My husband’s eldest brother died 40 years ago, at the age of 16, decades before our sons were born. Yet they can recite an Uncle Kelly story as if he were a person who existed in their time. I’ve heard the stories so often I even sometimes forget he’s only made of memory.
When my boys were small, they played pirate with the wooden sword Uncle Kelly carved. They know the secret of the hollow egg their father keeps on a shelf in his office, the one that Kelly created with papier-mâché; there is something inside, but it will never be opened – the mystery was the point, a younger Kelly told his even younger brother. On our living room wall hangs a picture Kelly painted the same year he died, a folk-art version of a dory tossing in whitecaps, framed in shiny gold leaf and well-guarded against fading.
This intentional remembering is the careful labour of my husband, Joel. He likes to choose passwords linked to Kelly, a daily exercise in memory sharpening. He makes sure we remember the day Kelly was born and the day he died. More often, a childhood flashback or topic of conversation triggers a random Kelly reference, and it’s easy to imagine he’s a well-loved relative living too far away to visit. Other times, his name springs up unbidden because of some tragic accident in the news, and this is harder, because there can be no visits, except to the memorial stone that bears his name on the Lunenburg waterfront in Nova Scotia. But there’s no keeping Kelly confined to a stone, even if his body had actually been buried there. After all these years, he is a ghost in our home.
There was a time when all this remembering made me uneasy – I’m not as comfortable with death as my husband, the church minister. When someone asks about Kelly’s painting or how many brothers Joel has, people want to hear the story – with all its heroics and drama – but the sorrow behind it often leads to awkward silence, and the subject soon changes.
It’s hard enough talking about the dead. Holding on to them, talking to them, was considered an unhealthy, even pathological, form of grief for the better part of the last century in dominant Western society.
To move on, the thinking went, you didn’t learn to live with ghosts; you did the “work” to exorcise them. The dead weren’t useful; they burdened the living. Bury them and walk away.
But as any deeply grieving person knows – as the many families who have lost someone during this pandemic know, as my husband knows from sitting with the bereaved, as I have seen myself watching from the sidelines as he’s performed hundreds of funerals – this is all wrong. The art of grief is in remembering, not forgetting.
For starters, the dead are not so co-operative – we’re stuck with the ghosts we get. More often, we want them around; we dread the thought of them fading away.
And so my husband has been artfully remembering Kelly for the past 40 years. How else do you learn to live with the constant presence of a painful absence? How else to make sure a cherished brother and never-met uncle gets the story he deserves? And how else to make sense of the decision Kelly made in the fog that summer, with the ocean pouring in, to reach instead of jump?
Darcy Harris often opens her grief counselling sessions with a request: Introduce me to the person you have lost, she says to her clients. “I invite the person who has died into the room.”
Sometimes, that happens literally: One client brought an urn full of ashes to their sessions. Others bring objects to represent the person. They are, almost always, relieved to have the space to talk without worrying about making someone feel uncomfortable, without having to endure well-meaning platitudes about being “sorry for your loss,” about how “it gets better.” Often, they speak directly to their loved one, as if they were sitting before them.
Grief is about mending a relationship that has been shattered by death, explains Dr. Harris, the thanatology co-ordinator at King’s University College at Western University. What emerges from healthy mourning doesn’t slam the door on that relationship; it opens a window.
And yet, for the longest time, the dead person was being pushed out of the room – all thanks to Sigmund Freud.
In Mourning and Melancholia, written in 1917, Freud argued that to grieve successfully, a mourner had to completely disengage from the deceased, to pick through their memories and discard them one by one. The goal, he said, was to “restore” the bereaved to a reality where the dead person did not exist. An ongoing attachment was “unresolved” grief and should be discouraged.
It didn’t matter that Freud produced no actual case material for his theory or that he was likely influenced by the context of the First World War, when so many deaths made traditional mourning practices impossible. Or that this very Western notion of grief contradicted many other cultures, which have long practised detailed rituals to maintain a connection to the dead. And it didn’t matter that Freud himself couldn’t follow his own advice when a favourite daughter died in 1920, from complications of the Spanish flu, and he found that, even nine years later, he could not, in fact, let her go. His theory dominated Western thinking about grief for most of the rest of the century.
Even when Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published her groundbreaking work on the five stages of grief in 1969 – the denial-to-acceptance journey that has soaked into popular culture – it had little to say about an ongoing connection with the deceased person, says psychologist Dennis Klass, who was, at the time, one of her assistants at the University of Chicago. He was in charge of finding interview subjects in the kidney transplant unit and the ICU, and was still finishing his doctorate when Dr. Kübler-Ross published her famous book, Death and Dying, and opened up a new conversation about grief.
But Dr. Kübler-Ross had conceived her theory after interviews with the dying. It was never based on those left behind to grieve them. She would later say she never meant those stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – to be consecutive, that they often happened out of order and could be repeated.
But simplifying grief to an instruction manual, even a faulty one, resonated with a culture unaccustomed to talking about grief, says Dr. Klass, now professor emeritus of Webster University in St. Louis. “They used to say that Kübler-Ross showed North Americans the dance of death in five easy steps.”
Eventually, grief researchers actually started talking to the bereaved, studying them in labs, analyzing their emotions, tracking their recovery. By actually charting grief over time with a large sample of subjects, George Bonnano, a clinical psychologist at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York and author of The Other Side of Sadness, found that mourning doesn’t take a steady, paint-by-numbers pace to recovery – it’s a zig-zag of pointed highs and plummeting lows, an oscillation between sorrow and often joy, sometimes from one minute to the next.
What’s more, while psychiatrists and social scientists obsessed about complicated, paralyzing grief, the vast majority of people – as many as 85 per cent – were resilient, even in the face of a traumatic death. They were getting better on their own. They just weren’t doing it by scrubbing their lives clean of their dead loved ones.
The ashes of Sue Godfrey’s father sit in a closet in her home, waiting for the pandemic to be over, so he can be buried with her recently deceased mom. He died 11 years ago. Once in a while, her daughter, Nicole, will bring a letter sealed in an envelope. “This is for Grandpa,” she’ll say, and her mom will put it in the bag that holds his urn, unopened, with the collection of letters already there. “Sometimes,” Ms. Godfrey says, “she just has something she wants to tell him.” When Ms. Godfrey goes to the LCBO, she picks up the Food and Drink magazine for her mother-in-law, who died in the fall of 2017; her son, Zane, who was close to his grandmother, insists on it. “I have a stack of them in the house.”
Leslie Misurak had been married six months when a car swerved into oncoming traffic on the 401 highway and killed her husband, Mark, on his way home from work. That was 1989. “I can still recall all the ways he had influence over my life,” she says. In those first years, she wrote regular letters to Mark. “I hadn’t finished sharing my life with him.” These days, his memory makes an appearance at random times, sometimes over “silly things” – the black-and-white house she bought that he would have loved, a red Mustang like the one he used to drive. Locking those memories up wouldn’t just be impossible – “You can’t un-know what you know,” she says – it’s not what she wants. This way, Mark is allowed to have a life, not just a death.
Not long after Carolyn Dobias’s husband, Andy Lazarovits, died of cancer in 1999, making her a single mom to three young children, she put her own prescription in a pair of his old glasses. She didn’t tell anyone; it was for her alone. “It just gave me pleasure,” she says. “It would me make smile.” Eventually, she says, she was okay to put them in a box and donate them for someone else to use. But as a partner and father, Andy continues on, even though Carolyn has remarried. He shows up in stories, in celebrations of family milestones, in the letters he wrote for the kids before he died. “We bring him along,” she says. “The relationship did not end the day he died.”
Our desire to maintain those relationships is evident all over social media, in the memories people share about parents and siblings long after they’ve died. But new technology has often been adapted or imagined in this way. In the 1920s, Thomas Edison claimed to be working on a phonograph to record the voices of the dead. More recently, a 70-year-old gardener in Japan installed a British-style phone booth on his property to have conversations with his dead cousin. As he told the BBC in 2019, Itaru Sasaki wanted a tangible way to talk about his grief, for his thoughts “to be carried on the wind.” It doesn’t matter, he said, that the phone isn’t a real connection; since the 2011 tsunami, thousands of people have come to make “calls” to loved ones.
About five years after Dr. Kübler-Ross published her work, Dr. Klass was invited to advise a local chapter for grieving parents in St. Louis. Sitting in the very first meeting, listening to the parents remembering their deceased children, he realized how misguided Freud – and his former professor – had been. The parents he met never “finished” the work of grief. They maintained a strong, fierce connection with their children. They had ongoing conversations with them, lit candles to symbolize their presence, carried their pictures everywhere and, as a support group with a shared experience, organized large-scale memorials to ritualize their grief. In one family’s case, the parents had planted a garden after their teenage daughter died; when her best friend got married, she carried a rose from that garden in her wedding bouquet. “She couldn’t be the maid of honour,” Dr. Klass says, “but she was there.” Healing wasn’t forgetting, but remembering well.
“In hindsight, it is so obvious,” he says. “It was always there.” Yet in the research at the time, he says, “there was no explanatory power for the phenomenon I was observing.” Eventually, with a son living in Japan, he began studying that nation’s ancestor traditions, designed to ritualize a continuing link with those who had died – the same practice he’d observed in bereaved parents in St. Louis. In 1996, he co-edited a book with contributions from nearly two dozen authors on this new understanding and, inspired by a suggestion from his wife, a child development expert, gave it a name: continuing bonds. “It was in the air already,” he says. “We just crystallized it.” The Western theory of grief had finally caught up to how people were actually grieving.
What my sons and I know of Kelly is based on a selection of chosen memories, the perspective of a little brother. We know he would sneak food to his siblings when his parents threw parties. That he was once the target of the meanest bully at school and outran him home. That the Nova Scotia summer before he died, he loved a girl who wrote him letters during the school year back in Ontario. He was gentle and kind. While painting the picture that hangs in our home, he patiently showed my husband how to create the curve of white to show a windswept sea.
Is this all accurate, a complete picture? Does it need to be?
My husband would be the first to admit this Kelly is “based on a true story” – an idealized version of the imperfect person who was his brother. Research by Dr. Bonnano has found this to be true even if the relationship was strained. Almost everyone gets a post-mortem glow-up, for which, frankly, we should all be grateful.
In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis wrestles with how to properly remember his wife after she dies from cancer. He worries he doesn’t have a good photograph of her and that he can’t get the details of her face right in his mind. A month after her death, she’s already fading – the beginning, he writes, of a process in which she becomes more and more an “imaginary woman.” He longs for 10 seconds of “the real H” to sharpen his memory again.
But then there’s a change: When he mourns the least, he realizes, he remembers the best. “It was as if the lifting of sorrow removed a barrier.” When he stops “bothering about” the accuracy of his remembering, his wife “meets me everywhere.” Not like an apparition or a voice on his shoulder, he clarifies. But he describes “a sort of massive and unobtrusive sense that she is, just as much as ever, to be taken into account.”
The idea that a lasting bond with a dead loved one should be taken into account – rather than severed – has given grief researchers new fodder for debate, particularly around the healthiness of those bonds and the effect of grief on memory. In 2018, Dr. Klass co-edited Continuing Bonds In Bereavement: New Directions for Research and Practice, a collection of chapters by experts updating research from the first book.
Among the new developments is a 47-item continuing-bond scale to test the nature and intensity of the connection and to guide therapy. Some research has distinguished between “healthier” internal bonds – viewing the deceased as a role model – and more “problematic” external ones, such as feeling their physical touch. Keeping a few possessions of a loved one, as my husband has, might be healthy; preserving their bedrooms and closets is usually not. But even those external experiences are extremely common among people grieving – in research, roughly half described times when they saw their loved ones, sensed their physical presence or dreamed about them.
Studies that track grief over time suggest that bonds may become more comforting two years after the death than in the months immediately after – or when the sorrow lifts, as C.S. Lewis observed. Other work has found that continuing bonds are influenced by spiritual and religious beliefs – and certainly faith informs Joel’s grief. But people who aren’t religious also commonly report them. The British novelist Julian Barnes asserts that “dead is dead,” yet wrote of his own frequent conversations with his deceased wife: “When alone, I talk to her, I am worth listening to.”
Perhaps, more accurately, those we love are worth talking to, dead or alive.
Grief researcher Robert Neimeyer, director of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition, suggests those continuing bonds are tied to the process of adapting to an event that may have shattered a person’s assumptions that the world is safe, certain and just. According to Dr. Neimeyer’s work, being able to make sense of a death is key to recovering from grief. There is the “event story” – the details of the death – and the “back story” – the details of the life – and a grieving person needs to reconcile both.
Framed this way, the COVID-19 deaths may have a clear event story – a global pandemic – but one still complicated by the finer details, such as the inability to visit a loved one before they died, the decision to put a parent in a nursing home, guilt over possibly giving them the virus. As well, Dr Neimeyer suggests, a funeral is often the time when the back story of a person’s life is shaped and shared, where the narrative acquires new colour with storytelling from the larger community. The pandemic has moved those rituals online or delayed them entirely.
Dr. Bonnano describes grief as a recalibration, the time the brain needs “to accept that the person is no longer physically in the world.” This process, Dr. Neimeyer says, involves the search for meaning and, within that meaning, a new connection: “How now do I love this person? How do my actions continue the story of their lives?” Like a living relationship, the bonds with the dead are nuanced and complicated. They can be the basis for a new relationship, or to extend and receive forgiveness.
Not all bonds are equal or serve the same role, however. Sue Godfrey’s 87-year-old mother died from COVID-19 a few months ago. Her mom, she says, was a “difficult person,” one who never let her only daughter forget that she was adopted. As she got older, dementia made her harder to be around, so visits to the nursing home fell away. Her ashes are now in the closet with Ms. Godfrey’s dad, until they can be buried together. But when her name comes up in memory, it’s not with the same joy and sharing spirit as her dad or her mother-in-law. “I will have my moment,” Ms. Godfrey surmises. “It will come, but it is not here yet. I will grieve the mother I didn’t have and acknowledge the mother I did.” But the bond, though complicated, remains in its own way – a little voice to remind Ms. Godfrey of the loving, open family she created for herself. “If she hadn’t been who she was, I wouldn’t be the way I am.”
Ms. Godfrey worked on her troubled relationship with her mother in therapy years ago. But as a secret-keeper by profession, Joel has seen how many of us struggle with unresolved loss and regret all our lives. On their deathbed, people have sent their family from the room and called Joel, their pastor, to their side, to confess the things they wish they’d said or done, the griefs they wished they’d handled better. “They waited until the end of their lives to release themselves,” he says with sadness. At the graveside of a man who was an abusive alcoholic, he stood beside a son who worked himself into a sweat throwing dirt on his father’s grave, as if to bury that difficult relationship for good. It’s never so easy. “If the relationship is painful, you have to look harder for the moments when you were loved,” Joel says. That’s something he’s learned, bearing witness to death and the shock waves that follow. Grief, especially the complicated kind, is the search for the most honest truth you can live with. Don’t put it off.
A car veers across the highway. A virus sneaks into a nursing home. A brother turns one way, instead of another. Life changes in an instant.
Joel was 11 when his brother died. Once in a while, he talks about what he remembers of those days in the summer of 1980 – how his family had to sneak out the side door of the Lunenburg church after Kelly’s memorial service to avoid reporters, the crushing silence of the drive from Nova Scotia back home to Ontario with too much room in the back seat of the car.
But Joel prefers to reach back further, to the Kelly who once briefly convinced his little brother he could jump over the house if he put his mind to it – and then smashed his head on the railway tracks a few weeks later trying to catch a train. Joel remembers sitting by Kelly’s bed, where he lay in bandages, keeping him company. That memory, as he tells it, is about Kelly’s resolute optimism. He believed in impossible things. Over the years, it’s become one way to attach meaning to what ultimately happened. Only an optimist, Joel reasons, would have made Kelly’s choice. “I imagine his last thought,” he tells me, “would have been, I really thought I could make it.”
This is part of his figuring out the event story, Dr. Neimeyer might say, blending fact with speculation to make sense of it all.
That summer, Kelly landed a job working a short stint on a scallop dragger called the Margaret Jane, which was captained by an old friend of his parents. He wanted to make money to buy a laser sailboat. He was the youngest of the 18-member crew and had never been fishing before.
It happened just beyond the mouth of Lunenburg Harbour. In thick fog, the Cape Beaver, a steel-plated trawler, collided with the Margaret Jane, slicing into the port side of the much smaller wooden vessel. Kelly could have jumped overboard. He was a strong swimmer, an experienced sailor. Instead, he rushed below for life jackets.
More details came out months later, at the public inquiry. The Margaret Jane, by the worst luck, was returning early to Lunenburg, after a senior crew member suffered a back injury. Somehow, despite both boats being equipped with radar, the captains failed to avert their collision course before it was too late. The towering bow of the Cape Beaver plowed midship into the dragger’s side, damaging her beyond repair. The captain of the Margaret Jane later testified that he hadn’t given Kelly any specific training when he came on board; instead, a crew member gave him a tour and showed him where the life jackets were stored, in the sailors’ bunks.
The final report focused on new safety measures and recommendations for formal navigation training for captains, not on the final steps of the 16-year-old on board. But by piecing together the testimony recorded in 10 volumes stored by Joel’s parents for all these years in a box in their basement, you can follow them from beginning to end.
Kelly was playing cards in the forecastle – the living quarters in the bow of the boat – when he and the other crew members felt “a jolt.” He came up on deck, only to race down again with another fisherman, Frederic Emeneau, for the life jackets. Crew members said they last saw Kelly throwing the jackets up the ladder to the men waiting there.
This is not, however, the last time he is seen. The Cape Beaver, a new and modern addition to the Lunenburg fleet, had dignitaries along for its first sea voyage, including an NBC television crew shooting a documentary. The footage captures men on the Margaret Jane standing unsteadily on the deck as the boat takes on water – slowly at first. When the Cape Beaver pulls back, the Margaret Jane folds in the middle, the weight of the ocean flooding in. The camera focuses on the bow, by the forecastle, as the remaining crew members leap and topple into churning waves. One of them is Frederic Emeneau, who is swept overboard, but survives to testify at the inquiry. That places Kelly, in the final moments, scrambling over the gunwale. A massive wave slams into the rigging. The bow points high and sinks, sucked down as if swallowed whole. It all happens in about 90 seconds. Four men died, including Kelly. They were never found.
The grainy footage of the collision appears once in a while on shows about disasters at sea. We’ve all seen it. But it’s only one perspective on the much larger “event story,” told and retold to my sons, especially on Kelly’s Day, July 31, the anniversary of his death. Back on shore, one reality was being replaced by another, and they know that, too: how their Nana heard the news of an accident involving the Margaret Jane while grocery shopping and rushed to the waterfront; how their grandfather, some time later, rowed out to sea in a grief-stricken search for Kelly’s body; how their 11-year-old father sat on the wharf near the cottage all day in shock, and how later, the compensation money helped build the small cottage where my sons now spend their summers. They know where to find his name on the compass-rose monument on Lunenburg’s waterfront, among all the local men lost at sea. And my sons also know why, before our eldest turned 16, a brand new laser sailboat arrived on the shore, purchased with money we didn’t have. But I imagine they’ll understand this, and more, should they become fathers someday.
I remember my mother-in-law telling me how surprised people were to see the family back in Lunenburg the following summer. “Where else would we be?” she told me. The connection to Kelly was strongest there.
Grief is an intensely private experience, with a public performance: sadness in the right amount, in the right way, then packed away. Weep too long and your grief is prolonged, the grief research says. Too hard and it is complicated. Too little and it is absent, or lying in wait.
And yet Joel would say that every critic learns the truth in their own time. Each grief story is unique, unfolding in its own way. We do the best we can with the story we get.
But if at least part of grief is a public performance, what is the role of the audience? Not silence, surely. Not apologies, offered lamely. We might just listen or volunteer our own version of the deceased – pieces of memory to shore up the connection with the person who’s physically gone. In his book Levels of Life, Mr. Barnes writes with disdain about the Silent Ones, those who knew his wife well but would not speak of her to him. He describes being out for dinner and releasing her name into the air for someone to keep afloat. No one did, though he tried three times. “Afraid to touch her name, they denied her thrice,” he writes, “and I thought the worst of them for it.”
People worry about bringing up the dead for fear of “upsetting” people, says Ms. Misurak, who went on to train in grief therapy. You cannot upset someone by mentioning a person who is always on their mind.
Kelly isn’t always on my husband’s mind, not any more. But he has a permanent place there. On the anniversary of his death, Joel disappears on his own for a while. I don’t ask him about that. I know he talks to Kelly still, even all these years later. He keeps those conversations to himself.
The only way to deal with a terrible grief, my husband says, is to walk straight through the storm of it. Even then, as he has seen in so many families, and in his own, it leaves a wake behind. His mother, he says, wrestled with the anger around what happened her entire life. She learned to push it down, to bury it under better memories, so that 20 years later, when the last captain of the Margaret Jane offered to take the family, by boat, to the spot where it happened and throw a wreath into the water, she could find peace in that gesture. My husband preached at the annual seamen’s memorial service that same day. He spoke of the strength of families to carry on, his own determination to find meaning in the emptiness he felt. But he would be the first to say he shared his narrative only; his parents and two brothers have their own, created, like his, from fact and fiction, to sustain their own relationship with Kelly.
Every summer, we travel to our little place on the ocean – the one that Kelly made possible, built on a postage-stamp-sized piece of old family land, on the shore where he said goodbye and walked up the beach, headed for the Margaret Jane. And he is there, waiting for us. Our boys sail at the club where he sailed, and life moves forward and backward at once. We visit the monument on the Lunenburg waterfront and watch the chatty tourists snap pictures of the names of men they never knew and, following Joel’s lead, trace our fingers over the name we know, like a precious secret.
“Bury what you need to and hold fast to what is life-giving,” Joel often says. He has held fast to the parts of his brother that hold meaning for him – and given his family a bond to share. It’s not a burden, but a gift. Kelly died and yet still lives, and we are all the better for it.
On the anniversary, we sail out past the headland, into open ocean, so we are there at noon, the same time the Margaret Jane went down. We go as far as we can; our boat is too small to make it all the way. The sun has burned away the morning fog, and the sky is the purest, azure blue. I can see the wish in my husband’s eyes, for a different story. You never stop wishing for that. But on this day, drifting on the sea, near as we can be to the place where Kelly was last in the world, he feels connected, and it is enough.
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