We often avoid dealing with a person in grief, not because we don’t care about them, but because we find ourselves inadequate and incapable of consoling them. The truth is, however, we can make a lot of difference by just showing up for that person in their moment of sadness. You don’t have to have to know what to say or what to do; you just have to be there for them and be your own messy self. In this moving and powerful conversation between Gerry Foster and Yvonne Heath, you will learn simple ways to make the grieving experience more bearable, if not an occasion to let love and happiness come in. Yvonne is a transformational keynote speaker, author and founder of Love Your Life to Death, and the #IJustShowedUp movement, where she teaches people of all ages to show up for themselves and others, so they are empowered and resilient when grief arrives. If that’s not enough to make you stick around, Gerry gets vulnerable about an unresolved pet grief of his somewhere in this interview, so get a tissue and listen in!
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Just Show Up With Yvonne Heath
One of the things that I’m committed to is bringing you the best of the best of the folks that I come across in their various fields of expertise, especially when I have an opportunity to connect with people who are out there doing extraordinary things with their lives. Such a person is our guest now. This young lady is setting the world on fire. It is my honor and my pleasure to introduce you to Yvonne Heath. She has been a registered nurse since 1988.
She has worked in the United States and Canada and many areas, including emergency intensive care, chemotherapy and hospice. Yvonne became disheartened by our society’s reluctance to talk about the plan, prepare for grief and life’s challenges causing excessive suffering in life and at the end of life. She suffered from not knowing how to do it differently. In 2015, she took a leap of faith. She left her nursing career and blazed a new trail by helping us prepare before she brings heart in humor to grief and life’s challenges. Yvonne is exceptional.
She shares her message as an inspirational speaker with her book, Love Your Life to Deathas a television and radio host and through social media. In 2019, Yvonne delivered her TEDx Talk, Transforming Grief Just by Showing Up. She is married to her best friend, Geordie, and mother to three amazing children, they are sharing their message with the world and helping great organizations along the way. Please welcome, Yvonne Heath. How are you doing Yvonne?
After that introduction, I’m doing amazing. Thank you.
I first have to commend you not only about the work that you do, but your colorful background because whenever I see someone who has their brand visualized in such a way because it says a lot about yourself. Is there anything special about why you chose the background colors and everything? It’s great.
With bringing a message of and when we’re talking about planning and preparing for grief and life’s challenges, I have to be a little light. At least, I’m funny because you have to bring in humor otherwise people are already running the other way. You have to leap out of your comfort zone when you have a message that you want to share with the world and you don’t have that experience. One of the greatest things that changed my nursing career was watching the movie, Patch Adams.
For those who don’t know, it’s a movie with Robin Williams who lives in my heart forever. He played Dr. Patch who brought joy and clowning to people who were suffering the most on their worst day. That changed the trajectory of my nursing career. I became that funny, silly nurse who brought humor to chemotherapy, and everywhere it’s already serious enough. One of the good things that happened in COVID was we were doing my television show on Skype.
I could interview people and I interviewed the real Patch Adams. It was extraordinary and I wanted my background to be Patch-worthy. I love having toys and the elephant is always in the room even if it’s disguised. It brought out a bit more silliness than usual and then I thought, “I’m leaving this.” The best compliment I ever got was being called the Canadian Patch Adams. I thought I’m going to leave it because it’s already serious enough.
Just Show Up Movement: You don’t have to know what to say or what to do. Just show up for yourself first, then for others.
Tell us a little bit more about your journey in terms of how you got into doing what you do.
It’s interesting because it’s in the first half of my life and all the experience that you have, you think, “Why don’t I quite fit in?” I feel like a square peg trying to fit in the round hole. I can’t settle in my nursing career. I moved a lot and I had a lot of experience, but I realized that in helping people navigate through their suffering and being with them on the worst day of their lives like accidents, diagnosis, people dying and tragedies. I was trying to comfort them and I truly didn’t have coping skills and strategies myself. I suffered excessively, but quietly.
You do the polite conversation, “How are you doing?” “I’m fine. Thank you.” Trying to glue your pieces back together without complaining because you’re the professional. You’re there to help everyone else. When our older son was sixteen, he had a tremendous loss for a sixteen-year-old. He was an avid snowboarder. He loves snowboarding. He may have been professional and he had a severe knee injury. He couldn’t drive and he couldn’t snowboard and I believe that was the tipping point. He went down a dangerous road of drugs and addiction.
As a mother, I was falling apart that I could not control what my child was going through. I felt in my heart and soul that I would not survive a tragic ending. Thankfully, I did not have to. My son turned his life around. However, at that moment I was falling apart. I was working as a nurse pretending it was fine but people were avoiding me because it was such a challenging, “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to say. Yvonne’s son and they’re going through all this stuff.” People avoided me not because they weren’t compassionate but because they didn’t feel like they had the skills themselves. It was like hitting that emotional rock bottom where I thought I either can stay down here and suffer or create change within my own life and help others do the same. That was the catalyst.
When you are helping people through whatever they’re going through, what are some of the typical areas of concern that people are facing? What are they bumping up against where they look to you for comforting guidance and inspiration?
It’s interesting because this is a time where there’s a multitude of things going on in this global grief with this pandemic in particular. People are suffering from many different losses. At first, people are like, “You’re talking about grief. You’re talking about death and end of life.” I try to help people understand. There is certainly a time we grieve. However, grief is something that we experience in all loss, transitions and change, and it affects us mentally, physically and emotionally. People are realizing as I’m sharing my message and helping people to understand, we experienced grief in divorce, diagnosis, job loss, mental health issues, and your child having an addiction. There’s huge grief.
The flood gates have opened because people come to me and are seeking support because sadly often the people in their circle are too afraid to have those conversations. The reason being is that everybody wants to fix it and everybody wants to make it better and they’re like, “I don’t know how.” In interviewing hundreds of people and sharing their stories of different journeys of grief, what I realize and I heard more than anything else is people say, “I don’t know what to do and I don’t know what to say.” They avoid.
They stay away because they don’t know what to do and don’t know what to say. That was part of how you created #IJustShowedUp. Tell us about that.
Just Show Up Movement: We create our own excessive suffering.
It’s interesting because when I was writing my book and it’s hilarious. Anybody out there who has passion and purpose, if you don’t feel qualified to create a big brand or to create a message, I promise you you’re qualified because I didn’t have a clue of what I was doing. I was not an author or a speaker, but passion and purpose kidnapped me. Listen to that passion and purpose. When I wrote my book and people kept coming to me with their stories of being in the deep trenches of grief and finding joy again, it changed my life. I interviewed people ages 11 to 101 and shared their stories and my experience. I feel like my book and my audiobook is what every adult should listen to because someone will relate to one of the stories.
I also wanted to connect with children and help people realize that you are able when you say, “I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to say.” Age, race, culture, sexual orientation and economic situation, we can all make a difference and so we created the I Just Showed Up movement. I Showed Up teaches people of all ages how to show up for themselves and others that they are empowered and resilient when grief arrives. The mantra when you don’t know what to do, you don’t know what to say, it’s awkward, it’s uncomfortable and you can’t fix it, the magic answer is three words, just show up.
I love that as your message because like you said, grief and loss are a part of life. They cannot be avoided forever. As you put it, if we can learn to take good care of ourselves and each other, we can get through it with less suffering.
My mission is not about avoiding grief, it is about understanding, embracing, and allowing grief and avoiding excessive suffering because we compound our suffering when we do not show up for ourselves and show up for each other. It is critical to step back. We are all in charge of our own happiness, our own coping skills, and our own strategies and when we do take good care of ourselves and not make self-care a buzzword, we can just show up for others.
As you said, it’s time for a change. We can do better. One of the things that struck me about your brand is that the work that you’re doing is for everyone, regardless of age, race, culture, sexual orientation, economic situation, ability and disability. You’re teaching people of all ages and all types to just show up for themselves. How do people respond to you because you’re doing something that’s fresh? I’ve never heard of anybody else doing something like this which I love because I’m always preaching and teaching the importance of having a standalone brand. There’s no one else like me, who’s doing the work that I do. Tell me a little bit about that. Are they uncomfortable? Do they shy away? They are like, “I don’t know.”
What’s funny is I feel like the I Just Showed Up Movement was sneaking in the back door so that we can prepare for grief, death, and dying. When I talk about death and dying, you see people running, “I don’t want to talk about this.” It’s like a gentler way to say, “I understand.” Grief is a part of this journey. That means you have lived and you have loved and you have lost and life is messy. If we can talk about planning and preparing for grief, death and dying, we will have a better chance of getting through this journey that we call life with less suffering.
The beautiful thing when you say how do people respond is I teach children how to show up. They get it. It’s simple, just show up. I don’t know what to say, but I’m here. That’s sad. This is uncomfortable. It’s allowing your humanness. I let people off the hook. It is not your job to fix it. You can’t fix grief, but you can love and support people along the way and you don’t need a PhD. Just show up in your messiness. Allow your humanness. You don’t have to have the answers. You’re right, it doesn’t matter what people are facing. The answer is always the same. Just show up for yourself first and just show up
You’re not only inspiring people, you’re empowering them. You’re showing them how to tap into their own resilience and their own innate ability to get through anything regardless of what may be in front of them. How do you do that? Do you equip them with tips and tools? Is it mindset work?
Just Show Up Movement: It’s never too late to just show up.
This brain of mine never stopped spinning. It’s funny because I love your questions and because you get it. In the culmination of my 27 years of nursing experience and the 5.5 years of interviewing hundreds of people, I came up with takeaways that I share with everyone and I always say to people, “You can follow me on my website and you get the seven takeaways with a brief description.” I believe with all my heart and soul that those seven takeaways are truly the principles. If you learn, follow and teach by example, you can find the absolute keys to living life to the fullest, learning to grieve and support others. Yes, maybe having that talk about the end of life before it arrives and diffuse the fear. You can then create more joy and happiness in your life and just get to living.
If people can’t fix it, so what can they do? Can you share some of those principles? I’m sure some of our audience who are facing those types of challenges with grief and loss, and all the things that come along with this thing called life, they’re wondering, “Wat exactly can I do?” Is there anything you can share right now in terms of some key tips and thoughts?”
We underestimate and undervalue kindness and just showing up with small gestures like hug, text, email, call, sit silently, keep checking in with people, and put it in your calendar. Once a week I’m checking in, “How are you doing?” If you’re not comfortable with that help with the tasks of daily living. Even in your trauma, stress, grief, or crisis, the rest of life keeps going. Walk the dog, cut the grass, pick up kids, and bring food. Those things where you don’t even feel like you can do it.
I’ll give you one little tip and I know you’re going to say, “That’s gorgeous.” One lady said when her dad died she was grief-stricken. They were close and she had to go to his house. It was winter and she had to go sort things out. She got to her dad’s house. She walked up and the path and the stairs had been shoveled and there was a little note that said, “I shoveled the walkway in memory of your dad.” It’s that simple. It was beautiful. She’s still talking about it ten years later.
Anyone can make a difference. Anyone can help ensue the souls of someone else. I always tell people that great brands are simple to understand. People get it, just show up. That’s real clear. How do you help people get past their own inhibitions around this whole thing called, “This is awkward? This is not me. I’m not the person that’s going to show up and hug and walk their dog and bring coffee. I don’t want to cry with you.” People have to get past their uncomfortableness and breakthrough their own barriers so that they can indeed help someone get through their barriers.
It’s two things. Don’t wait for it to be comfortable because it’s not. People are waiting and they’re like, “It’s uncomfortable.” Yes, it is but show up anyway. If you’re thinking, “I just can’t show up. I’m going to cry.” People say to me, “What if I cry?” I say, “Get yourself a tissue.” “What if I make them cry?” “Cry together.” People said I was a grief expert, I said, “Yes, I’m good at being a hot mess.” Why? It’s because it’s sad so I’m going to cry. The other thing is if these are things like, “I can’t do this or this.” Then what can you do? It is always better to do or say something than to do or say nothing because you end up feeling guilty avoiding. Then you’re suffering and they’re suffering and it’s this hole that we create our own excessive suffering.
That is powerful. That’s impressive that you say that because I think part of human nature is when we see someone going through a tough time because of grief or loss, we want to give them their space. We don’t want to intrude. We don’t want to invade into whatever is going on with them because we feel that’s the polite thing to do, which is okay because that person may be reaching out for that hug, that touch or whatever. However, they’re not going to extend themselves. We have to take it upon ourselves to be a little assertive.
Most people that I have talked to share their stories that their grief was isolating and that compounded their suffering. I tell people, “We complicate this.” I say, “Here’s another thing. Are you ready? Get your pens, ask.” A friend of mine divorced, had to move, leave her home as if that wasn’t enough because grief shows no mercy. Sometimes it’s compounded. The first week, she’s in her new house. She falls down the stairs and fractures her back. She’s now on bed rest and she has two little kids and talks about grief. That’s tremendous complex grief. I went to her house and I said, “I’m here. I’m going to do something.
You know I don’t cook so please don’t ask me to cook anything. Let’s get one of your neighbors to make you some food. What can I do that would be the most helpful thing for you right now? I can’t fix this, but what can I do?” She said, “There’s something but I don’t want to ask.” I said, “I’m not leaving until you tell me.” I need to feel better about myself and feel that I helped, that I just showed up. This is about me. How are you going to help me feel good about this? She said, “A dog was in my backyard, opened the garbage. It smells. It’s awful. I can’t get it. It’s driving me crazy.”
I said, “I’m getting my rake.” I just showed up for her. My daughter and I cleaned up because I brought my daughter because I teach my children that they can just show up and make a difference. We cleaned the garbage in a backyard. If people say, “I’m not qualified.” Here’s where a lot of people also don’t understand is even if you need a therapist or a counselor or professional help, that’s wonderful. You may get that for one hour a week. You may get that if you have someone who is in the dying process or has a chronic illness, maybe you have helped a couple of hours a day. There are 24 hours in a day. That’s where you need your village. That’s where you need your family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, and caring people to just show up. Anyone of these grief journeys, when we have a village and connection is key. When we show up for each other, we can be a part of that journey. The burden isn’t on one person trying to do everything. We can all do a little something.
What did you say to the person who may be reading to this saying, “This is awesome, I wish I had heard this five years ago?” What do you say to that person who is maybe now thinking, “Only I had shown up for her or him in the past but I didn’t, and now I’m dealing with what feelings of tremendous guilt?”
You ask the best questions because of how many of us have been there. We’ve all been there. I’ve been there. I looked back at times and I say, “I wish I would have shown up for this person.” I even shared this message in my TED Talk. If you did not show up for someone in the past, forgive yourself but grieve it and allow it. Feel your feelings, forgive yourself and do better next time and it is never too late to call and say, “I am sorry that I didn’t show up for you ten years ago. This is haunting me. I feel awful. I wish that I would have had the courage to show up.” This is what I would have done. I wrote that in my book when I wrote about this boy who had cancer in grade eleven. We didn’t know what to do or say, so we avoided it. I would have done it differently now with these skills. Forgive yourself and do better next time and talk to the person, reach out. It’s never too late to just show up.
One of the things that I’ve discovered through life is that there are three types of pain. There is pain from the past. Then there’s a pain in the present, which for many people is the most pressing thing. What’s going on right now? There’s then the pain of the future and that’s when someone is dealing with a person who is dying. There’s that pain associated with what’s coming. That fear of this impending outcome. How do you help that person navigate between the past, the present, and the future?
The dying process or someone with a chronic illness and addiction. It is anticipatory grief because it’s coming and also like chronic grief. Chronic grief where someone could have an illness for years and I would encourage every single person going through or anticipating to stop right now, just show up for yourself first and have those hard conversations with yourself. Write it down. What is the most challenging for me? What do I fear the most? What is coming that I am not prepared for? What am I most fearful of? What can you do to change that? To me, this whole life grief journey, all of it is ongoing learning and developing skills.
Here’s the other piece that I think is important that we have to understand is that grief and joy co-exists. Many people feel like, “Here’s the grief and I’m going to get over it. Then I can have joy after it’s all said and done.” The truth is that we never get over grief, we just build our new life around it. As you are going through this process, let the joy in, let the love in, bring heart and humor whenever you can, and allow it because grief and joy can coexist. Take intentional self-care and just showing up for yourself first. It must be intentional and bringing in that happiness along this journey.
Does this extend to pets? I’m a pet lover and I have a couple of cats who passed away. My market director had a dog named Buddy, and she’s been a dog lover and that was hard. For the millions of people that are out there, they can read this for their love of their pets. How do you make that adjustment when it’s not a human being? What do you say to the pet owner?
That kind of grief is no different than any other heartbreaking, heart-wrenching grief. In every one of my keynotes, I say to people, “First of all, we have to not judge other people’s grief.” You don’t understand. I could have a pet rat that means the world to me. You don’t have to like rats, you don’t have to understand and when you talk about being cat lover when I was a single parent, I was like, “We’re going to go to the SPCA.” We’re going to look with my older son. We ended up with a kitten and that cat was there for me for sixteen years. That cat was an important part of our journey. When our cat died and when our pets have died, it was a tremendous loss.
It is excruciating grief. The first thing I say to everyone around, even if you don’t understand someone grieving an animal, we don’t need to judge people’s grief. When I wrote my book, our pug was dying. I sat there and said, “I am writing this book about living well, grieving well, and dying well but I am falling apart. I am falling apart.” Love your pets. I think it’s important to know that you can love another pet again. I’ve heard people say, “I’ll never love another dog. My dog was the only one.”
Allowing that joy to come in and allow your grief because our animals are parts of our family. They are important members of our family and love them. I’ve heard people say, “If my dog dies.” I said, “We need to choose our language because language is important.” That is a when and not if. We try to push it away when your dog dies. I have this dog. We adopted a rescue. She is a wheaten Poodle and Terrier mix. The first thing I did was she’s this age, how long can we anticipate having her so that we prepare our hearts for what is coming.
Isn’t it wonderful to love pets and allow them in our hearts and know that when your pet dies, you’ll have a little scar? My kids have been a part of this journey. They held our cat until her final breath. They held our dog, our pug. We allow our tremendous grief together and we saw it and we grieved. I teach my children and I learn that your heart feels broken like it will never heal, and then there’ll be a little scar. With each person that dies or a pet, there will be a little scar. It will be battered, scarred and never the same, but it will heal if we learn to take better care of ourselves and each other and let love back in.
I think you helped me because I don’t think I’ve ever forgiven myself. I related to what you said because I remember taking her to the vet and I had to say goodbye to her.
When our black Lab, our beautiful, Kuba, was having trouble walking, he had these big tumors. He was a mess and that was after I wrote my book and I’m the grief expert. I said, “Nobody’s an expert at this. It’s challenging for everyone.” I had to call the vet and I was hysterical on the phone. “I don’t want to murder my dog. I can’t murder my dog because he has tumors.” I was a disaster. It’s never easy and they were consoling. They said, “Is your dog enjoying the things in life that he used to?” I said, “No, he is not.” “Is he able to catch a ball and eat?” I said, “No, he is not.” She then said, “I think you know your answers.” I said, “I know I do. I’m just sad. It’s hard.”
What you’re getting to, which is good, is within this whole conversation of grief and loss. What’s coming up for me is the question that I think we end up asking ourselves, “Could I have done something?” There’s another word that it could be better or different or whatever. That adds to the grief and then if you throw in people in your life who made them finger point.
“You should have done something differently.”
There are a lot of layers of this stuff that you’re doing.
This is why I urge people to talk about plans and prepare for grief, death and dying long before it arrives. This happens with family members when they’re dying and everyone has a different idea about what should happen. Families are fractured beyond repair because “My mom wanted to be buried.” “No, she was cremated. Why did you do that? You don’t get that money. Why do you get that ring?” People at a time, who should be grieving and loving and supporting one another are feuding over a blender, are feuding over a house. It’s creating excessive suffering. Here’s the thing about looking back and saying, “I wish I would’ve done this differently. I could have done this.” Maybe sometimes that’s true.
People say, “You did the best.” Maybe you could have done something differently. Here’s the thing, we can’t change the past. There is not a thing. We’re not magic. We cannot change the past. I’ve talked to a lot of parents when their children have died from an opioid overdose. You want to talk about excruciating grief and guilt and, “I should have seen it. I should have done something to prevent this.” I say, “Allow and sit in that horribleness of all those excruciating emotions. Feel them. They’re raw. They’re awful and then we can move forward and say, yes, I wish I would have done this and now I’m going to do something differently.” You can laugh and cry because it’s sad sometimes. This is hard stuff and that’s okay.
It opens up wounds and stuff from God-knows how many years back that people have tried to put underneath a rug or put a Band-Aid over it. It’s a great segue into the other thing I want to acknowledge you that I want to hear you share something about which is you’re creating a movement. You’re creating a whole culture of change. Tell us about the I Just Showed Up community because you believe that together we can create a culture of change.
I haven’t taken on anything light. When we’re talking about a movement and a global movement, we need to create social change where we talk about plans and prepare before where we are allowed. Understand that grief and joy co-exist. We can bring heart and humor. We need different perspectives and different stories. Everyone has a different experience. I feel honored and privileged. It was like, “Why did you choose to talk about this? I think it chose me. Who would do this?”
I get to gather people. I have spoken to people who have been in the deepest trenches of grief, who have been through the most incredible traumas and tragedies and created something good purpose, something positive from that. I always go to my beautiful friend, Eva Olsson, who is 95 and she survived the Holocaust. When we talk about the most excruciating grief in the world, she became a beautiful light and a change-maker, and she speaks. If Eva was able to do that, that gives the rest of us hope.
When I gather people and share their stories, they share them with my radio show, my blogs, my television show and in my book. I get to do this and other things. With Love Your Life to Death, I want it to be this community and this I Just Showed Up Movement where anyone can come to. We can all show up for each other and learn from one another. I’ve created resources for people. Everybody learns in different ways and depending on what you’re going through. I have my book and my audiobook and my program, Get Ready for Grief, so that people have different things that will help them along this way and always be coachable which is why it’s wonderful to connect to experts like yourself.
When you are creating a big global brand, you need to be open to learning and be like, “This is bigger than me. This is more important than my own ego or how I think things should be.” That’s when I know I am ready in creating social change. I didn’t know a global pandemic was coming when I started this and that is global grief. It is affecting every person in this world. Everyone is grieving something. We need to connect in a meaningful way and have a positive impact, raise the vibration, and connect intentionally and help each other just how up for each other now more than ever.
That is a great way to close this conversation. There is an expression which is, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” You clearly have been chosen to do this work. The lives of many have been entrusted with you. I salute you for that and Godspeed for what you were doing. You mentioned a pandemic. You must be one busy person right now because there’s a whole lot of loss and grief.
When they say, “What can I do?” Show up, keep shining your light and if your light is dimmed, if you are struggling, reach out to someone else and say, “I need help here.”
You have an ‘I Just Showed Up Bracelet.’ Do you have one on?
Yes. It comes with a little card. I’m always happy to send anyone a bracelet. If they want to email me, I’ll send them one because you need those reminders to just show up for yourself first and show up for each other. We can do this. We can do better. Let’s create a better world on the other side of this.
For our audience out there, I hope that you have enjoyed this invigorating conversation, I know I have. To learn more about Yvonne, you can go to her website so that you can connect with her. Find out about the amazing work that she’s doing, her talks, books, blogs or radio show. She is being used in a mighty way. Yvonne, bless you for who you are and what you do. For our audience out there, thank you for tuning in.