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Spirit of Life

When grief toasts the love of life

Updated November 14, 2021
Black and white background with two glasses of pink champagne toasting each other.

A few years ago, our neighbour’s teenage child died unexpectedly. It was an incident that gripped everyone on our block, a wrenching of two parents living through the worst moment of their lives. Every October, I think back to that clear, sunny, crisp morning; I think about the ambulance and my pounding heart and how young my own child was at the time. I think about the mattress out in front of their house on the garbage day after the death. And I think about how this month is the anniversary month for this family.

I don’t know their date. I know it was October because I remember feeling so stupidly bothered on their behalf by the Hallowe’en decorations in our neighbourhood. The fake, tilted gravestones and the bones seemingly emerging from the earth and the empty-eyed skulls, so ghoulish in their pantomime of dying. I was disappointed in Hallowe’en that year, sorry it has become a parody of itself, serving as a distraction that buries consciousness of our own mortality, rather than providing an opportunity for reflection on it. 

Grief is a staple of October for a lot of folks, I suspect. I guess it is just a crappy coincidence, but I know several people who have had a parent get sick and die in October. (Hello, friends, I am thinking of you.) The anniversaries bring with them an ache and a heaviness at a time when seasonal affective disorder, shorter days and the dread of winter can compound those feelings. 

This year, grief feels even more pressing. Collectively, we have gone through a grieving process that started in March: grieving lost opportunities, lost jobs, milestones gone uncelebrated, lives disrupted, and lives ended. In Ontario, we’ve gone back to a sort of “lockdown lite,” which means a further severing of social contacts and markers of quasi-normalcy. 

The announcement about Lockdown 2: Electric Booglaoo brought to mind this article the wonderful Esther Perel wrote in the spring about the sometimes unfamiliar feelings brought on by the pandemic: prolonged uncertainty, ambiguous loss, and anticipatory grief. For those of us who allowed ourselves a taste of normalcy this summer—a soupçon of socializing, some seasonal staples like cottages and barbeques—do these feelings come back now with roaring intensity? Or are we better positioned to handle them, knowing we succeeded doing it once before?

*****

This week, I Googled a dear old friend of mine, someone with whom I’ve maintained a thread of connection over the years though our moments of contact are rare. In doing so, I discovered that his best friend died a few years ago. This person was someone who I had only met a small handful of times, who lived in a town I left 20 yeas ago. He was someone I surely would never have recognized had I passed him on the street. And yet, receiving the news of his death absolutely wrecked me.

My tears were so wildly irrational that I knew they must have little to do directly with this person who had died. I sensed that they were about very old losses, grief from all the longing for everything I ever wanted when I was living in Winnipeg and never got. The obituary that was written about my friend’s friend specifically referenced his rambling old house in Winnipeg’s leafiest neighbourhood, how he bought it and worked on it and welcomed all kinds of people in to it. I was one of those people once. It was just one night, one night that was so memorable I still think about it from time to time. It was a night where grief and longing were met with connection and care, a connection that hangs on by the thinnest of invisible threads.

*****

Since the pandemic started, my work wife and I seem to have taken turns periodically texting each other, “I think I just need a good cry.” Then the text recipient reminds the other to go watch Moana. (If you’ve never seen it, just know that Moana is Disney’s best princess, and nothing facilitates a good, cleansing cry quite like it.) In doing so, what we’re really saying is:

I know
I feel it, too
You can take care of yourself
Let ‘er rip
You’ll feel better
Love you

The other day, she texted me a random list; at first, I didn’t know what it was. It began with: 

The fern
The coffee stain
The maple cookies

I quickly realized it was not, in fact, a badly-written haiku, but a list of office references, personal jokes and items on our mutual shit list from work. It brought to mind a montage of what life used to be like working in an actual office, and the human contact that came with it. For the briefest of moments, it made me miss being there, a reminder of one more thing that was foisted upon us, rather than what we chose. 

*****

There is a space left by COVID where the losses are, but so few of them are honoured in a public way. “Do you know anyone who’s gotten COVID?” we ask each other, and the circles who it has touched are clearly getting closer and closer. Still, the grief feels almost entirely private, even though it is so widely shared. Local newspapers, including the Toronto Star, have built searchable databases of brief stories about those who’ve died from COVID; in the absence of any other public rituals, these feel like the most tangible memorials we have.

Last week, @MsKellyMHayes tweeted about a National Week of Mourning for Victims of COVID-19, in which Hayes and other Chicago-based organizers created a weeklong vigil that included collaging, a distanced solidarity demo outside a prison, a mixtape, and a zine. Most touching to me was a series of banners Hayes and others hung in public places in their city. It’s not what the banners said—”We Grieve Together”—that touched me. It was the fact that the purpose of the banners was to create a space where “people can honor their grief in a shared way, even if they are viewing the banner at different times.”

People need to grieve, and a collective loss calls out to be grieved collectively. What Hayes and her fellow artists did is try to fill that yawning gap where we all feel a loss but have no collective rituals to mark it. These artists took it upon themselves to make room for grief, giving others the gift of a public space so that they may mark it in a way that can be known. In a culture that denies death at every turn, this is one of the most life-giving things they could possibly have done.

This essay originally ran in This Week in Bitchcraft on October 10, 2020.