Tag Archives: grief

The occasional wallowing, or how I wish I could chat with Sophia Loren

Approved-Sophia-Loren-Armando-Gallo-Photographer-I have a lot of friends who are dealing with chronic illness or the illness of loved ones or bereavement or even the loss of pets. So when I saw this article, it called to me: “The Other Side of Grief” by Whitney Akers. The article links to a group of stories about how people coped with their grief, from goat yoga on… One of the points made truly resonated with me:IMG_8129

“Even years later…a sense of deep loss comes in cycles, is hidden in the nooks of your house for you to unexpectedly stumble upon, and becomes a part of you forever…”

So true that. I fell across a sketchbook of my dad’s the other day (he’s been gone 32 years now, for context), and I had to stop and catch my breath, the feeling of loss was so acute. Every time I see an apricot poodle, I am overcome with memories of Pickles the wonder dog, my best friend through many years of my marriage. I talk to someone about a work issue and I can’t help my mind from skipping back to things I wished I’d done differently at work. I feel again the loss and embarrassment I felt when I was forced by my MS to leave employment.

People with chronic illnesses deal with incremental grief, too – every new challenge needs to be adapted to, self-image redefined. Inside we try to stay the same as we were (or better still, learn from our experiences), but our outer selves change and toss us aboutfunny-picture-dump-the-day-53-pics-funny-funny-misshapen-body a bit.

Sophia Loren says: “If you haven’t cried, your eyes cannot be beautiful.” I agree. It’s like parenting or running a marathon. Unless you’ve experienced significant loss, you really don’t understand. And the type of loss isn’t what is important. It’s what it does to you. You can grieve the loss of a pet as heavily as of a person. (I urge you to avoid grieving for plants or fish though as they die frequently and you’d just be a mess.)

I’m not saying it’s okay or good for anyone to grieve constantly. I think that just lays you waste. But in my experience, it’s good to be prepared for those little bits of grief that leap out at you from the corners. It’s extra special good if you can appreciate the feeling and then use it to enrich your world, by helping others or creating art or even just smiling at strangers who look like they might be having a terrible day.

Sophia Loren also says:
“I’ve never tried to block out the memories of the past, even though some are painful. I don’t understand people who hide from their past. Everything you live through helps to make you the person you are now.”
Mind you, perhaps sharing ALL of your past might be unwise (shameful details might lead to the wrong impression…;-) ) (ahem)


Of course, Sophia also said:

e4e93e94-73ea-4980-b49f-e124be457e98“Everything you see I owe to Spaghetti.” and “Spaghetti can be eaten most successfully if you inhale it like a vacuum cleaner.”

See why I love this woman?

So, while I’m not inhaling spaghetti (though now I am dreaming of it), I’ve decided to take the lumps the world has given me and sculpt them into something else. I know it helps.



On the Tragically Hip, terrible diagnoses, and the joy of embracing life

CjOMqSUWUAAHMwpThere was a moment at the end of last Friday’s epic Tragically Hip concert when Gord Downie broke down in tears. No one made a comment. No one has commented since, as far as I can tell. But he was sobbing, his face spasmed in grief, his chest rising with deep, gut-wrenching sobs.

It was a moment. He flipped, made a face, motioned to the audience, and was ON again.

I am curious. Of course he has lots of reasons to sob – his diagnosis of terminal brain cancer, the end of a tour filled with love and affirmation of his life’s work, pure fatigue. He must be exhausted after such a tour, coming fast on the heels of surgery and radiation.

But the rest of the evening, he was so obviously enjoying himself. What turned his emotions on their heel at that moment? I wanted to send him a hug and chicken soup and some dark but not too dark chocolate and some really good whiskey all at once.

I’ve kind of been there, a bit. Before I was finally diagnosed with MS, they thought I had his very same cancer. The doctors told me it was probably a glioma, in my cerebellum. Those who know brain anatomy know that this is a sudden death sentence. I was 49 at the time.


Not my brain but apparently a “low grade glioma”

In retrospect, I handled it badly. I had just separated from my husband of 23 years. My kids were still in shock at that. I couldn’t, in all conscience, visit this upon them, so I joked about it. “Hey,” I said to my youngest, “You’re good with graphic design. Could you make me a ‘Catch her before she croaks world tour’ shirt?” I told them my plan was to cash in all my savings and travel as long as I could. I didn’t tell them what I told my friends – that my plan was to kiss men in every country I went, to see if they tasted different.

My goal in joking about it was to make the kids not take it seriously. I don’t think they did, and in that respect I think I was successful.

But I grieved alone. Grieved the potential loss of seeing the kids grow up, see how their lives went. Grieved the loss of accomplishment I could have had,  the joys, the sorrows, the fun, the CHOCOLATE. On the other hand, the dieting I have done my whole life in spasms seemed unnecessary now. I knew the cancer would eat my body, pare it away.

Of course, I looked up gliomas on the internet. I figured I had six months before the vomiting and horrors started. I knew I wasn’t going to do chemo – had seen both parents through this and it wasn’t going to happen, ever. I did all of this research alone, numb, unable to take it on, not really.

I waited. Waited for the MRI that would let me know what was going on. I waited for two months – an impossibly short/long time. Short enough to make me worry I really WAS going to die. Long enough to give me time to chew my stomach raw. In Canada, our tests are rationed by degree of necessity. Usually, MRIs take over a year. The night I had gone to emergency with my vanishing vision, when they found the spot, they wanted to do an MRI that very night. Terrifying. I didn’t show it, but I was gazing at a precipice then, seeing darkness open in front of me. I didn’t show much to my dear friend Bob, who was there, or my ex, who came. I’d called them when I had to sign for the dye in the CT scan, thinking that if I did react to it, it might be good to have someone explain things to the kids.

Eventually, after I’d just gotten to the idea that perishing in six months might not be so horrible after all – no more icy winters, no more work, no more responsibilities – I got the results. Nope, I wasn’t dying. They had no idea what that spot was. They still don’t know. It is still there, probably has been there since I was a kid.


More like my brain

Instead, they found lesions and holes all over my brain and spinal column. I had MS. Instead of spending all my money (and to be fair, my ex’s) in a wild play spree, I would have to hoard it, guard it, keep it safe so I could afford a good care facility should my disability take hold. Because MS doesn’t kill you. It just takes things way bit by bit until your body gives up, lets infection take hold, and you die in septicaemia, riddled with infection and unable to wipe your own runny nose.

It’s funny, but at the time, that seemed worse than the alternative. I remain undecided. But merciful gods have made my progress slow, and I’ve had lots of good times since the diagnosis.

So Gord, I hear you, man. I liked the way the announcers said “what MAY be their last concert”, offering that thread of hope that you, like me, might be offered a lifeline, a chance to see more, live more, sing more, write more. I so hope so, for you, though at some times the rapid exit might seem like a blessed release.

And thank you for letting your emotions show for that second. All of us who have been in your position, even partly, appreciate your openness.

Wishing you good times, however things go…


Well, F*** it all, anyway.

img_1503-1I’m in a mood. I get in a mood whenever my MS takes a little bit more of me away.

When I’m IN that mood, the following things make me furious:

Statements like, on the Shift.ms website: “MS doesn’t mean giving up on your ambitions, just rethinking how to achieve them.” HA!

Statements like: “My XXX has had MS for years and she still walks five miles a day. Healthy living, you know.” GRR!

Statements like: “Oh, you don’t have spasms like XXX has. His are really bad.” OH REALLY???

Or anything that either suggests I can’t possibly do something, or, alternatively, that of course I can do something. Or people telling me I have it good, or people feeling sorry for me.

It’s an angry, crotchety place, my current locale, surrounded by thorns. Can’t move in any direction without being offended or put out or frustrated or angry. I’ve been in it for a few months now and I don’t like myself in this spot. I much prefer to be the cheerful, “Well, tomorrow is another day” kind of gal. The one who copes well all the time, the one who LIVES her life instead of dragging from one day to the other.

The one who doesn’t feel like ripping the throat out of anyone who says anything about MS or life or feeling or anything. Mine or their own.

My excellent counsellor tells me I am grieving. That I need to allow mys11855132-largeelf to grieve to let things go. Well, I don’t know how to grieve. I’ve never learned. I can fake it, yes I can, I can look moodily out into the middle distance, etc, etc, but grieve? Nope. Not in my makeup, not anymore. Too much has gone by ungrieved I have a bloody ice jam in there and the surroundings will likely be flooded if I chip away at things. So it just piles up in huge lumpy blocks of coldness…

So much hurt, so much loss, so many things I’ve tucked away into their own personal hurt lockers and slammed the door. Everything from when I gave out Valentine’s Cards in grade eight and the boys who received them put them on the floor and stomped on them, to when my brother called to tell me my dad had died and I was just pulling the turkey out of the oven for a dinner with friends and I sat there and made polite conversation like I didn’t care. From being a married mother of three to being a divorced mother of distant children. From living with the loss of my job and identity through MS through constant struggles to find meaning in the new life I deal with every day.

But then I give my head a shake. First world problems, I tell myself. You have enough money to have a comfy home, good food, can go out and have fun occasionally, you have friends who put up with you and the occasional more-than-friend who holds you close. Your cat loves you. So what if every action requires days of recovery? No one is bombing you or starving you (alas) or hurting you. You have nothing to complain about.

And truly, I don’t. I am grateful for so much, it seems churlish to complain.

So I’ll just try this grieving thing and hope I can undo the ice jam, just a bit. Time to think about my blessings. Time to do some “aggressive self-care”, as my lovely cousin puts it. Beware of flooding. And maybe take a page out of Roald Dahl’s theory of life and try to think happy again. If only to look lovely…





The end of an era

ImageThere’s something terrifically sad about the end of a generation, that moment when the last of a set of siblings pass away and you realize, with shock, that there is no one left who truly remembers your parents as kids and you forgot or were too busy or wrapped in your own details to ASK about them, to get the info, to spend the moments with your loved ones.

My dear uncle Laurence passed away this week. I say my dear, not because I knew him well, because I didn’t – but I knew him a bit and extrapolated from what I knew of him and what I knew of the rest of my dad’s family and my gosh I wish I’d sat down with him for hours and picked his brains about his life and the others’.

It was a remarkable and unremarkable family, tested with illness and some separations (most sadly, my family’s separation from the clan over time), but tied together with love and humour and a sense of family that is, to my experience, truly exceptional. I’m envious of the other Brown families – they are close together and supportive for the most part, and we didn’t manage that to the same degree.

The boys served in the war, the one girl became a nun, but a nun with a wicked sense of humour who couldn’t be restrained there forever, and left in her middle years to share her spirit and enthusiasms in a wider realm. The boys must’ve been a handful for my grandmother, a woman given to small smiles that hid an outpouring of love for them all. They interfered with their dad’s radio opera mornings, they played tricks on each other, they told each other jokes. John, one of my very faves, actually told dirty jokes to my mother’s brother, a priest, and managed to reduce him to helpless giggles. He introduced me to “Elvira, Mistress of the Dark”. I’ve never recovered. Jim i barely knew, but I remember him calling my dad when he was sick with cancer, and telling him jokes until my dad could barely breathe. George I met in England, a wonderful, big hearted man. Every single one of these Brown families has, without hesitation, welcomed me and my siblings with open arms any time we appeared.

That’s not common in families, at least in my experience. They are truly loving people. I want to be like them.

Uncle Laurence, handsome enough to be on screen, given to a roguish twinkle in his eyes even when I visited him nearly two years ago – he raised a family of gentle loving girls. There are photos of him dressed to the nines, others of him with some disgusting trick goo dangling out of his nose (which reminds me so of my dad, tossing fake vomit out in front of my Cousin Grace, or feeding my Grandmother Warner and Aunt Annie grasshopper chips and then showing them the bag after they’d eaten a bunch.)

They were all capable to being funny without being cruel, of getting away with foolishness in the best way. I think they made the world a vastly better place. 

I’ve posted a photo by my sister, Margaret Gagnon, to go with this post, to give form to the family in a way. When we were in Florida one time, we came across a pack of laughing gulls like these that would hang around if you threw them Cheerios. They’re called that because their cry sounds like they are laughing. My dad was delighted. He’d recently found a book of Henny Youngman jokes and kept telling them to us to no reaction. You know, the “take my wife…please” sort of jokes. When he saw those gulls he figured, hey – the perfect audience – finally someone will laugh! So we threw up some Cheerios, gathered a crowd of the gulls, and he started talking. The gulls stopped laughing, completely. They were dead silent.

My dad did get a laugh that time – my sister and brothers were rolling on the grass, laughing at the gull’s response.

This family, god love ’em. I just know they are cracking up the crowds in heaven. Be prepared for rain – tears of hilarity…

I miss them all. Love to Uncle Laurence’s family, particularly, as they cope with this huge loss of a wonderful man. xoxoxo

Writing and photographing tears

Writing sorrow. Picturing those little droplets slipping from eyes, causing embarrassment or joy or shame or release…

I hate crying. I’ve never learned to do it elegantly, with tissue carefully to nose, maybe some slight pinking of same.

Nope. I look like I’ve been dragged down a mountainside backwards and face down after I cry in sorrow. Face red, eyes puffy, headache for days afterwards. It’s not attractive.


Rose-Lynn Fisher: Tears of possibility and hope

But despite myself, I leak tears a lot. They come out when I laugh, whenever my kids do anything at all, pretty well (I still find it miraculous that they breathe, let alone think and argue with me), when I am feeling happy. These tears do have a bit more elegance to them. And now I know why.

They are different, made of different stuff. Check out this photo project by Rose-Lynn Fisher on the Topography of Tears. My favourite is “tears of elation at a liminal moment”, although “tears of possibility and hope” is pretty interesting, too, swirled with new pathways to explore.


The tone, or how to throw your voice and actually cause injury

I’ve always wanted to go on a retreat where I couldn’t talk for several days, where I had nothing to do but write and think and be alone within my head. I feel that pressure a bit more now after a series of visitors, all welcome, but all creating conversation. My brain feels cluttered. In amongst these visits, I was involved in serious discussions with my ex over something that we both seemingly misunderstood about each other. My head is full of that, too, wondering what he thinks of me, wondering how I could have said things different, better, so that it didn’t seem like I was trying to put one over on him, or punish him for some fault. I know I’ve damaged our friendship, and for that I grieve. I’ve known him almost as long as my oldest friend.

The solitude I have now after the business of the past week (the problem if living in paradise is that people come to share it – on the other hand, I’d be lonely as heck if they didn’t – and I enjoy seeing them) is opening my covered over heart, and I feel sadness about so many things – ways that I’ve erred, ways that I have pushed people away, ways that I hurt people. It’s hard having those thoughts. But in a way, they are healing. I can’t go back, can’t take back the hurt, seemingly can’t convince people that I’m not some rabid bitch-goddess from hell, bent on the destruction of all that is good and holy. (Though I think that is a BIT of an overstatement.) I can vow, like the Horse in Animal Farm, to work harder.

It’s so hard to see ourselves as others see us. I see myself as considerably slimmer and taller, with better hair, for example, and with nothing but kindness for the world in my heart. I know this is delusional. In reality, I’m short, round, and my hair in this humidity looks rather brillolike. As for my kindness, well, apparently I have a “tone of voice“. I come by it honestly – my mum could wither full-grown trees at 50 yards with her tone, so I know it’s genetic in there somewheres – but I rarely hear myself use it.

Others hear it, though. I’m always surprised to hear this. It probably really freaks them out when I use it when I’m smiling, which I do, rather like a she-wolf baring her teeth as she snarls. As a short person, smiling was my defense mechanism. Be funny, smile so nobody takes you seriously, smile smile smile. Of course, it can be misinterpreted as a sign of joy in the proceedings, a malicious grin, a smile of triumph, when really it’s more like a puppy, body down, seeking appeasement. But I guess, when combined with “the tone“, it seems more threatening.

My boss spoke to me about it once – about having the tone. The way she put it was very diplomatic – that everyone was so used to me being nice that when I used the tone, they were horrified. Shocked. Permanently damaged. Needed therapy for months.

I’d like to think of it as a secret power, but it’s only ever messed things up for me. I wish I could control it, but it slips out at times when it really shouldn’t. I know I was rude to my latest guest, and that is just not done. But the worst thing is that I hurt my ex, and I’d give a lot not to have done that.

Ah well. Perhaps I should take to singing, but my youngest son tells me that isn’t a good idea. Maybe the only thing for me is to do that retreat, meditate, try to do better.

In the back of my head I hear the oft-quoted line of my ex’s family – ” ‘Too late,’ she cried, and waved her wooden leg.” I can only hope that’s not true.