Archives for posts with tag: Grief

In grade seven I found myself in a new school where I didn’t know anyone. I met Julie that year. We quickly became the best of friends. I spent A LOT of time in Julie’s home, so much so that her father famously (and lovingly) referred to me as part of their furniture.

I remember first hearing that Julie was pregnant. I think any time one becomes pregnant it is both scary and exhilarating news, and the announcement of this impending arrival was no different. I was just 16 at the time, a year younger than my best friend. I got to journey alongside Julie through her pregnancy. I remember shaving her legs when she could no longer reach them, feeling the flutter of kicks, and even experiencing some sympathy nausea.

Jessica was born on September 4th, 1991. I got a phone call telling me that she had been born, a healthy child who bore a striking resemblance to her Mom, including the auburn hair. The first time I met Jessica was just inside the door of what had become my second home, now her first. I would often walk around with her in my arms, loving when she would grab one of my fingers with her whole tiny hand. Sometimes I would sit at the piano and serenade Jessica with Edelweiss from The Sound of Music, “blossoms of snow may you bloom and grow, bloom and grow forever…” I called her “Boof” more than I called her Jessica, and she would eventually call me “Auntie Ernin”.

I recently wrote a letter to Jessica where I shared many of these thoughts, including recalling one of my favourite outings with her to the zoo. Jessica, Julie, another friend, and I went. We were so excited to show Jessica all of the animals, especially the big ones like elephants and giraffes. Instead, Jessica was enthralled with one big rock. The picture I have included here is from the zoo. Jessica loved being outdoors and reminded us that day of how simple things can provide the most fun. 

Life did not remain as simple as that for Jessica. Through it all I desperately wanted to hold her again like I did when she was small and tell her again and again, “you are loved”. Julie once called me in a panic because Jessica seemed to be missing. I immediately began to search for her, reaching out to anyone (most of them strangers to me) about her whereabouts. I drove for hours one day to try and find her, eventually discovering that she was miraculously okay.

Just days ago Julie read my letter to Jessica. I don’t know how much she could hear, given that she was so near the end of her life, but I desperately wanted her to hear all of it, including this:

“There is much that I wish I could take from you: the cancer, the pain, the limited time. Since I can’t, I want to say that I will always love you Boof. I hope you can find rest and that as you do so, seeing the faces of your children and your family will remind you of your legacy. Jessica, you were created in the image of the Creator, one who calls you Beloved. I am praying that in this valley you will never feel alone. I am going to find a nice rock to sit on in your honour. Maybe I’ll hum Edelweiss at the same time.”

Jessica died last night. My understanding is that she had come to peace with dying, having spent much of her walk with cancer reconnecting and reconciling with family. My heart is with those she has left behind. I will never forget my time with the Stammis family; I will never forget Jessica. She will always remain Boof, and I, her Auntie Ernin.

Some people called him “Rasta” others, “Dreads”, but to us he was simply Jahn. I first met Jahn when he regularly hung out at the now defunct Coffee Time on Queen St West. He would always shout a greeting, even when I was still a block away. I noticed three things about Jahn right away: his kind smile, his radio worthy voice, and his unbelievable hair- dreadlocks that when released from his tam (hat) were longer than he was tall.

Over time, Jahn became a regular at The Dale. I always appreciated his presence at our drop-ins. The place we most often saw him the last few years was the parkette beside Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre. He became one of the unofficial caretakers of the space, making sure that it was kept as clean as possible. At Christmas he helped decorate one of the trees with a variety of ornaments, saying that it was a good way to spread some cheer. Not long ago he was hired as a Peer Worker for the Health Centre’s Harm Reduction Program, a role that he was keen to fill.

Jahn loved dogs. A week or two ago while we were on outreach, he excitedly showed us pictures of the two puppies he recently got. He lit up talking about them and describing the good tired he was because of their endless energy. The dogs, a new place, and the Peer Worker job all made his big smile even broader.

Over our many years of friendship, even if I was the first to ask, “how are you doing?”, Jahn would wait to answer until I told him what was going on in my own life. No matter how challenging circumstances got, Jahn would express gratitude for life. “It’s a gift just to be walking around, you know?”

This past Monday I had a conversation with Jahn where he again expressed his upbeat outlook on life, though he wasn’t feeling physically great- nothing to worry about he assured me. He even let my daughter Cate and her friend take the pictures included here. Cate has a video of him too, one that is beautiful and now very hard to watch. We don’t know what happened between Monday and today, but this morning we learned of Jahn’s death. I can’t believe it. Many people are reeling from the news.

Jahn: thank you for the gift of your friendship. I am fortunate to have known your gentleness and your smile. Your absence is already felt. You will be missed on the block. You will be missed by The Dale. You will be missed by me.

May you now rest in deep peace. 

I am outdoors and it is quiet, except for the sound of the bell. I don’t know where it is coming from. The air is warm and the table I am seated at is dappled with sunshine. I want to write but am struggling to coherently describe what is going on in my head and heart.

Yesterday was another anniversary of my mother’s death. We ate chips and drank wine in her honour. I decided against the suggestion that we go to her gravesite. I find it difficult to go, not because I don’t want to “visit” my mom, but because it is there I most acutely feel her absence. Instead I want to look at some of her treasures that now adorn our house, drink too-strong coffee, imagine her sitting beside me, and work out all the news that I want to share.

Though life has been uniquely busy over the last number of weeks, I have also found myself with time to be alone in deep thought. Sometimes this takes me down a rabbit hole of memories: lying on the grass beside Lake Ramsay at my grandparents’ home, listening to mom chatting and occasionally bursting into laughter; sharing chocolate croissants on a table outside of the St. Lawrence Market; stringing popcorn and cranberries for the Christmas tree; carrying ten more pounds of potatoes than we ever needed to a family gathering because she was worried there wouldn’t be enough; helping to rearrange all the precious things she kept on her hospital windowsill.

I can also hear her voice. I am certain she would have all kinds of questions about what we are doing at The Dale, how Cate is managing the loss of so many things during her senior year, and what Dion is up to each day. I suspect she would caution me about doing too much, gently reminding me that Sabbath was never intended to be optional. She would take notes on her I-Pad with her one good finger, all in order to keep each item in prayer.

Death arrived just before 10:30 pm for my mom. To this day I can easily place myself in that moment. Last night I decided to wrap myself in a blanket-like poncho that was hers. Just as I am now, I tried to stop and listen to my surroundings. It was still. I looked out the window and noticed more stars than I expected. I didn’t think that sleep would come, but then I heard the same bell that is ringing today. For a moment, the space between us was blurred. I fell asleep with renewed hope that one day that space will be eliminated.

Back before I was a mother (my daughter is now 17) I worked at Sanctuary, a place that I often refer to as a sibling of The Dale. Sanctuary was formative for me, its fingerprints all over my life in ministry. It was the place that had me committing to community where people who are typically marginalized are instead placed at the core.

Over this Easter weekend Sanctuary had three of its people die, two of whom I knew. This on the heel of multiple other deaths. Over at The Dale we held five memorials from December until just mid-January, almost all of which were on Wednesdays at 1 pm. Near the end of that stretch I almost couldn’t bear the thought of leading another service. Our friends working in Harm Reduction see an astonishing loss of life all the time. Oh death, where is your sting? Well, one of the places is the street.

The sorrow is heavy. The scary thing is that there is very little room for the processing of grief. There is no space for a breath between bereavements. On top of it all is what I would call anticipatory grief, the kind that exists when we come to expect and brace for the next tragedy. I worry for our communities (and myself) in this. In fact, it’s something I think about a lot.

My most recent work in therapy has been largely related to the death of my mother. Without even realizing it, I was living in quiet protest of her being gone. Her absence felt so unreal that I was allowing myself to be numbed by it. Slowly I have been emerging from that, a process that is enabling me to sit in the sadness AND celebrate what an amazing mom I had. Elaine will never not be my mother. This is true too of my dad. Similarly, the friends that I have lost over the years will never stop being important pieces of my life.

Talking about death can be very uncomfortable. It often brings up the reality of our own mortality. It is confusing and, until it happens to us, impossible to understand. My mother taught me a lot about clinging to hope in both life and death. It wasn’t that she lived without any fear of death, it was that she never let it control her. Instead, she readied herself to be free.

I believe that our friends are now free. Do I wish there were still here? Yes. Can I wait for the day that death is put to death? I will, but it can hurry up already. Somehow, I am not devoid of hope, in fact I remain resolute in my belief that light will overcome the darkness. And, I stand in solidarity with Sanctuary and other front-line communities in collective grief and lament.

From the complications of loving you
I think there is no end or return.
No answer, no coming out of it.

Which is the only way to love, isn’t it?
This isn’t a playground, this is
earth, our heaven, for a while.

Therefore I have given precedence
to all my sudden, sullen, dark moods
that hold you in the center of my world.

And I say to my body: grow thinner still.
And I say to my fingers, type me a pretty song,
And I say to my heart: rave on.

-Mary Oliver

It has happened a few times lately. When asked about how long ago my mom died, I get the date wrong. Not the day, but the year. She died on May 22, 2017; except I keep saying 2018. It’s like my brain can’t comprehend that we are approaching the third year without her.

Since her death, life has carried on at a serious pace. Dion’s health has seen dramatic change, Cate has entered her last year of high school, and The Dale has seen both significant growth and loss. I have been repeatedly faced with crisis, during which I simultaneously leap into action and feel deep sorrow. It is in the ‘crisis pocket’ that I often catch time to consider the absence of my mom. But I don’t want that to be it, which is why I am exploring ways in which to create more space to grieve my mom.

There isn’t a day when I don’t think about her. Sometimes I close my eyes and imagine her death to be a dream. I can place myself at her bedside on that Victoria Day when she took her last breath and it takes my own breath away. And somehow, inexplicably, it feels like just yesterday that we were having one of our long chats. It just doesn’t make sense that she isn’t here.

My mom lived and breathed the hope that the grave would not be the end. The moment she died I envisioned her more alive, more vibrant, more whole than ever before. I give thanks for that. And I so wish it wouldn’t take death to find new life. It all feels so mysterious. “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known” says Scripture.

Because of Elaine Clare Grant (Muirhead) I love strong coffee, toast that’s a little burnt, and popcorn cooked on the stove. I enjoy savouring food and company while sitting around a table for a long time, just as she did. I am so grateful for the way she taught me and my brother Logan to dig into our big trunk of art supplies and take the risk to be creative, for shuttling us around to piano lessons and basketball games, for supporting our choices as adults, and for loving our families. Our mom introduced us to Jesus and taught us about what it means to live in Him.

As I open up my heart, yet again, to feeling her absence, I recall the words I closed her eulogy with:

Mom, you caught me when I failed, and were always on my team. In addition to being my mom, you were my confidante, my friend, and my cheerleader. You were a good mother. I know you are celebrating with God, just as we are here to celebrate you.

I miss you already still.

The truth is, I wanted to be able to write something this weekend about all that I have to be grateful for. I know there is a lot. For some reason every time I sat to write, nothing came out.

Thanksgiving is a holiday that I have long loved (my dad’s birthday often falls on it) and felt conflicted about (just ask any of my Indigenous friends to explain). This year, Thanksgiving weekend was particularly hard. I could feel it coming in the days leading up to it: I was melancholy and tired. Then the tears hit. I couldn’t stop missing people who have died. I felt overwhelmed by a number of different circumstances. Mixed up with the sadness was undeniable resentment.

I recently read about resentment being one of the opposites of gratitude. As I prepared to share about this idea at The Dale on Sunday, I couldn’t help but see myself in the middle of it. What does it look like to break through resentment and find freedom from its chains: the chains that prevent action, preoccupy thoughts, and propel unhealthy choices?

I suspect the starting point is confessing our resentments, which is not easy. One of the things I treasure about The Dale is how so many of my friends confess so freely. There are few masks, which challenges me to remove mine. So, through many tears I poured the hardship of the weekend out to Dion and then again at The Dale. In that act I felt heard, which in turn helped me feel less alone. Not news, but it turns out carrying resentment is very…human.

There is a space created for understanding, forgiveness, and grace when we confess. In turn, we are freed to develop a new spirit of gratitude. The act of gratitude takes practice, almost like working a muscle in order to make it stronger. I acknowledge there are many things to be thankful for, even in the midst of great struggle. If I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that the seemingly “little” good things in life are actually very big and definitely worth noting. Resentment is hard to hold on to when there is a burgeoning spirit of thanksgiving.

I’m still tender. A serious wave of grief hit, and it has yet to break entirely. There is a lot about life that is hard, for each of us, in so many different ways. It is impossible to make sense of it all. What I believe is that life is a gift. I choose to believe that all things will ultimately be restored and made right. In putting away my resentment, I get to sing a new song, a song that can be sung everyday. Even on this Thanksgiving weekend.

 

 

On May 14th of last year my brother Logan and I went to spend some time with our mom. It was both Mother’s Day and my birthday, a double whammy that seems to happen every few years. We had a good visit, the kind that was full of shared stories and the occasional bought of laughter. Eventually I had to run off to a birthday dinner, but not before mom had the chance to point in the direction of her present to me. She was a great gift-giver, even when it required buying things on-line from her hospital bed.  That day she gave me a sturdy blue and white striped canvas bag, one that she hoped I would fill with things like flowers, baguette, good coffee beans and of course, chips.

I had no idea at the time, but that would be the last opportunity I would have to chat with my mom. I heard from her on the 17th via an email filled with family news, and gratitude for our visit. On the 19th we got the call that she was not okay. What transpired next still feels a bit like a dream, though it was all very, very real. The doctor carefully and sympathetically told me and Logan that we needed to bring together family and friends because the end was near. A huge group held vigil throughout the weekend. And then on Victoria Day, surrounded by her immediate family, Elaine Clare Grant (nee: Muirhead) took her last breath.

Nearly a year later, I find myself struggling to cope with the way my beloved mother’s death, Mother’s Day, and my birthday have all become intertwined. I suspect the acuteness of this will soften with time, but for now, on the eve of this first anniversary, it hurts. For the majority of yesterday I did a little better than expected. I looked at Cate and marvelled that I get to mother her; I was greeted by multiple people at The Dale as “Mom”; I felt safe to acknowledge how complicated a day like Mother’s Day is for so many people, including me; I thought of the many mother-figures I have in my life; Dion and Cate took me out for dinner. It wasn’t until the later evening that I started to panic: how can the day be almost done and I haven’t seen my mom? Of course I knew the answer, but as Joan Didion so aptly wrote in her memoir, it’s the kind of magical thinking that happens after someone dies.

The long and short of it is this: I miss my mom. Nearly every day I think of something I want to tell her. In all of the ongoing challenge of life (and there is a lot), I long to hear her voice offering comfort, wisdom, and love. She understood. I also know that as a result of so many years of persevering, mom was weary (though she never complained). It is a relief that she is no longer bound to a bed or wheelchair. Mom’s faith sustained her in life and promised her so much beyond it. I like to imagine her walking, maybe with a striped bag on her shoulder like the one she gave to me, filled with things that she loves. As Mother’s Day 2018 drew to a close, imagining her smile made me do the same.

I’m trying to direct my attention to the things that are happening in the present moment. It’s helpful for the most part. I say that because what’s right in front of me is a collection of things that are good, hard and pretty much everything in between.

Take today.

I woke up feeling good, which I received as an incredible gift. I’ve been sick and out of sorts this past week, acutely missing my parents and hyper aware of the challenges that I face. Somehow this morning my spirit was lighter.

I love the fall and today felt more like it to me. As I write, there is a cool breeze and late day sun pouring in a window.

Two funerals took place this afternoon for women I did not know, but were connected to many people I love, including Dion and Joanna, through The Causeway and Sanctuary (a place that functions much like The Dale). My heart grieves two more lives gone and reminds me of the many people we have said goodbye to this year.

Cate has decided she wants to be a watermelon for Halloween. A watermelon! So now I sit surrounded by reams of fabric and an old hula hoop, endeavouring to create a costume that she will be proud to wear. It’s a definite work in progress.

Today we celebrated a friend’s birthday at drop-in. We ate cake and carved pumpkins.

There are a number of people at The Dale who are not housed or at risk of being evicted. They need help, like yesterday. My voicemail is full of requests for The Dale to offer assistance. It’s humbling, hard work.

I’m making a pot of turkey soup, which is filling the house with a familiar, comforting smell.

Being mindful of what’s right in front of me does not make everything easy, though it does help in the way I manage it. Similar to my experience of Sabbath-keeping, it helps me to slow down and really look at things. I am able to pay better attention to not just my feelings, but what is motivating them.

Which brings me back to today. I have laughed and cried (and likely will do both again). I feel a mixture of joy and sadness. Somehow this day has been infused with a mysterious, yet firm sense of hope. Today, in this moment, I am grateful for all of it. Even the challenge of making an outfit that resembles a watermelon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nearly every day I turn to a series of readings and prayers in both the morning and evening. This particular rhythm has only become a habit over the last year. As I walk through the valley of grief, I am relieved that this practice has produced muscle memory, the kind that instinctively takes over. And so, on those days when I don’t know what to do with myself, I at least begin and end with good words.

I recently read, “Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves”. I have so many questions, many of which are the kind I suspect won’t be answered in my lifetime. I wonder what it looks like to accept the things I cannot control and to develop the wisdom to know what I can change. I looked up patience in the dictionary and found this definition: “the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset”. Oh, how I long to grow the dimensions of this attribute in my heart.

One of the things I have learned a great deal about in the last number of years is being present to the moment. I began to discover that my tendency toward people pleasing and perfectionism (as though that is even possible) was deeply flawed and rooted in terrible insecurity. My worth it turns out cannot be tied to a job or a person or a skill, it comes entirely from God. This work-in-progress heart change has better equipped me to pay attention to what is right in front of me. I cannot change the past, nor can I live in the future. Instead, I must live in the now.

‘The now’ is a jumble of challenge that requires a significant amount of patience. The grief over the death of my mom is a good example: I must be present to the pain of this significant loss and endeavour to tolerate the suffering without lashing out or giving up. Not too long ago my daughter described me to other people as an optimist. Though I don’t always feel like one, I was relieved that she could identify me as that. What I want her to know is that even in my grief, I hold onto hope.

One of the things I pray each day is: “May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you, wherever He may send you. May He guide you through the wilderness, protect you through the storm. May He bring you home rejoicing at the wonders He has shown you. May He bring you home rejoicing once again into our doors”. In this time of uncertainty, I choose to fuel patience with hope, and to live with the questions. I trust that with time understanding will come.

 

I must have been two, maybe two and a half. My mom had taken me to the park at the end of our street and then popped into the little corner store when it began to pour. As I sit here listening to the rain I can remember how she ran, pushing me in a stroller, the whole block home. We were soaked. She wrapped me in a towel, put on a Judy Collins record, and gave me a snack. She tried to dry off the monkey that I carried everywhere (and later tragically lost at that same park). I remember sitting in her lap on the floor. I know to some it might be surprising that I would have this strong memory from such a young age, but I actually have many.

I remember my mom walking me back and forth from school when I was in kindergarten. She let me invite my friends over for lunch, heating us bowls of noodles and making sure we had cut up carrots and cucumber too. She encouraged me to play outside and taught me to identify flowers and trees by name. We planted marigolds and lily of the valley and my favourite forget-me-nots in the backyard. When my first fish died she helped me bury him in that same garden bed. At night my mom would sing me Edelweiss from The Sound of Music, one of the songs I chose to sing to Cate every night of her early years.

As I begin the long and winding road of grief, it is memories like these, little moments in our shared life, that keep coming to mind. Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”. Memories of my mom do include what she said and did, but what reverberates in my heart is how she made me feel. When I remember her tending to my many skinned knees, it is her tenderness that sticks out. When I shared my anxieties and troubles with her, she listened and somehow managed to make me feel like things would be okay, even if they were to continue being hard. I loved being in a room full of people and picking out her laugh. Knowing she was close by made me happy.

I think why the memories I cite here remain so vivid is that they all leant to me feeling safe: being pushed through the rain, walked to school, having my friends welcomed, being taught how to both garden and grieve, hearing lullabies at night. She was a very good mother. After my aunt died, my mom spoke of her own grief for her sister and how even the best memories were difficult at first. I understand what she meant, because the flooding of recollections serves to make the absence even more real. Comfort is also found in choosing to remember. I can take myself back to that rainy day, and many others like it, where I could sit safe in the lap of my mom.

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