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Canada's Joannie Rochette fights back tears as she finishes her performance in the women's short programme figure skating event at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, February 23, 2010. (ANDY CLARK/REUTERS/Andy Clark)
Canada's Joannie Rochette fights back tears as she finishes her performance in the women's short programme figure skating event at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, February 23, 2010. (ANDY CLARK/REUTERS/Andy Clark)

Judith Timson on loss

We all grieve with Joannie Rochette Add to ...

There's an obvious reason why so many people have been wrapped up in the Joannie Rochette story. Most of us will never know what it is like to do anything athletic as brilliantly as Ms. Rochette skates. But all of us know - or will know - what grief is.

Human beings are hardwired for bereavement - it's the cost of our emotional sentience. And what could be sadder than a daughter unexpectedly losing her mother at one of the pinnacle moments of her life? And so we have all become lump-in-the-throat cheerleaders for our poised and poignant figure-skating star.

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We want her to skate brilliantly partly because we know what's coming next for her: the hard-slogging work of grief.

Grief has lately found its way into the news in unexpected ways. There was British designer Alexander McQueen, who hanged himself, reportedly distraught over his mother's death. There was the shocking death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili at the start of the Games. And there was the study this week that confirmed our longevity has increased. Nothing sad about that, but it changes the future of grieving.

As more of us live longer, one of the stranger effects will be a raft of newly created "orphans" in their 70s, as their parents don't die until 99. At a recent gathering, we all laughed darkly when someone quoted a friend saying, "My mother dying practically ruined my 70s!"



Grief changes us, deepens us, surprises us. Joannie Rochette has made all of us who grieve ache a little more profoundly on her behalf.


The interest in grief as a passage, an art, and an inevitability, has of course intensified as the boomers see off not only their parents, but also their contemporaries.

Grief in the 21st century may have some distinctly modern elements - memorial services with shamelessly cool production values; e-mailed condolences; death announcements by Twitter - but what everyone discovers is that grieving takes up an inordinate amount of personal time, no matter how fast-paced a society we've become.

It's also far messier than psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross led us to believe with her famous five stages of death and dying - "denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance" - which became the paradigm for grieving.

In a recent essay in the New Yorker on finding a better way to grieve, writer Meghan O"Rourke argues that this staging "turns out largely to be a fiction" and that "grief and mourning don't follow a checklist; they're complicated and untidy processes, less like a progression of stages and more like an ongoing process - sometimes one that never fully ends."

Ms. O'Rourke doesn't think our modern society does a bang-up job of acknowledging grief. We may bring in grief counsellors by the truckload, but we've adopted "a sort of 'ask, don't tell' policy," she writes. "The question 'How are you?' is an expression of concern, but mourners quickly figure out that it shouldn't be mistaken for an actual inquiry."

And yet grief is so infinitely interesting. It's practically the last way to be sad in our society that isn't instantly pathologized.

The new, paperback edition of The Mourner's Dance, Katherine Ashenburg's beautifully written account of how we grieve, includes a moving afterword about the author's own parents dying. One of the discoveries Ms. Ashenburg made when she originally researched her book was that grievers uniformly report that spending time with the body of their loved one is hugely important. So when her father died, Ms. Ashenburg made her way to New York, and there he was, in a hospital bed, wearing "an old favourite, a V-necked brown cashmere sweater" and "except for his pallor, he looked cozy."

She writes: "People talk about their hearts breaking, but I felt, instead, that my head was bursting … with one phrase, as if the words, in different fonts and sizes … were swelling my head beyond bearing. The words that came from my throbbing brain, but not my lips, over and over, were 'Thank you. Thank you. Thank you' … for a parent who had shaped my life with his constant encouragement and admiration."

In the recent anthology The Heart Does Break, various Canadian writers tell the story of their own grief, from writer Marni Jackson's funny and moving account of her father's cremation, to Jill Frayne, daughter of the late activist June Callwood, who writes that "the state of emergency that came with her death has passed, and I have a sense of her again, not in the world, of course, but in myself, in memory and in dreams, but strongest in my body, in breath and bone, as if by physical feat I have incorporated her."

This past January, I felt the familiar stone in my chest as I approached the third anniversary of my mother's death. It was like living the moment over and over again. But this year, I surprised myself by sitting down and writing my mother a letter, catching her up on all that has happened since she left us, most of which would absolutely delight her: an upcoming family wedding, graduations and quite possibly the news that I am finally having that root canal.

I felt a little foolish, but the more I wrote the lighter my heart became, until the stone disappeared and my day seemed full of possibility again.

Grief changes us, deepens us, surprises us. Joannie Rochette has made all of us who grieve ache a little more profoundly on her behalf. She has a whole country of people mourning her loss - not to mention their own.

 

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