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first person

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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

I am performing my morning ritual – scrutinizing the newspaper obituaries. I am seeking out those who lost adult children.

I read that a man outlived one son by 18 years. I Google to learn more about that son. Who was this young man? What did he do? A world adventurer? A scholar? A free spirit?

I find the widow of a prominent Canadian businessperson donating money to defeat a disease in memory of her daughter who died of the same disease shortly before her 29th birthday. I learn this is the second daughter she has lost.

You may think me macabre. But I am seeking camaraderie. I am looking for “my people” – other parents who have lost adult children. This quest brings solace. In my own way, I want to pay tribute to the lives of adult children lost long ago; that those lives counted for something. That I care. More importantly, I find peace in knowing I am not alone on my journey of grief. Another parent has carried this burden to end-of-life.

This year marks the fifth anniversary since I was forced to take this journey. My beloved youngest son Stefan was 29. He developed epilepsy at 16 although he never let epilepsy define him. The last time I saw him he was laughing as he was wheeled on a gurney into the operating room for what was supposed to be routine surgery to locate the epicentre of his seizures. A month previous he had asked the surgeon, “What are the chances of dying?” The answer was, “Two per cent.” But the odds were not in my son’s favour. The surgeon called it a catastrophic series of events. And two weeks later our family gathered in the middle of the night as Stef was removed from life support. I will never forget each of us walking down the hallway and into the bleak morning air silently and without holding hands or embracing. Grief is such a solitary walk.

I am not here to tell you much about Stefan. Perhaps that he was happy. Adored his wife. That he took life in stride. Lived in the moment. Definitely to the detriment of his future. Was hilariously blunt. Hilarious period. I was so inspired by his impact on my life I wrote a book about Stefan’s unrelenting positivity. Other parents write books. Or plant trees. Or place benches.

But to come to terms with my grief, I have had to seek grief buddies. To seek out my “grief collective.”

My first and steady “grief buddy” was introduced through my sister-in-law’s sister. One of her best friends lost her 42-year-old son three months after Stefan died. He died in his home of a heart attack and my buddy discovered her son when he did not return her calls.

She lives in British Columbia. Initially, we talked and texted lots. By August of the first year, I was encouraging her with, “I hope you are able to find some moments of distraction … perhaps a small smile or two without guilt.” On Christmas Day my buddy wrote, “I will hold you in my heart at noon today.”

She texted me once from a mountain top in Scotland, which she had scaled in memory of her son. We have now met twice in person when she visited Toronto. And it’s like we’ve been lifelong friends who just get one another. My B.C. buddy’s lived experience has healed me more than any therapist. She calls it a “symbiotic friendship, beyond any other kind of relationship I have with anyone. Period.”

My other grief buddies are my groups at Bereaved Families of Ontario (Toronto chapter). My co-facilitator also lost a son. We help groups of parents process their raw grief over a period of eight weeks. She and I have facilitated these groups since 2018 – usually two to three times a year. What is astounding is the speed at which the group members lay open their deepest wound to strangers no matter their status, station in life, wealth, origin, age or circumstance. None of that is relevant. We are all coping with “every parent’s nightmare.” Whether it happened by suicide. Murder. Overdose. Freak accident. Traffic accident. Cancer, cancer, cancer. No grief is worse than the next. The only relevant commonality is loss.

We talk about everything. Guilt. How to sleep at night. How to get up in the morning. How to deal with holidays and anniversaries. The insensitive response of others (”isn’t she over it yet?). How to rediscover joy with our other children and grandchildren. How to rediscover joy if we have lost our only children. We also bring pictures and videos and stories about our children. We celebrate their lives. That is my favourite part because I get to celebrate Stefan with each group.

I am always asked, now five years later, “Does it ever get any better?” I finally have an answer to that question thanks to my nephew, Steven, who sent me a Twitter meme that illustrates grief as a gaping hole in your chest. Some think it shrinks but it doesn’t. It never diminishes. But over time, good things start to grow around it. Poet Gwen Flowers lamented that grief is not about getting over or through, it’s about adjusting to a life altered.

Another grief buddy, a long-ago colleague, who lost his son says he “chose life” after his son’s death. I’m not sure I have made a conscious choice. Although I have been conscious of living for my other two beloved sons and my husband … these three people are now my ultimate driving force.

But to function on a day-to-day level – continuing to get up each morning, to work, to change jobs where no one knows of my tragedy, to begin to re-engage with life – mostly I have done this thanks to my comrades in grief. It was an organic evolution supported by “my people,” leading up to today when I have the fortitude to complete this essay.

That’s why I will continue to read the obituaries. I am seeking out other grief buddies – even though they have died. To pay tribute in my own way: “I may understand what it was like for you. Bravo for living out your days choosing life after loss.”

Judy Fantham lives in Toronto.

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