “I hadn’t cried before then but cannabis allowed me to experience those feelings again. I dropped to my knees and cried for my mom. I was sad she was gone; sad that I didn’t get the chance to say ‘I love you,’” he reflects.
Nulf believes cannabis enabled him to access his feelings fully, which was essential to making sense of his mother’s death. “I was able to process the loss, and understand that the picture was greater than the loss,” he recalls. “I could see the tragedy but find happiness through it. It was a first for me in my lifetime.”
An Expert’s Opinion
But what do the experts think? While there are no clinical studies exploring cannabis use and grief, there is plenty of interest. “Currently, there is promising preliminary evidence about the efficacy of medical cannabis in the treatment of these conditions, all of which are hallmark features that characterize the constellation of grief symptoms,” observes Dr. Rahul Khare, MD, an expert on the medical applications of cannabis.
Large-scale clinical trials, however, are needed to draw firmer conclusions. It’s also vital to acknowledge that studies indicate that a grieving individual is more vulnerable to substance abuse, dependency, and addiction. A recent study also suggests that cannabis use among individuals with depression can be problematic and prevent them from seeking proper psychiatric care. Cannabis may straddle a fine line between helpful aid and problematic crutch.
Dr. Khare suggests that the key may be to combine cannabis with appropriate mental healthcare. “Although it is controversial, the current evidence suggests an overall promising relationship in the treatment of grief with medical cannabis, if such treatment is paired with proper psychiatric and mental healthcare by licensed professionals,” he reflects.
Khare is optimistic that cannabis could represent a powerful tool for helping with grief in the future. “In my personal experience treating patients with medical cannabis, I have found a marked decrease in the use of antidepressant medication as well as a reduction in opioid and benzodiazepine use as well,” he states. “I believe with further research, a more definitive link between the efficacious uses of cannabis for grief will be unveiled.”