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Archive for the ‘death’ Category

Yesterday, I had a date with a ghost.

You see, November 11 was the anniversary of Trish and I as a couple. It was not our wedding anniversary; that was for the public. November 11 was the private one, the day we kept for ourselves. Whenever we could, we took the day off, and at the very least we tried to go out to dinner, although once or twice in the last few years, she hadn’t been well enough for us to celebrate on the exact date.

This being the first anniversary since her death, I debated with myself all day if I would keep the date. Perhaps it was too sentimental? Too much giving in to grief? But in the end I decided I was observing the day in my own mind anyway, so I might as well indulge myself. I dressed in my best – a black Dorothy Grant shirt, my gold ring, my copper bracelet, and the Lyle Wilson pendant that Trish had won at a raffle at the West Vancouver Museum – and wore all black, one of the colors that Trish had liked best on me, and solemnly descended on the restaurant.

I had chosen La Rustica, an Italian restaurant we had known at its height when we were living in New Westminster. We hadn’t been there for years, but we had talked about returning there to see what it was like. Now, I would have to see for myself.

The restaurant had been extensively renovated at least once since we used to frequent it, so I couldn’t sit at the table in the back where a photographer had taken a picture of us on our fourth anniversary years ago. Instead, I was shown to a table for two on the edge of the vacant dance floor. On nights when the band played, I imagine it would have been a bad seat, the sort that single diners usually get unless they complain. But that night, I didn’t care; it was well away from the large party from the assisted living home who were the only other diners in the restaurant, so they wouldn’t notice my odd behavior.

My date, I imagined, was in a green turquoise dress with flowing sleeves, one of the few that I kept when I gave her clothes away. Her hair was long, and dyed auburn.

I ordered two glasses of white wine, and at first the server got it wrong, giving me two glasses of wine in a carafe. “If it’s not too odd, could I have another glass?” I asked. The server looked askance, but she did as I requested, not quite daring to ask what I was doing.

I poured our wine, then clinked the glasses together. Not daring to speak out loud because I knew I would end up sobbing in that horrible breathless way I have had during my mourning, I delivered the ritual Scottish toast and response that Trish had always loved since she first read it in George Macdonald Fraser’s The General Danced at Dawn:

“Here’s to us.”

“Wha’s like us?”

“Damn few, and they’re all deid.”

I followed that with the question that one or the other of us had always asked, “Has it really been __ years?”

“It doesn’t seem possible,” I whispered to myself, finishing the ritual. By then I was daubing at my eyes with the linen napkin.

My tastes have changed tremendously since I had last eaten at La Rustica, but I chose what had been my favorite meal: onion soup, followed by veal in a capers and wine sauce, and an amaretto gelato. The restaurant was dimly lit, but I knew my date was eating the shrimp, something I never prepare at home because it might trigger an allergic reaction for me, but which she always enjoyed when we ate out.

At the end of the meal, I asked if I could go into the back. But the years and the renovations defeated me, and I could not decide where our favorite table had been.

Maybe that was just as well. Wherever the table was, it would have sat hundreds since we had been at it, and we could have left no impression that would have remained.

The server was looking at me strangely, so I explained the occasion, and left a large tip before I left.

Ordinarily, I would have hardly felt two glasses of wine, but that night I did. I decided that I couldn’t bear the bus, so I walked down the hill to the Skytrain to sober myself up. By the time I boarded, the cold had cleared my head. I didn’t say goodbye to the ghost, of course; she followed me home.

People talk of melancholy although it were a form of depression, and should be avoided. If you believe that, you will never understand, but I enjoyed my company that night, although the encounter left me feeling drained.

I don’t know if I will be returning to La Rustica, which proved only adequate (the sauce had too much lemon, and the restaurant was no longer growing its own herbs on the roof). But I already know that my companion and I will be going out again on our wedding anniversary, as well as next next November 11th.

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An online friend has taken me to task about the anger in my posts about grief. I started to reply privately, but my comments quickly turned into a post of their own. After all, it’s a difficult question: how do you support someone in mourning?

True, I think that the friend has misread the anger. I don’t attack people just because they hand me bad poetry for consolation, or toss cliches my way. If anything, in person, I am generally too polite; I not only suffer fools gladly, but actively encourage them. I write my frustrations so that I don’t express them face-to-face.

Nor do I write simply to express a peeve, although probably I have sometimes taken advantage of the added tolerance extended to people in my position. If I mention specifics, it’s not an attack on the person involved – it’s because I want to illustrate something that’s widespread.

In writing about grief, I am venturing into the confessional realms of writing. When you are writing in the confessional mode, what you are doing is reporting the view from where you are at the moment. For that goal to have any value or interest (even to myself), the reporting has to be as honest as I can make it. Leaving out the anger would be a distortion, so I’m not going to do it. I’m not proud of the anger, but I have to report it if I’m going to approach the subject at all. The fact that very few people write in detail about grief makes me all the more determined to be as honest as possible.

Still, my friend has a point. Having written about how not to handle someone who’s grieving, to be accurate I need to express the view from the opposite perspective.

If my experience is typical, I think you have to start with the knowledge that there is not much you can do for a person who is grieving. Only time and circumstances can do that, and you are better off saying too little than too much

For example, I will always be grateful to the friend who, a few days after Trish’s death, invited me over to hangout one Saturday afternoon. She didn’t approach the topic, and we didn’t do anything more serious that talk idly and walk her cat, but that brief oasis of normality was exactly what I needed. A few weeks later, we went to a coffee shop, with the same basic ground rules, and, again, I felt relieved to be doing what other people were doing.

People online can do much the same by emailing and chatting regularly. The effect isn’t as strong as in-person contact, but don’t let anyone tell you that online relationships are invariably shallow. There have been days when having a chat window pop up was the only thing between me and complete depression. The thing is, grief separates you from the everyday, and even if you are not ready to rejoin the daily grind, you appreciate the knowledge that it’s still out there.

Then there were the four or five people who have helped me sort Trish’s property and make sure that as much of it as possible got into the hands of people who would appreciate it. Hording it (except for select exceptions), seemed wrong, and dumping it or sending it to Value Village to be pawed over by strangers felt even worse. But there was far more stuff than I could easily sort and move by myself, and working beside others is one of the best ways I know to feel that you are connected to someone. If there’s not property to dispose of, then housecleaning or cooking can serve much the same purpose.

Later, you might make an effort to invite the grieving person to a quiet group activity. They are unlikely to want to go dancing until dawn, or to be the center of attention, but just being with people can be comforting.

Of course, you can’t expect too many expressions of gratitude for any of this support. The emotions of a person who is grieving are out of control, and expressing even a relatively mild emotion like gratitude can break what little control that they have. But you will know if they appreciate your efforts by the simple fact that they respond.

But no matter how you support those who are bereaved, move slowly and at their pace – the rules that apply to taming an animal. What you do will be frustrating and never seem enough, but it will still be better than reacting in stereotypical ways or with cliched phrases – and considerably better than nothing at all.

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Three and a half months after my spouse died, I found myself attending another memorial service for her. Officially, that wasn’t what the Trish’s Stash Sale was about, but in practice that’s what it was, particularly for me.

Trish had many virtues, but tidiness was never one of them. When she died, she left three decades’ worth of craft supplies in our townhouse. Crochet, cross-stitch, hardanger, blackwork, ribbon embroidery, weaving, knitting – you name it, and at one time or other Trish had practiced it. With the help of her friend Lin, Lin’s husband, and Trish’s sister Marion, I hauled nearly a hundred boxes and bags out of the townhouse,divided into rough categories. Then, the Coquitlam Needlearts Guild (to which Trish had belonged for many years) started sorting it, and eventually decreed the sale to make sure that as much as possible of Trish’s craft supplies found someone who could use it.

I was asked to contribute a picture of Trish, and a picture of our parrots with the caption, “We Contributed the Seeds!” (apparently, some Guild members with poor closeup vision had worried during the sorting that the seeds were an insect infestation). I also provided frame art cards for some forty of those who helped with the sale, and a box full of Trish’s trademark origami ornaments to give out as further mementos.

When I arrived at the Scout Hall in Blue Mountain Park in Coquitlam today, I was prepared to help with setup. As the technical owner of the craft supplies, I felt a certain obligation – similar, I joked, to that of Doctor Frankenstein to his monster. But, despite the fact that it was barely 8AM (on a Saturday!), most of the work was already done.

I knew that some of the supplies had been already claimed by the volunteers for their unpaid efforts. Other things were being held back for Guild members to counter the increasing rarity of craft stores in greater Vancouver. Even so, Lin had told me yesterday that she was worried that what remained would never fit into the hall.

Fortunately, her concern was unwarranted. With an efficiency I can admire but never hope to match, the Guild had gone beyond my crude sorting to bag and price everything, and arrange it on tables. Working alone, I doubt I could have done the job in less that a couple of years – although, as the day wore on, that estimate expanded slowly to ten years. The effort was both extraordinary and unexpected.

I set up just inside the door, and found a stool to perch on. I was given a blue ribbon to wear to mark me as a volunteer – or “a friend of Trish,” as the organizer put it. By 8:40, the volunteers had turned into customers, and the first part of the sale began. It was for Guild members only, at half the price the general public would be charged.

I quickly settled down to a morning of urging ornaments and copies of the program from Trish’s memorial service to anyone who passed by my table. Often, people stopped to express their condolences. At times, I walked through the sale, remembering some of the items for sale, and sternly resisting the urge to buy anything back. More than once, a kind word or hug sent me stumbling outside until I could master the tears that were never far away.

At lunch, I wandered down to Austin Avenue for a sandwich, and returned with a dozen donuts. Almost all the volunteers bemoaned the calories, but most took at least half a donut.

In the afternoon, Trish’s sister Marion arrived, and so did their friend Nancy, who had visited Trish during her last stay in the hospital. The afternoon continued much as before.

As expected, the slowest sellers were the magazines, even though they had priced to sell. But the reference books, patterns, yarn, buttons, beards and fabric squares all sold between 50-70% of what was on the tables. But by 3:30, people had stopped coming, so takedown began with the same efficiency as setup.

At the last moment, a woman took all the miniatures magazines. That still leaves all sorts of charities doing baby clothes for poor mothers, quilts for women’s shelters or fire victims, and school craft programs to benefit in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, although expenses still have to be calculated, $2000 seems to have been raised for the Mature Student Award at the Freda Diesing School, which Trish and I founded in 2009.

Trish had wanted to make sure that her craft supplies went to those who could use them, and the Mature Student Award was something she was proud to have helped create. For these reasons, the sale felt like a last gesture of respect to Trish from some of her closest friends.

I’d like to thank them for that, and for their kind words about Trish and their kind treatment of me. Although I was left emotionally exhausted, so far as I’m concerned, I couldn’t have too many days like today while I actively mourn for her. Short of her still being alive and healthy, seeing good done in her name was the best thing that could have happened for me.

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Face to face and online, people keep telling me that I am bearing my wife’s death well. The truth is, what I am really doing is maintaining the appearance of normalcy. I have just enough sense remaining to realize that people don’t want to hear the details and that what I am enduring is unimaginable to most people who have not gone through it themselves. Certainly, it would have been unimaginable to me before this summer.

I tell myself that I have learned from the parrots in my living room not to show vulnerability. Scream, puff yourself up, or cause a disturbance, but don’t let anyone know that you’re tired or ill: That’s their credo, and I can understand it. Grief is a private thing, and I don’t generally care to share it, except with those who already feel it.

I’m here to say, though, that surviving a spouse of thirty years is like nothing I’ve ever experienced – and I’m not exactly a stranger to trauma. It’s not even like other griefs, except maybe in general outline.

To start with, my situation means endless details. Quite aside from funeral arrangements and telling friends and relatives what happened, my life has been full of canceling subscriptions, changing the name on assets, dragging through probate, arranging new medical coverage, talking to my accountants to my lawyer, and to my financial advisor, and dealing with government agencies and officials of all sorts. Just when you are least able to handle bureaucracy, an avalanche of it is waiting to overwhelm you and suffocate you.

Yet these distractions are the least of surviving a spouse. My situation is also about noting a joke or a situation, only to remember that you no longer have anyone with whom to share it. It’s having thoughts that you no longer have anyone to confide to. It’s learning to cook for one person instead of two. It’s realizing that there is no division of labor – if you don’t do something, it doesn’t get done. It’s breaking down half a dozen times a day over trivia like an old photo or shoe, or watching a video and remembering that your partner never got to watch it, or thinking of a trip that she’ll never take now. It’s a sudden pain in your abdomen that has you worrying about appendicitis but is really just a new manifestation of anxiety. It’s waking up with your hair and your sheets cold with sweat, and getting up in the morning feeling like a hand is pushing against your chest whenever you do anything.

Then, just as you are getting some distraction from a video or book, so that you could almost belief that your spouse is out shopping or in the next room, it’s realizing that the respite is an illusion – that in dozens of tiny ways, your everyday assumptions no longer work.

And that’s just the common themes. Stay home, and you are alone with the thoughts that you have come to dread. Go out, and not only are you surprised to see people going about their ordinary business, but that business seems trivial and unimportant.

In fact, your whole relation to people change. You have less patience with people. Euphemisms like “passed away” or cliches like “I’m sure it’s all for the best” set your teeth on edge. You may find, as I did, that you have no longer have patience with other people’s foibles. You may even pick a fight, so viciously that, even when you apologize, the other person doesn’t forgive you, and you feel like an idiot for making the world a nastier place.

You discover, too, that the way people treat you changes. For one thing, relative strangers feel they can now give you meaningless advice on how you should live.

Also, you are no longer half a couple, but a lone individual for the first time in years. Many acquaintances and friends no longer know how to treat you. You are no longer married – and therefore, provisionally safe – to women. Things you could do or say as a married man now take on new implications, and are suddenly best avoided.

This change in the expectations placed on you is especially ironic, because the last thing you are thinking of is a new relationship. If your relationship with your spouse was as good as mine, you wonder if you will ever have a relationship to match. You seriously doubt that you will, and, anyway, the steps that are usually necessary to develop even a potential relationship seem so ludicrous that you are seriously thinking of avoiding the whole subject for the rest of your life.

In short, surviving a spouse means that the future, which for years you thought you knew in broad outline, is suddenly as indefinite as it was when you were fourteen. You discover, too, that you don’t really care.

In theory, you could start staggering down a new life path, but that would require giving a damn – and you don’t, not really. Taking a course or joining a meetup would just be a new way to pass time, and travel a lot of effort just so you can go somewhere else to be alone.

And if you say all this sounds like self-dramatization, like I’m only going through what billions have gone through before me, all I have to say is, “See? I told you that you wouldn’t understand. You don’t want to, either, because, if you did, you would comprehend just how fragile your life really is.”

Far less effort for me to show the facade they prefer. That way, everyone else can keep their illusions intact.

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Having someone whom you love die is difficult at the best of times. Not only do you miss them a dozen times a day, but you are struggling to continue without them. But, if that is not enough, you have to deal with people – all of them well-meaning, but many of them annoying regardless of their motives.

If my experiences of grief are any indication, here are the sort of encounters that may tax your patience as you grieve:

  • Suddenly, your life is one continuous conversation about the deceased. Facebook and email can reduce the repetition, but people will still want you to repeat basic information about what happened many more times than you care to give it. You may find yourself longing to have a normal conversation, and escape for a while.
  • We are such a death-denying culture that at the first indication of it, everyone descends into cliches and euphemism. “They had a full life,” people will tell you, and, “At least they didn’t have any pain” if the person died unconscious (as if they could somehow know). Oh, and it’s no longer a memorial service – now, it’s a “celebration of life.”
  • When you break the news of the death, almost everyone will ask, “Is there anything that I can do?” Probably, you will be unable to answer this question, because you don’t really want anything, unless it is for a miracle to restore the dead to life.
  • People with religious tendencies will hand you copies of cheerful and cheesy poems about how the person who died is happy in heaven and you shouldn’t grieve. These offerings are supposed to console you.
  • The employees of funeral homes and similar businesses often seem to think the way to cushion your shock is with an unctuous sleaziness, full of insincere concern and sympathy, and a setting with a conservative grandeur that is reminiscent of the movie palaces of the 1930s – and almost as shabby.
  • If you hold a religious ceremony, avoid clerics who didn’t know the deceased. While they may do their best, often the results are embarrassing. You may not get someone like Father Movie Critic, who turned my father-in-law’s funeral into a review of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, but don’t be surprised if you do.
  • Don’t be surprised if a service is seen by drama queens as their personal stage, as though the service is really all about them. Given any chance whatsoever, they will monopolize the microphone, and throw themselves sobbing into any arms that happen to be nearby. Often, the intensity of their grief is in inverse proportion to how well they knew the dead person.
  • People will promise or propose almost anything in the aftermath of a death. Much of what they say will be said without much thought and they will soon forget it, so do not remind them of it.
  • After the service, people will expect you to be ready to carry on with your life. Since services are generally held within a few weeks of the death – often, within ten days – you almost certainly will not be ready for anything, but there is nothing you can do except try to cope.

In any of these situations, you might be tempted to rant or verbally flay those around you. For instance, when someone told me that the death whose aftermath I was enduring was sad, I wanted to phone them up and scream, “Sad? The ending of Casablanca is sad. King Lear entering with the dead Cordelia is sad. This is a bloody tragedy!” Instead, I just unfriended them on Facebook.

The truth is, most of the people who do the things I mention here mean very well, and will only be hurt and surprised by such outbursts. The behavior I describe here are just some of the things that you have to endure and get past, day by day. Still, it is bitterly ironic that so much that is meant to be sensitive and caring only ends up picking at you like a shirt in which a hundred mosquitos are trapped between you and the cloth.

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A recent Facebook app offers to tell you how you’re going to die. Unfortunately, it is nothing more than a fortune-telling application. That seems a wasted opportunity to me – not that I expect any predictive accuracy from such a thing, but more personalized answers might tell you a bit about your character and habits.

So, in that spirit, here’s a list of the ways I might expect to die:

I will die at 64, after going on a long jog on a cold and rainy day in late October. Like I always do, I failed to notice that summer was ending and I went out dressed in only shorts and a singlet. Needless to say, I was soaked and shivering when I returned three hours later, but I no longer had the physical strength to fight the fever that sent me immediately to bed.

I will die at 78, senile and in a nursing home. The nurses thought I was cheerful enough, even if I talked too fast and was ungodly energetic for a person of my age.

I will die at 92 while on an exercise bike. I might have been all right if I had stopped when the first pains hit my chest, or called the gym attendant over. But I always was stubborn about finishing my intervals when exercising, and I still had another ninety seconds to go.

At 57, I am out for a late night walk when a couple of teenagers pull a gun on me and demand my money. Unfortunately, I am not carrying any money, and my determination not to be a victim makes me try to stand up to them verbally. The trouble is, what I really needed to do was to stand up to them physically and keep my mouth shut.

I will die at 81, of no particular cause except that every organ in my body is worn out. Since I maintained a remarkably heavy exercise program for a person of my age, I was deeply asleep at the time, dreaming of high school, and felt no pain whatsoever.

I will die in bed at the age of 109. I was smiling, because I had filled the promise I had made to myself when I was 9 of living to see Canada’s bi-centennial. Of course, there wasn’t much left of the environment by then, and the country had long ago proved ungovernable, but I was pleased all the same.

I will die at 61, choking on a piece of meat that I tried to swallow too fast. My last thought is how Earl Godwin died the same way in 11th century England, and of how at least nobody can draw a moral from my death the way they tried to do with his.

When I am 86, I am found at the keyboard of my computer, finishing my sixth novel. I was very late in publishing, but my small output of fiction enjoys minor cult status for a few decades before being forgotten then rediscovered a couple of centuries later.

I die at the age of 4,365 due to a clerical error that delayed the transfer of my consciousness to its newest artificial brain. It would have been my 134th transfer, counting clone bodies and temporary holding tanks. My last words are, “What’s next?”

Okay, maybe I am whistling past the graveyard with these scenarios. The truth is, like many people, I don’t really believe in a world without me. So, regardless of whether Death is Terry Pratchett’s skeleton or Neil Gaiman’s Goth chick, I’m going to be surprised when we finally meet.

But, should Death try to schedule an appointment, I plan on being busy with something else, no matter how old I am. And that, I think, tells more about me than any scenario I can imagine.

(With an acknowledgement to Harlan Ellison)

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I spent yesterday afternoon pacing the corridors of a hospital, waiting on the results of an operation. That was the fifth or sixth time I’ve spent a few hours that way, nervous and trying to control my imagination, and it doesn’t get easier with repetition. Nor does familiarity make the hospital any more of a restful place.

Part of the problem, of course, is that very few places – if any – are comfortable when you’re in the lockdown mode of a crisis. Life gets ludicrously simple in a crisis, narrowing to two basic motivations: Doing what you can, and hanging on from moment to moment. Politics, your usual scruples or tolerance for other people’s vagueness – all get thrown out during crisis. You could start a nuclear war the next street over, and the fact would be largely irrelevant during the crisis. At the most, it would be just another damned thing piled on top of everything else.

However, I’m also convinced that hospitals are by nature uncomfortable places. For one thing, they’re full of hundreds of people, all rushing around on the trail of their own agendas and overflowing with their own anxieties. Other places have their crowds, of course, but in many places where we’re used to crowds, such as a mall or a university, the average person has less intensive feelings to add to the complexity. I imagine all these colliding priorities could be seen under the right conditions, like the streams of light in a time-lapse photo, or perhaps like particle collisions with some sub-atomic camera lens.

Even more importantly, I’m with Henry James in The Turn of the Screw: How a building is used creates its own psychological environment. There are places like the gatehouse that is all that remains of the BC Penitentiary that have seen too much human misery, deserved or not, to ever be places in which you can relax. And, conversely, there are places like Vancouver’s Sun Yat-Sen which are shaped so that any emotion except a tranquil contentment is difficult.

Not every place develops such a spirit, and just what details its spirit resides in is difficult to explain, although perhaps feng shui attempts to do so. But perhaps it’s a form of erosion, as the dominant emotions in a place wear at the corners and scuff the floor, as in a public building that never closes, which somehow retains a sense of restlessness.

But you can sense the creation of the spirit, if you look carefully. When a building is new, it generally lacks its own individuality. Then, one day, for reasons that are as hard to observe as the details, a critical mass is reached, and the building has its own spirit, not in a supernatural sense, but in the most mundane meaning of the word you can imagine.

In the case of a hospital, I suspect that the dozens of daily crises and dramas are what is gradually sculpting the hallways and rooms – these things plus a vast and personality-less indifference. For all the intimacy of health care (or perhaps because of it), we make medical procedures impersonal. Doctors and nurses practice a certain distance, both for their own sakes and to preserve the dignity of patients, and to this foundation, the need to organize adds a level of even more impersonal bureaucracy.

You can suffer and easily die at hospitals, not just because hospitals are places where people go to do those things, but because both are handled – despite the best efforts of the best medical practitioners – as a routine, and routines are simply not circumstances for emotion. Your friends and family might grieve you as you go, and maybe some of your nurses and fellow patients. But, not far in the background, the bureaucracy is willing to strip the sheets so that someone else can use the bed and to process your body so that, as quickly as possible, it is no longer the hospital’s concern.

In this sense, hospitals are far worse than other large public buildings like hotels. Hotels, too, are used to tidying up after death so their owns can get on with business, but, at least in hotels, staff might recoil from the reality of death and some visitors might avoid a room if they know that someone has recently died in it. But, at the hospital, few ever know that they are being ushered into the setting of a death and a tragedy, and the staff members, for their own sake, cannot let themselves remember very much.

All the same, a trace remains on the building. More than the complexity of conflicting emotions, more than the anxiety, the most basic of human drama slowly sculpts the hospital of the cleanest, most efficient hospital, sculpting an atmosphere of anxiety beyond any hope of exorcism. If you are a visitor, as I was yesterday, you flee the hospital, when you can, like the survivors flee a haunted house.

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