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Making Room for the Less Sad Moments in Times of Grief

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You think you know who is going to die next… are almost sure. I mean, she’s been sick in one way or another most of her life. And the latest ICU stay was going to be the end. It really was. But then she rallied. Mom bounced back for the 34th time, like a cat forgetting their limit is nine. And don’t get me wrong. I am thankful for that.

But this death — this one that never happened, I was prepared for. I’ve been in the “preparing stage” for years.

But Joanne — Joanne only had the flu. Joanne was 24. Joanne, who had married my nephew just eight months ago, well, how did she qualify to need a medical helicopter? And sepsis? This doesn’t make any sense.

Healthy and strong to gone. In less than a week.

The flu. Sepsis. Gone.

This death — this one that did happen? This death I was not prepared for.

An insidious cruelty lies beneath the surface, or maybe it rather hangs above, obvious, like a storm cloud about to lash down its assault again.

You see, my sister lost her husband when she was 29 — Dustin’s dad, Steve. Dustin was three at the time.

And now, at the age of 26, my nephew Dustin’s lost his even younger bride.

My sister Linda a young widow; her son Dustin a young widower.

Jo died on January 6 (two days ago at the time of this writing). I was on the phone with my sister as she sat in the ICU waiting room and was then called to her daughter-in-law Joanne’s dying. It was too late.

Five or maybe two minutes later my phone dinged.

“She’s gone.”

Living on a different continent, all I could offer was to make calls.

Trying to stop the stream of tears was futile.

I picked up the phone.

First Dad and Mom.

Then, Dustin’s paternal grandmother, Carol; the woman I watched shatter into a million bloody shards when she lost her son years ago, who has since had to glue those shards back together, piece by piece. I think she probably still holds the glue bottle in her hand.

And now Joanne’s mom must do the same impossible and relentless task after losing her daughter.

I call Dustin’s grandmother and say, “Carol, it’s Susie.”

It was 6 am Manitoba time. I could hear the unspoken question in her voice as her brain sparked to life.


“Yes. I’m calling with bad news.”

The phone started growling a low-toned beep.


“Don, I just told Carol I was calling with bad news and the phone died!”

“No! Suse it didn’t!” Don ran.

I shouldn’t actually quote him so precisely. I don’t remember what he said. I just know he responded with the weight of the cruel timing and then ran. The thing is… it feels cruel
because she was left hanging as to how bad the news was and who it was about. But in reality, the imagined might have been less cruel than the truth. I could offer no, “…but it’s gonna be OK.”

I cough, full of cold.

I try dialing again.

More growls.

I internet call on my mobile.

No answer.

Don throws another house phone to me as I half-sit, half-lay under the duvet.

The gap between the growling and the second “Hello” is endless. About 45 seconds of guilt-filled horror.

“I don’t know what happened! The phone quit working. I’m so sorry.”

“I don’t know either, but then I lost the phone in the bed.” she said, with one single chuckling sound. Maybe. It’s what I would’ve done. Again, I don’t trust my memory.

“Well I’m not sure if you knew, but Joanne had the flu and went septic last night and they flew her from Boundary Trails to St. Boniface at about two this morning and… she didn’t make it. She’s gone.”

“Dustin’s Joanne?”

She knows. But shock. Shock makes us ask obvious and dumb questions. It’s trying to protect us from the truth, but is inadequate long term.

“Carol…I can’t believe this is happening… again.”

We talk logistics a bit more. I call my sister back as she drives away from the hospital following saying final “after” goodbyes to Joanne.

And today, two days later, I am at the hairdresser’s getting highlights and a trim. A new me!

My hair foils are cooking. My sister messages and tells me she actually slept last night, and I tell her I kept waking up sad after having sad dreams. She tells me she might have to take one of her other sons to the walk-in medical clinic because of the flu, and that even after her youngest daughter’s been to the doctor twice and the ER once for this same flu, she also still has a slight fever. The same flu as Jo? That obvious question silently crosses our minds, but we don’t speak of it, not in this moment.

Then my sister asks how I am physically feeling, because I, too, have the flu.

I get called over to the salon sink to have my hair washed and I almost fall asleep it feels so
good. So does the blow dry. I revel in it.

I walk up the street.

I buy bananas and an avocado and chocolate at the store and emergency glucose tablets for my diabetes at the pharmacy and some secondhand clothing from the local charity
shop because that’s what I do when I am in town.

I come home excited for my new makeup order, delivered while I was gone. I try a bit of it on.

Then I search for a couple of songs that are meaningful to me, and “Oh My Friends,” by Oh Wonder brings forth and pours out tears. I share the YouTube video online.

I should eat something. What shall I make? Oatmeal might sit well. Yes, with dried cranberries.

I message back and forth with Dustin’s brother who is trying to deal with University demands that don’t seem to care either about him or Dustin or Joanne. He questions the “OK-ness” of the less sad moments he experiences between the sad ones.

Maybe it’s my age or my experience with loss or my own mortality being shoved in my face time and time again (thanks chronic illness!), but I am at peace with the less sad moments in times of grief.

In my early twenties, when we lost my sister’s husband, guilt from laughing or enjoying my food or… good gosh! Excitement about new makeup? It strangled the oxygen out of my breath. I dared not feel happy as I felt it cancelled out any appearance of grief — that is, unless the laughter and smiles were a result of a memory of the deceased. This honoring of the missing person doled out passes on the guilt, and I grabbed at them, needing reprieve from the heavy, and clutched them in my fist only to have these passes disappear the second a fleeting moment of ordinary pleasure bubbled up inside.

Somehow, I don’t feel the need for a pass anymore. Life is both pain and pleasure, and to ignore either of those seems futile or at the very least unnecessary. A respectful embracing of the highs and lows seems helpful for both my own spirit, and as an offering a brief reprieve from sadness for fellow mourners.

It is strange though, isn’t it? How life stops, spins in circles and ploughs forward all simultaneously when someone dies? To be clear, after all I’ve just said, I do feel it bizarre and confusing — just not wrong.

My conversation with Dustin’s brother inspired me to sit down and try to dump out my thoughts on all this… weird. And it does seem a messy thought-dump. Language can never truly convey the heart. Regardless, I thank him for our talk.

It seems the less sad moments — even happy ones — and the very sad moments will keep showing up. So I guess we better embrace them if we plan to survive our grief, yes? I’m not sure there can be another way.

Photo of Dustin and Jo

Originally published: January 27, 2020
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