This is a rookie’s guide to grief.
I’m 53 and I’ve been able to side step the death of close family and friends until now. My parents left family and friends in Scotland and emigrated to Canada just before I was a year old. I’ve had grandparents and uncles pass away but the distance and lack of contact did not hit me as I’ve seen grief hit other people. I saw it once, 15 years ago, when my mother in law died, suddenly, and my partner Lyanne was battered for years really by the loss. I supported her through the acute rawness and the sudden flashbacks that broke her down out of the blue. I saw it and I helped but I didn’t fully understand it. I’m now shocked at how completely naive I was at what the body and mind go through when experiencing profound loss.
Picture a tent on a windy bluff. An older tent that has seen better days but is still relied on for shelter when the need arises. Its simple design held up by a pole and held down by pegs. Pegs and poles against the wind.
So my parents left Scotland, with me, and started a life in Vancouver, unsure of how long they would stay. My two sisters were born here in the years after. They set down roots, raised a family, became part of the community and saw what a great life this city and country was providing for them and their kids. Moving back was not an option despite how much they missed people they’d left behind. My parents made sacrifices that I’m not sure I’d have the selflessness to make so that I, and my sisters, could have a fantastic life that has been full of experience and opportunity.
And then I got a text from my brother in law last Friday night. Please call me. My mom had had a stroke.
Through hopefulness and confusion we convinced ourselves it was not serious. She had been conscious when she got in the ambulance. It seemed to have been noticed quickly by my dad and paramedics arrived within ten minutes of the call.
Lyanne and I drove to Royal Columbian Hospital after telling our youngest, 17, what had happened but it looked like she would be okay. We told him to stay home. Our eldest, Cole, took a cab from Vancouver when we called him. Our daughter was at work and we chose not to contact her there.
We were led to a functional but private ‘family room’ adjacent to the trauma centre within their Emergency room where a neurologist calmly told us what we didn’t want to hear. A burst blood vessel, extensive bleeding (I tense and my vision seems to go hazy), inoperable, on life support (I am silent, almost motionless). Coma, very little likelihood of brain activity looking at the CT scan (I’m all but checked out mentally, paralyzed, but can hear my dad and Lyanne crying).
Wind will rag doll that tent in short order if it’s not put together well. You don’t know when the wind will come but it will. You need to assemble and stabilize the tent. It needs durable support. That tent has to last a fair bit longer. But there’s no point in taking short cuts and hoping that a couple pegs will do or that you’ve sunk them deep enough in the ground. You don’t know how ferocious the wind will be or how long it will last. This work needs to start soon but will encompass many considerations some of which will not reveal themselves right away.
I am withdrawing into numbness. We have agreed that mom had made it clear she did not want to be kept on life support when there was no prospect for recovery. We agree to have her breathing tube taken out once my sister arrives. We are told that it’s impossible to tell how long stroke victims last after this happens. It could be minutes, hours or days.
Lyanne, in tears, sees me drifting, unfocused. She holds me by the shoulders, like you would a child, so we are face to face. “Hey.” She snaps me to attention. “Hey”, through the tears, “Your mom is going to die tonight. You need to be here and…” the rest is lost to me. Because with those first words, I am pulled out of catatonia. I had an almost violent, spontaneous heaving in my chest. Then another and another. The shock of those words. Almost like a defibrillator had been applied. My mouth opened and it must have looked like I was going to vomit. That was not what was happening though. What has happening was that I was now experiencing the first waves of grief. It was the first gale and I didn’t even have a clue that I was a tent on a bluff.
Back to my wake up call from Lyanne. I had to…do what? Comfort others? Talk to doctors? Make sure my mom was treated well? My brother in law asks if he should leave and get my youngest sister. They had also thought it wasn’t too serious and she chose to stay home with their kids. I quickly says yes. I’m the eldest of three with two younger sisters; one estranged from the rest of us for the past seven years. Many first born sons grow up with a certain mentality. You grow up with high parent expectations that can push you into leadership roles that are embraced in varying degrees. As a result, I have inherently sought to control situations, conversations and environments for better or worse.
I compose myself. I ask to see my mom. I ask to see her scan with the neurologist. My dad sees it too. I ask when my sister is arriving. I tell the rest of my family I’m going to contact the estranged sister (who lives 30 minutes away from the hospital). I do and get no reply to text or voice mail but she would contact me in the morning and visit mom soon after. I convulse between being functional and supportive to nothing of the sort. They wheel my mom in on a bed with the breathing tubes in still. I hold her hand and kiss her face. I can’t type this without tears coming. Again. We are waiting for my sister before they come out.
My tears come and go with equal speed. Most don’t last more than ten seconds. There is no logic to what phrase or look from someone else will set them off over the next week or two. I am over the embarrassment of this quicker than I thought I would be. I will easily cry more in the next week than the rest of my adult life combined.
My sister arrives in the trauma centre, through the doors, being held up by my brother in law. She arrives with tears as her wake. It’s cinematic and jarring. Her hard, self-protective shell has been smashed into a million pieces and she is entirely undone and unencumbered by modesty. This is loud, messy and heavy on hearts that were already leaden.
Lyanne is the pole for my tent. She is going to keep me upright as we go through this. I have never had a problem telling her how much I love her, how beautiful she is, etc. I have never once said to her, “I need you.”
You can’t get past grief if you don’t recognize all its components and welcome them to be part of getting through and over this. You can’t just remember all the good times and kind words. You need to accept the difficult phases of the relationship, the occasional harshness, the things you wish you’d said and done and not, the random interventions. And not just yours, you need to acknowledge the grief of those around you and see how that shapes and provides an apparatus for all of you to climb out of the mess, the confusion, the anger; the climb to acceptance, reconciliation, celebration and peace. Remember the jaggedness of the first knowledge of the death. Remember how you lost control of your body. How it told your brain how to react instead of the other way around. The way it had always been.
All that I needed and gratefully took and all that I was able to give that was received with warmth. Every time I was shaken or weakened, every time I was there for someone else with comfort. Every time I was numb and oblivious to what was going on and what those around needed. These shaped the experience. It takes wide arms and an open mind to realize that to get you through the loss of a loved one you have to embrace the obvious, the shocking, the embarrassing, the physically painful, the mentally exhausting. Acknowledge what you desperately now wish you’d said and done before all this. Feel the shame of your regrets bruise your thoughts and ego. Have that sternly inform a desire to not let it happen again.
You have to know all of this and more play a role in creating your version of grief and then you have to sit at the table with all of this, all the easy guests and the difficult ones. You have to accept the hand you’ve been dealt. This complex, upsetting hand in a game you didn’t ever want to play and you have to sit with it all and find closure. Accept what it’s done to you, what you didn’t allow it to do, see yourself for your strengths and flaws when this moment came.
That’s my version when I’m rational.
At times it feels more like randomly piling fuel for a bonfire higher and higher before setting it alight and glazing over, numb and fatigued, as it burns to the ground. I’m hoping for the former and preparing for the latter because I’ve had the false starts thinking I’m good, that I’ve dealt with it emotionally only to feel foolish hours later when I see I’m clearly not there yet. In all likelihood it’s almost certainly an oil and water mix that will co-exist uneasily battling for hegemony.
My pegs could not be anticipated. Some are new, some are old and have been through this before. Arrayed though they are a unique set built from context. Solid and functional. They will do their job and never be united in action again.
Build your grief tent. Know people are good and give you time and understanding as you build it. Know it will be tested by gales and know there will be lulls that will help you build or re-build it or just allow you to take a few deep breaths in the calm. You’re going to feel that wind though. You don’t get that choice. Be prepared for it to move you about. It’s a success every time you are left standing. Keep making your tent stronger during the lulls. Don’t worry about people seeing you struggle to do this. More will help when they see the effort involved. Help is a text. Help is a meal dropped off, your favourite beer left at the back door for you. Help is the palliative care doctors who sit with you while you are at the hospital and patiently and empathetically answer your stupid, repetitive questions. Help is people who know to say something to you but not have the expectation of coherent reply. Help is tears.
When it was all over and mom had passed, I posted three tweets that included two pictures of her with me when I was around 3 years old. It had been a confusing week with some thinking she had already passed away but putting updates out seemed clinical and just wasn’t a priority. It was over now so I tweeted it. The response was a compassion not typically associated with Twitter. I heard from friends, people I work with, acquaintances and people I barely know. People replied with condolences, stories and comfort. Even people who I have had disputes with took the time to send a message. I think and hope that I have replied to all of them in some form. They helped. All of them.
Grief slaps your cynicism. It kicks the shit out of your holier-than-thou arrogance about the validity of online social interactions. I hope that my feelings on this aren’t temporary. I hope grief has made me bend more towards kindness in all its forms.
So these are my pegs. These are the elements that helped me realize how serious this was, that forced me to blend the memories, darkness, light, sorrow, humour, community, tension, exhaustion and despair into 80 proof grief, drink it and deal with the highs (not too many really) and lows of an intoxicating bender.
My pegs are the good, the bad, the traumatic and the therapeutic that framed the experience and held my tent in place as strong winds tried to uproot it and send it tumbling, defeated into darkness and uselessness.
But first my pole.
The intimacy and intuition with and of my wife. I’ve told her many, many times that I love her and how beautiful she is but in 28 years, as I said, I had never said the words “I need you.” to Lyanne. That changed the day after mom’s stroke. I needed her and there wasn’t a second I felt unsupported through this. I had a couple of pretty bad days, one where I was an utter, shameful asshole and she never left my side. Never lost her cool. Never marched out in frustration. She is the tent pole that gave me structure, that kept me upright and able to continue going to the hospital to see my mom and try to support my dad. It’s not a tent without a pole as much as the pegs are trying to make it one.
The pegs are many and varied and most bare no relation to each other but they will all stick with me and I’m grateful I experienced each of them.
Listed randomly as that seems most appropriate.
Coming into her hospital room for a visit to find Cole, my eldest, already there, holding her hand with Beatles songs streaming from his phone for her to listen to.
The vulnerability of my dad. Losing his wife of 54 years. The ups and downs of those eight days between the stroke and the last breath were hard on us all but mostly on him.
I’ve been cold to the idea that texts can be consoling. That birthdays should be acknowledged on Facebook. I’ve rarely participated in what I see as trite offerings that seemed to be an exercise in box ticking. I don’t feel that way anymore. As word leaked out about my mom’s stroke, texts started coming in. Twitter DM’s. Emails. It was pure warmth that helped with the chill. They were valued pegs, mainly unaware of each other but had exponential strength.
A bumper sticker, seen for the first time on my way to the hospital one day brought a rare smile, “Seniors against mortality!”
Seeing my mom’s dead body. I had been there the morning she died but then left with Cole. We got some lunch and then headed home. My dad texted when we were still en route home that she had passed away. The first word of this arrived by text eight days earlier and the definitive one did as well. We went back to the hospital. The image of her corpse will never go away but gales have to be acknowledged.
Waiting too long to invite my parents up to our cabin on Hornby Island again. Mom loved it there. I had ferry reservations for us all to go up this past Thanksgiving long weekend. Too late.
Staying through the night at the hospital the first evening after the stroke with my dad. Having the expectation, from conversations with Emergency room nurses, that most people in this condition lasted a matter of hours.
Leaving the hospital around 7am that Saturday morning so I could be home to tell Carlisle and Tavish my two younger kids, 24 and 17 respectively, what had happened when they woke up. Tavish had been given an overly optimistic version when we left to go to the hospital. Carlisle had been working and came home very late so she knew nothing. I had rehearsed what I would say to her. Then she walked in the room and saw me. I looked at her. No words came out. “What? WHAT!?” “Grandma…” Sobs. An explanation that conveyed no consolation, devolved to mumbles and ended in a long, tearful hug. Tavish had been woken by this. He now knew Grandma was not going to survive this. I hope there are not many more things I have to tell my kids that are as upsetting as this was.
The days of seeing mom breath steadily with no other sign of life. It was disconcerting knowing that at some point this would quite quickly end, as it did.
Cole had introduced me to Angel Olsen a few years back. Her new album came out the day mom had her stroke. In the afternoon I texted him after listening to Lark from that album, blown away by it. He’d already heard it. It’s song about a different kind of grief and loss but its spiralling, orchestral beauty became the soundtrack for the week between the stroke and her passing. We’re going to see her show here in December.
A hospital staff member poking her head in the room and matter of factly saying, “We’ve been asked to move her to the End of Life room on the sixth floor in about an hour.” Your chest just physically recoils. Your ribs seem to tighten around your lungs.
Our family dinner the night she passed away. All five of us there, something that becomes rarer as your kids get older and become young adults. Stories, funny toasts, tears, dark humour – all tension breakers that engender a feeling of support.
Within hours of her passing, what must have been a layer of physical numbness lifts and is replaced, both for Lyanne and myself, of physical pains. It seemed that every knock, injury and ailment from the past many years had just decided to drop by for a visit. It was so strange. Upper back pain I hadn’t felt for over three years. A forearm I’d hurt moving a heavy piece of furniture two years ago… It seemed to be another manifestation of the physicality of grief. Some only lasted a day or two, others longer.
It’s just over two weeks since mom died now. It doesn’t feel like two weeks but that’s another incursion grief makes. I am innately, boringly time-sensitive and time-aware. I iCal almost everything that is and could happen. That all went out the window as all sense of time left me for awhile. It’s coming back now. Everything is and will come back to a slightly greyer reality. The departed don’t want us to remain in grief, maudlin and removed from everyday life. They want our tents to work as much as need them to work. Mine worked. Memories battered it, Lyanne kept it upright. Regrets riddled it, texts and conversations held it in place.
I’m looking forward to honouring my mom’s wishes (she wrote me a letter a few years ago about what she wanted when she died) and I’m looking forward to taking an upsetting experience and shifting the focus to the kindness and helpfulness of those around me and using it to make me a better person; make me kinder. And so I think the best way to end this is to quote a line I wrote for her obituary, “In lieu of flowers, please reach out to someone with a kind word.”