How might death spark innovation and design in your organization?

I wDeath and Anguishant to introduce you to three different starting points or frames for conversations you could have in your organization about death and design.  One or another conversation may seem more relevant for your organization.  Questioning in this moment why you would bother to have ANY conversation about death in your organization?  What if death could be a spark for innovation – a catalyst for design?

I’m going to dip into my background in human factors engineering, my experience in quality development, organizational effectiveness and business process re-engineering, and my most recent work with loss, grief, and the bereaved in order to illuminate the possibilities.  While these may all, on first glance, seem unconnected, consider that the seeds for innovation often come from putting two or more things that already exist together in new ways…

1. Design Because of Death

As part of my human factors training I studied accidents in the workplace with an intention to understand, from a broad, socio-technical systems based perspective what contributed to the accident.  In this perspective something had happened – sometimes a death – and we were interested in how that accident might be prevented in the future.  What is learned through the investigation becomes input for change – new policies, new procedures, new products, new services.  The desired outcome was a safe and healthy workplace for all.  Here new design is sparked because of the unexpected/unplanned.  It is what I refer to as “after the fact” design.

For your organization:

  • Turn towards:
    • Any accidental deaths in your workplace  OR
    • Accidents connected to the use of your products and services with clients/in the community OR
    • Deaths individuals in your organization are seeing in the world that get them angry, frustrated, and/or saddened.
  • Engage in potentially difficult and awkward conversations.  Ask questions.  Learn.
    • What could you do about reducing or preventing  those deaths?  Is there a product or service you could create that might make a difference?
  • Design/redesign.

There are many ways in which this type of design catalyst can come to light.  Workplace accident/death investigations is one I’ve mentioned above.  Another scenario is an individual who is touched by a loss and is motivated to do something about it.  Consider this new helmet design connected to family, an accident, and a death.  Or organizations like MADD that have their seeds in an individual’s loss.   In all of the these the original loss cannot be undone, but future losses can hopefully be prevented.  Society as a whole benefits by better designs in products and services, and the creation of new organizations that are catalysts for change.

2. Design with Death (and grief) in mind

Human factors also offers principles for design in general.  It advocates thinking about the “human” – the end user – in the design of the product or service.  Here we look at designing a product or service given a particular user base and what their needs might be.

So what if we design with an end user who will die in mind?  We are beginning to see this play out in the digital world.  Facebook for example, now enables users to designate a Legacy Contact – someone to manage your account , and process for how to do that, should something happen to you.  As another example, Gmail has designed a tool for you to make decisions about what happens to your account when it is “inactive”.  Designating “Next of Kin” or “Beneficiary” are examples we recognize from many of our finance/money or benefits related products and services.

Any organization with a customer can engage in this conversation.  What happens when one of your customers/clients dies?  Policies?  Procedures?   There are customer relationship management implications, data and privacy implications, and great potential to be very unhelpful to any grieving survivors if no prior consideration is given to designing with death and grief in mind.

I wrote recently on this topic from a customer relationship/customer loyalty perspective and included a set of questions for organizations therein, so I won’t repeat them here.  I will however reiterate that giving consideration to death and loss in the design of your products and services can influence customer loyalty.

[Note: For those who are interested in exploring this more from a human-computer interaction perspective, I encourage you to look at the work being done on thanatosensitivity which refers to research and design that recognizes and engages with the conceptual and practical issues surrounding death in the creation of interactive systems.]

3.  Design for Death

In the first frame I put forward, a death had happened unexpectedly. In the second, death is acknowledged, but it is not the focus of the design conversation.  Products and services are being developed and consideration is being given to how death and loss might touch those.  In this frame death is both expected and the focus – products and services are being designed for death and the process of dying.

Consider the emerging green burial movement. (What’s old is new again.)  Consider urns.  Consider pet cemeteries.  Consider custom jewelry that incorporates ashes from the deceased. Consider hospices.  Consider the role of a Death Midwife.  None of these links are endorsements for that particular product, service or organization, rather each represents an example of design for death.  And collectively they represent the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is possible.

Some questions to begin the conversation:

  • How and why do people die? (Mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually.)
  • What happens once someone has died? (Mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually.)
  • What have our personal experiences been with the process of death?  (Mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually)

So why have a conversation about death and design?

Loss and death are part of the human condition.  Our first reaction is often to turn away from these kinds of topics.  What if we turn towards them instead?   Be curious.  Be brave.  Explore the meaning of death.  Here’s a few possibilities of what we might find:

  • inspiration
  • healthier and safer products and environments
  • innovative approaches
  • customer loyalty
  • quality improvements
  • beauty
  • healing
  • remembering
  • creating jobs and organizations.

Let’s have a conversation.

© Dr. Catherine Hajnal 2016. All rights reserved.





Uncovering your story of loss and grief through photographs

IMGP1499Most of the images I use on this website are my own.  The two images in my header are examples.  The nature image (original uncropped version to the left) is from a time when I was in a period of deep reflection.  I was dealing with a lot of pain and a sense of loss – the dream had not worked out as planned and my body was consuming my energy – the bushes that seemed dead in their dryness and grayness captured those feelings for me.

At the same time, there was this incredible vibrant green moss – a sharp contrast.  In the moment of taking the photograph I resonated with that contrast.  I wanted to shift how I was feeling.  As I look at the image now I see my pain and feeling lost.  I also see the energy of growth and potential – discovering who I was and what I was meant to do in the world.  The image gave me a way to honour both.

IMG_2829Fast forward a few years, one spinal fusion surgery later, a new career, and my “head shot” was taken in the back yard.  I was using a tripod, a remote control for my camera, and I had music playing.  I was literally swaying and dancing in different locations in the backyard, taking photos as I went.  The smile is genuine.  I was feeling happy. (One of the many shots from that day is on the right.)  While it felt rather vulnerable to be doing this craziness in the backyard  – what if someone should see me?? – I loved the sense of me capturing me with renewed energy and a new sense of purpose.

Did I have all of this understanding of what these photographs mean to me in the moments they were taken?  No, but I do believe there was some inner knowing I was tapping into in those moments such as the resonance with the contrast of the dryness and the vibrancy in my nature image.  What I am appreciating is that I took the photographs in the first place.  The ongoing gift is that I can see more and new meanings in the images as time passes, connecting with the evolution of my story.

When I look at those photographs now, they represent the walk I have been taking with my life.

The Invitation…

Take photographs.  They don’t have to be of you, but they can be.  They don’t have to be of other people, but they can be.  Be in nature.  Be in a city.  Don’t worry about the ‘rule of thirds’ and composition or having anything in focus.  In other words this is not about taking ‘perfect’ pictures, just take pictures.  And then give yourself a little time and space to really look at them and ask about you, the photographer.

What were you feeling when you took the photo?

What are you feeling now as you ponder the photo?

What are you wanting as you look at the photo?

What else are you noticing or resonating with in the photograph and in you?

Perhaps you will connect with a sense of loss, joy, anger, despair, possibility, hope, harmony – any or all of the above.  Perhaps you will connect with a sense of the passage of time and remembering. Perhaps you will connect with hurt.  Perhaps with healing.  Perhaps with creativity and inspiration.

The meaning of the image for you, as is the case for me and my images, comes later.  So the blurry image, the whonky placement, the different lighting – any and all of that might be where you see the meaning.  So I say again, it is not about taking a perfect picture, rather it is about taking pictures and then giving them some purposeful consideration.

I encourage you to be fluid with timelines.  Maybe you take the picture and look at it with consideration in a week’s time, or five weeks, a year, or five years later.  (I’ve done all of that.)  I value that my story evolves each time I look at the photographs.

What is the story of you your photographs are telling?  What if your story of loss and grief can be found in your photographs?  

© Dr. Catherine Hajnal 2015. All rights reserved.


If this theme of grief and photography has sparked an interested, here’s a few other links to get you started on your exploration….

Photo Grief:  OR


Exploring a connection between grief and customer loyalty.

helpful not helpfuHere’s a typical customer service scenario…

You are calling to touch base with an existing, up-to-date client.  Perhaps you are calling around renewal time and using that as an opportunity to both get feedback from your client and to encourage them to renew or you’re wanting to let the client know about some new service offerings.  The conversation might go something like this:

Can I speak with David* please?

He’s not available.

This is Work It Gym*.  We’d like to speak with David about his annual membership.  When would be a good time to call?

My son David is dead.

What to do now?

The above scenario is a real example (*with names changed).  In the course of the bereavement support work I do, it is not uncommon for me (and the rest of the group) to hear stories about a bereaved person’s experience with companies they have had to connect with in their time of loss.

This is a pivotal moment – Work it Gym has an opportunity to be helpful or unhelpful in how they approach this scenario.

So what did Work It Gym do?  They called back weeks later and again asked for David.  You can imagine that each of those calls triggered a wave of grief for the family member answering the call, reminding them of their loss.  It ended up taking several calls, delivery of a death notice, and multiple family members getting involved in order to have Work It Gym stop calling and asking for David.  And by the way, in one of the calls it was confirmed that there was a note on the company’s file indicating they had been told David was dead, yet the company kept asking for him.  Helpful?  Definitely not.

It can be a challenge for both parties involved to figure a way forward in these types of circumstances particularly because the conversations can be uncomfortable.  The family is most likely in uncharted waters.  It would appear Work it Gym was too, but they didn’t need to be.

Helpful can enhance loyalty

Here’s the thing, Work It Gym could have process and training in place for this type of scenario.  It doesn’t have to be hard.  Acknowledging the loss of the bereaved person they are speaking with is a starting point.  Offering a simple approach with as few and easy steps as possible to take care of any “business” that needs to happen is the follow-up.  This however requires fore-thought.

For David’s family, there was no positive feedback about their experience with Work It Gym.  All of us in the support group that evening heard words to the effect “I would never ever get a membership there.”

While it is a difficult and potentially awkward scenario for all, a little compassion and an easy process to make any necessary updates to an account’s status can go a long way.  From the same family, we heard about another company – one that first and foremost acknowledged the family’s loss and offered a supportive, straightforward process for closing out David’s account.  All positive things were said about the company.  Other family members had accounts with them already and were happy to continue doing so.

Helpful or unhelpful?  A Call to Action…

I’m issuing a call to action.  In your organization answer the following questions.  Think of it as a continuous improvement project.  Make the changes to find yourselves on the helpful side of the customer service equation in the context of grief and loss.

  • What is our current process around clients who die?
  • What needs to happen to the status of an account?
  • What information do we need in order to close/modify an account in the circumstances of death?
  • What happens to billing and/or contract fees?
  • What happens to the information/data we have on that client?
  • What happens in the context of our customer relationship management approaches?  (For example what triggered the call to David in the first place?  David should not be on the call list going forward.)
  • Are there proactive steps we want to take when we set-up a new client that would facilitate the process at time of death?  (For an example Facebook has put in place a number of policies and procedures:  What will happen to my account if I pass away?)
  • What do we want to say to the bereaved person/family we are working with?
  • What might ease in our approach look like from their perspective?
  • Overall, how can we have our administrative needs met, acknowledging that sometimes for privacy and other legal requirement things like a death notice are required, and be compassionate in our approach, acknowledging we are working with a bereaved individual?

Here’s hoping I hear more and more stories in the bereavement support groups about how helpful companies have been at a family’s time of need.

P.S.  If you have a helpful company story from your own loss experience, I encourage you to share it in the comments to offer some examples of positive practices that work.


Text, Images, and Materials Copyright © Dr. Catherine Hajnal  2003-2015


What if curiosity is all you need?

CuriosityInviting curiosity…

When I’m about to start working with a group that I have never worked with before I’m usually feeling a little anxious.  I’m wanting to be there, but my needs for predictability, connection, contribution, they are all flaring up in that moment in part because I don’t know for sure what is coming next.

One of the ways I try and bring some ease in those circumstances is to invite my curiosity.

Who is out there?

What did they have for lunch?

I wonder what their hurts are?

What will I learn from them?

What will I discover about myself through our interaction?

How might I make a difference in someone’s life today?

Being purposeful about being curious shifts my energy from a sensation of constriction to a sensation of openness and possibility.

Friend or foe…

Imagine going into a job interview.

Imagine going on a blind date.

Imagine you are walking on the street and someone is walking towards you yelling loudly in a language you don’t understand.

Imagine you are approaching a customer service rep at the counter after delayed or cancelled flights and there is no clear indication of how you are going to get home.

Imagine you feel guilty about something you could have done, an action you should have taken.

Being curious doesn’t equate with putting yourself in harms way. It doesn’t excuse bad service.  It doesn’t deny the reality of difficult circumstances.  It can however invite us to see the humanness in others and it invites us to acknowledge the humanness in ourselves.

In unknown, awkward, or difficult circumstances our starting point is often fear or anxiousness.  Our amygdala, part of the limbic region in our brain, is playing a constant stream of “Am I safe?  Do I belong?  Am I safe?  Do I belong?”  In other words we’re a little on edge and we’re checking each other out to assess friend or foe.

When compassion feels hard…

Am I not just advocating being compassionate?  Nope.  I appreciate the language of compassion and empathy. On some level I resonate with the statement “All you need is love.”  But in my reality, and I suspect it is the same for others, sometimes I can’t jump right into love.  I have my own things going on – maybe I’m triggered by the circumstances and/or what someone has said – and so love, compassion, empathy feel hard to connect with in those moments.

What I can direct my energy towards however is curiosity.  I don’t have to love you or even like you in that moment.  But if I can be curious, it feels like I’m leaving a door open, I’m open to possibilities.  If I’m there with curiosity, then I’m listening with a willingness to be changed.

Our human needs for sense and meaning making, for learning and growth – these are the foundations for curiosity. I think curiosity is also interwoven with empathy, but sometimes we can’t jump right into each others experiences from a place of shared resonance.  But I can be curious.  I can be wondering what is going on for you.

And when I’m in one of my own funks, when things are not going right, or actually might feel terribly wrong, I can be curious about what might be going on for me.  Which of my needs are not being met?   You have the same options when you’re in a funk, when things are not going right – what might your present experience be asking of you?  Which needs of yours are not being met?

And by the way your brain seems to function well under conditions of curiosity as well  at least from the stand point of learning and memory.

So the next time you’re feeling a little on guard or triggered be curious about the person sitting across from you.  And if you are being really hard on yourself, be curious about the person in the mirror.

Willing to try being purposeful with your curiosity?  Let me know how it goes in the comments below…

© Dr. Catherine Hajnal 2015. All rights reserved.


Gender and Grief: Do Men Grieve Differently?

IMG_3056I’ve been thinking about men a lot lately.  Yes, I know, I can hear the snickers.  I want to highlight that June 15 – 21 is Men’s Health Week in Canada (and other parts of the world too.)  Men are under-represented in the use of health care services.  I’m about to start another all gender bereavement support group and men are usually under-represented in these groups as well.

So where are the men?  Maybe they don’t grieve.  They are strong and non-emotional beings anyway right? Crying – forget about it!

Let’s bust open that myth right now.  Men experience loss too and when any one of us loses something that matters to us, we grieve.  Period.  There are no gender implications.  The process of grieving however will look different on each of us.  Here too there are no absolutes by gender – all men do not grieve in one way just as all women do not grieve in another.

I have read research articles about men and grief.  I have reflected on the experiences of the men who have come to the bereavement support groups I have facilitated.  I’ve spoken with men and women about men and grief.  Here are some of the themes that have emerged:

  • Men are expected to be emotionally strong in order to support their spouse/family/friends/colleagues.  Appearing strong and attempting to not overburden others in the context of support involves hiding feelings of grief and anger.  Shame is felt at showing weakness such as expressing emotions – at being vulnerable.
  • Men’s attachment roles are often downgraded.  For example the father who has experienced the loss of a child through stillbirth.  Or the son who was not the primary caregiver to his father.  There can be a projection by others that these attachments matter less and therefore hurt less.  He, after all, was not pregnant.  He, after all, was not the one who emptied the bed pan.
  • Self-blame can loom large.  He believes he should have done more – worked hard, spoken louder, spent more time, gotten to the hospital faster… – infinite possibilities.  The voice of “if only…”

And yet – having offered these themes about men, I need to acknowledge that they can apply to women too.  I have heard women speak about how they have had to be strong for their children at the death of the spouse/father.  While expressing emotions seems to be more acceptable for women, there can be references to “Don’t be so dramatic,” or “You need to get over it.  It is time to stop crying.”  If society is more open to women expressing their emotions, there seem to be limits here too.

Women experience disenfranchised grief as well – when the loss is not recognized or acknowledged by others.  Miscarriage can fall into this category.  If acknowledge as a loss, some see it as insignificant, not a ‘big deal’.  Friends or colleagues might express surprise at the depth of grief that is present.  Job loss, as another example, can be a disenfranchised loss for either gender.  You’ve lost a job – no big deal – you can get another even better one.  This is an opportunity!

And I have yet to meet a griever – of any ilk – who has not dipped into self-blame in a voice of regret or a voice of “If only…”

What if its not about gender?

Some guiding principles for each and everyone of us…

My longing is that each of us can discover that place, a sweet spot, where we find some ease in our own individual experiences of grief while recognizing part of what can contribute to that ease is to hear and work with the stories and experiences of others.  It is not about comparing and judging one’s grief story versus another’s, rather it is about discovering the shared resonance, the place of shared meaning in, and understanding of, the losses that have occurred.

I also long for each of us to come to an understanding of the emotions of grief where we are not shamed or made to feel a sense of constriction around expressing any emotion.  Sure, we can talk about healthy and unhealthy ways to express emotions, but the underlying premise is that all emotions are valid and valuable.  Some of us will explore and express those emotions verbally, some of us might do so in more physical ways, and yet others might have a quieter, less expressive process.

Lest there be any questions about why I linked health and bereavement in the first place, let me add that grieving  is a normal, healthy human process.  It serves a purpose and as such contributes to health – mental, physical, and spiritual.

And last, but certainly not least, it is for each of us as individuals to decide what constitutes a loss that matters. Wouldn’t it be lovely if society as a whole could embrace this and perhaps begin with an empathetic question around possible pain rather than disregarding or minimizing because there is judgement about the scale and scope of loss?

Please do not take any of this to imply that conversations about gender and grief are not warranted.  More research looking at different groups and their experience of grief can continue to contribute to our broader understanding.  I personally want to create safe containers for individuals to come to and process their grief.  I recognize that might mean considering gender in the mix.  A men’s only grief group is a valid approach.  I just know that whenever I start talking about gender and grief I feel pulled to acknowledge that grief is not easy for any of us – regardless of gender, age, or culture.  And while grief doesn’t have to be hard, we do feel losses.  That is the core of grief.

I welcome your thoughts/comments on gender and grief.


© Dr. Catherine Hajnal 2015. All rights reserved.


Is it too soon for Sheryl Sandberg to be going back to work?

As someone who supports grieving individuals, a red flag of concern was raised in my mind when I read that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg returned to work 10 days after the unexpected death of her husband David Goldberg.  She returned on a modified schedule, wanting to support her children through daily routine and the sense of normalcy that can bring.

Don’t take my red flag to imply that Sheryl Sandberg should not return to work.  Maybe it will be helpful to her, her family, and to Facebook.  And maybe it won’t.  There in lies the red flag – the “normal” of our daily lives is shattered the moment someone close to use dies.  Life as we know it becomes life as we knew it.  She is not done grieving.

Here are four things I’ve come to understand about loss and grief that I believe are particularly relevant to this set of circumstances:

1) None of us is immune to grief.  Period.  It doesn’t matter how old, how young, how wise, how wealthy, how much support, or how ‘having it together’ we might appear, when we lose someone or something that matters to us, we grieve.  Sandberg has not just lost her husband of 11 years, she has lost the normalcy of her everyday life.  She is exploring what it means to be wife today.  It is different than what it meant to be wife just a short time ago.  Only recently she was a COO at Facebook with an avid supporter, her husband David Goldberg.  Today she is a COO at Facebook and David has died.  There is not a handbook for being the COO of Facebook and losing your husband unexpectedly.

2) Grief can be all consuming – from head to toe – body, mind, and spirit.  Individuals may experience health symptoms in conjunction with their grief such as disrupted sleeping patterns – some sleeping more, others experiencing difficulties sleeping.  Some will report challenges making even simple decisions accompanied by a struggle to stay present.  There can be a loss or increase in appetite.  There can be a questioning of beliefs.

3) Grief looks different on everyone.  I don’t know what Sheryl Sandberg’s loss and grief experiences will be.  I just know she’ll be having them.  Maybe her health is fine and she is sleeping well.  Maybe she feels able to make decisions.  Maybe she doesn’t feel distracted.   How she feels today might not be how she feels tomorrow.  Grief is a ride, an often unpredictable ride including unpredictable timelines.

4)  There is no right answer for how long to take before returning to work.  For some, going back to work after a death or other loss can be experienced as very helpful.  The work place offers the familiar.  There can be supportive friends and colleagues.   For others, the busyness of work becomes a way to keep the grief at bay.  But remember, none of us is immune to grief – busyness doesn’t make it go away.  Sometimes distraction is helpful in the short term as we deal with the shock and numbness that often occurs in grief.  It can become unhelpful if we use it to avoid the process of grief.  In addition, those well meaning colleagues can say or do rather unhelpful even hurtful things in the face of grief.  It can also mean avoided conversations, potentially impacting decisions, as individuals steer away from the uncomfortable and awkward.

I offer the following to Facebook and more generally to any organization that has a senior leader who has recently experienced a significant loss:

  • Consider that the grieving individual’s leadership and decision making abilities may be impacted by the grief.
  • Consider others in the organization may avoid the grieving individual in their own efforts to avoid the uncomfortable or awkward.  This may impact the flow of pertinent information.
  • Acknowledge that grief is a process for which the landscape of the grieving individual can change daily, or even within any one particular day, and that the timeline for grieving is fluid.
  • Offer support both to the individual and other employees.  Most of us don’t know how to do grief or how to support a grieving person.  Some education on what the process of grief is and the myriad of ways it can impact an individual could be healthy for your organization.  Bringing awareness to helpful and potentially not so helpful ways to support a grieving colleague might be of value too.
  • Be prepared to make adjustments.  In the case of Sandberg, some have already been made, for example her schedule and travel.  More may be necessary.  The decision making structure and processes may need to be modified temporarily.  As well Sandberg may decide at some point in the future that she does want to take a leave from work.  Support her in that exploration and be willing to step into some difficult or awkward conversations along the way.

In the end it is not about whether Sandberg has gone back to work too quickly, rather I would offer a more appropriate question to ask is:  How can Facebook best support Sheryl Sandberg, honoring wherever she is at with her grieving process, and at the same time acknowledging that her grief may temporarily impact her leadership abilities?


© Dr. Catherine Hajnal 2015. All rights reserved.

What if…your anger is a window into what you are passionate about?

linked in what if anger is a window into what you are passionate aboutWanting to find your passion for that next career, but not feeling it?

Wanting to make changes, but not sure what to move towards?

When my grandmother first went into the hospital at the end of her life she was in a room with two beds.  It seemed the polite thing to do to say hello to the person in the other bed, particularly when he had the bed closest to the door. So each time I came into or left the room I acknowledged the man with a hello.

My grandmother was eventually moved to her own room.   For whatever reason, I made a decision to keep visiting the gentleman in her old room.  It became clear that other visitors were sparse, that he too was terminally ill, and that he welcomed the conversation.

I came away from that experience with very mixed emotions.  Part of me was incredibly sad.  I was in anticipatory grief, leaving my Grandmother’s bedside knowing I would not see her alive again.  I was also angry.

I could not stop thinking about the gentleman who was dying and who had had limited attention.  I felt a sense of injustice.  No one should die alone!

I did not know what palliative care was at that time, other than my grandmother had been declared palliative and I knew that meant she was dying.  When, how, what it might look like – I had no insights.

My anger both for the man in his aloneness, and anger in judgement of myself – for not knowing how end of life worked – sparked me to look into hospice and palliative care and step into training.

I now know that palliative care and palliative wards tend to operate differently than other parts of the hospital.  It is, generally speaking, about comfort care rather than curative care.  My hope is that the gentleman I paid several visits to was indeed able to experience comfort in the care he received while at the hospital.

Palliative care wards also tend to have volunteers who come and visit on a daily basis.  I have also come to appreciate that some individuals do want to be alone as they draw to the end of their life.  Others welcome connection.  The gentleman clearly wanted the hellos.

Sometimes anger is a signal that something or someone matters.

Perhaps a value you hold dear is being violated and it is sparking anger.  Perhaps you see someone else’s pain and you want to alleviate it, you want to help them, but you don’t know how.  Anger or frustration, a sense of fire in your belly, might just be a call to step in, to be curious and follow your energy.

While I have been in and around loss, death, and grief in a professional capacity for several years, I’m still surprised to find myself in this space.  When I left academia I was a business school professor.  I have advanced degrees in engineering.  None of that is about grief or bereavement support.  Now I help people step into some pretty tough circumstances in their lives.  And I love what I do.  The surprise to find myself doing this work is paradoxically accompanied by a deep knowing I’m in a space I’m meant to be in.

It all began in anger, a sense of injustice, self-judgement, and questioning.

So what might your anger be igniting in you?

The next time you are angry at a circumstance, feeling a sense of injustice, or going on about how the system needs to change, I invite you to take a step back and ask what your anger is asking of you.

Perhaps you too will uncover a career calling, or a new way of being in the world.

Text and Images  Copyright © Dr. Catherine Hajnal 2015

What if..we could gracefully give ourselves time as needed in the challenges of life?

what if we could gracefully give ourselves time as neededHow long does it take to grieve a loved one who has died?

How long does it take to grieve an ending relationship?

How long does it take to make a career change?

How long does it to take move and settle in to a new city?

How long does it take to have cancer?

Often language implies there is both timing and an ending to these types of challenging life scenarios. 

“You’ll be better in no time!”

“Give it a week and you should be back to normal.”

“You’ve been sick/grieving/grumpy/sad for long enough now.”  Likely followed by a “Get over it.”

“I imagine you can have a new job and be settled within 6 months.”

Many of our corporate policies incorporate timelines and endings as well.

Three days of bereavement leave.

Two weeks of sick leave.

Six months of extended disability leave.

A month of accommodation benefits as part of a moving allowance.

These messages have us believing we can measure and monitor the events of our lives based on some chronological, prescribed time window.

Your body, mind, and spirit have their own sense of time.

The more work I do facilitating bereavement groups, the more I appreciate that the journey of grief takes as long as it takes.  One thing I know for sure – we do not “get over” or “get through” a significant loss in 3 days.

When I think of my Grandmother who died six years ago it is always bitter sweet.  Seeing a cookbook on my shelf that reminds me of her – a sweet memory –  is often linked with a jolt of sadness – that I can no longer call her.  That burst of grief is very real and while I no longer grieve her as I once did, I’m not “over her”, I still grieve from time to time.

And healing from my spinal fusion surgery – depending on how you want to measure it 6 weeks or years.  My back pain sparked a period of deep introspection and I began healing my spirit before the actual surgery.  My scar healed in a matter of weeks.  It took at least a year for the bones to fuse.  It took many moons for my body to begin to realize that when I was invited to an event, such as going to see an art exhibit, it didn’t have to go into resistance and protection mode.  It wasn’t going to hurt any more, but parts of me weren’t aligned with that yet.  How long does rewiring chronic pain take?

What if we could gracefully give ourselves the time needed in the challenges of life?

There are two Greek works for time – chronos and kairos.

“Chronos is clocks, deadlines, watches, calendars, agendas, planners, schedules, beepers. Chronos is time at her worst. Chronos keeps track. …Chronos is the world’s time. Kairos is transcendence, infinity, reverence, joy, passion, love, the Sacred. Kairos is intimacy with the Real. Kairos is time at her best. …Kairos is Spirit’s time. We exist in chronos. We long for kairos. That’s our duality. Chronos requires speed so that it won’t be wasted. Kairos requires space so that it might be savored. We do in chronos. In kairos we’re allowed to be … It takes only a moment to cross over from chronos into kairos, but it does take a moment. All that kairos asks is our willingness to stop running long enough to hear the music of the spheres.”

― Sarah Ban Breathnach

While I don’t necessarily agree that chronos is time at her worst – when scheduling an appointment for example, I’m glad there is a way to represent that in quantitative time – I do believe chronos time can be counter productive.   Applying a time measurement to many aspects of life can set us up to hold ourselves to a standard that is not real, rather it is arbitrary.  It can also feel like trying to live to a moving target.

Tool:  How about stepping into life changes, growth, and healing without strict timelines?  Rather than a focus on chronos time, how about exploring kairos time?  It is not about speed.  It is about being human.  It is about allowing.  It is about alignment.  It is about knowing we have arrived, when we have arrived, not by the date on the calendar.

So the next time someone tells you how to heal faster, or says “You should be over it by now,” gently let them know you are gracefully living by kairos time.

Text and Images  Copyright © Dr. Catherine Hajnal 2015. All rights reserved.

What if being sad is as worthy as being grateful?

I’ve noticed several posts on social media relating to gratitude and being grateful as we launch into 2015.  I made my own contribution offering that the words “I am grateful for _______” (fill in the blank) could be a great way to start the year.   I was intrigued by one post’s suggestion to start a gratitude jar that you could put little notes of expressions of gratitude into over the course of the year and then review them at the end of the year.  The visual of the growing gratitude in the jar appeals to me. what if being sad is as worthy as being grateful

Having a gratitude practice can be considered a positive way to be in the world and it is often described as part of being mindful or present to what is unfolding in your life.  Gratitude can also help to reframe a difficult or challenging set of circumstances.  Seeing the learning in a trying scenario, or appreciating the flashes of positive in an other wise difficult situation can be a way to cope and bring some ease.

I had a recent experience with a holiday not turning out as expected.  No where in the vision of the holiday was there a dead car battery, a flood in the basement, a lingering cold, an eye infection, and a sprained ankle.

I’m all for having a gratitude practice but I’ll be honest, I was having a hard time being genuinely grateful when I reflected on the various trials and tribulations of the holiday.  Sure I came up with the gratitude words – gratitude for the services being available, gratitude for the sprain not being worse – but the felt sense of gratitude wasn’t there.  When I expressed the words, there was a sensation of suppression or denial, like some part of me was not getting the acknowledgement it was needing. The words felt hollow. I was grudgingly grateful!

Here’s a gentle caution around gratitude.  Sometimes we’ll focus on the “positive” or “good” as a strategy to avoid what we are truly feeling in the moment.  A gratitude practice can be used to try and bypass having to step into expressions of pain, sadness, anger, or frustration.  That’s not positive thinking or reframing, that is denial.

Sometimes crap happens.  The place to start is to acknowledge the pain, or sadness, the losses – the things that didn’t turn out as expected.  They are just as important and worthy of expression as any expression of gratitude.  Absolutely step into gratitude when you are ready.  I can be thankful for the roadside assistance I was able to call when I needed a boost for the car, but I needed to start by acknowledging that having to call for road-side assistance was not fun and that I felt frustrated and anxious in the circumstances.

So what did I do when I got home from my holiday?  Did I give up on the gratitude jar idea?  Nope, but I did modify it slightly.  It took the form of starting two jars – an Expressions of Gratitude jar and an Expressions of Loss and Grief jar.  I reflected on my trip and expressed both the good and the painful.  Both jars are important.  Both jars are worthy.  As a set the jars are a form of self-empathy honoring all of my experiences and the emotions associated with them.

Invitation:  when you invite yourself to express gratitude, check-in and see if there is anything else needing expression too.  Honor all of your emotions.



Text and Images  Copyright © Dr. Catherine Hajnal 2015

What if your deepest wounds called forth your greatest gifts?

what if your deepest wounds called forth your greatest giftsIt might be hard to imagine that in the darkness of your life the seeds of possibility exist.

In my own life the health challenges I have faced, the losses I have experienced – these are the seeds of what I do now through Life Fundamentals.  And the pain of those experiences is what motivates me.  If I can help someone else with their hurts journey, then I believe I’ve done a good thing.  It is not about taking away the hurt, rather it is about offering wisdom and tools to empower individuals to transform their hurts into an energy of creation and expansion from an energy of constriction and depletion.

Whether you are looking to make a career change or make some changes in your relationships – with yourself or others – perhaps the place to begin is to acknowledge your hurts, to acknowledge your losses, and to invite the possibility that those deepest wounds could call forth your greatest gifts.

For inspiration, I encourage you as you read or hear about happenings/events in your local community or around the world, see if you can notice examples of individuals stepping into what I call creative hurts – where pain and possibility or trauma and growth, co-exist.  Notice how a challenging or traumatic life event has sparked what comes next in their lives.

Here’s a few examples to get you started…

As you uncover other interesting examples, please feel free to share them in the comments below.



Text and Images  Copyright © Dr. Catherine Hajnal 2015