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first person

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Illustration by Marley Allen-Ash

Lately, people in my circle have been suffering from the death of a loved one. Grief has fallen on my neighbours, my friends, my extended family and my daughter. In each case, the death came as an overwhelming shock to the bereaved, whether it was expected from a terminal cancer diagnosis or a sudden death from drugs. Each time this happened, my focus shifted immediately to the bereaved. I did not know their loved one who died so I could not share their grief directly. But as they mourned, I could try to support them in some small way.

I know how important this is because small acts of support meant so much to me when my mother died: notes of sympathy, a tray of homemade samosas for the service reception, the acknowledgement of my loss by co-workers when I returned to work.

Acknowledge someone’s loss. Do it with a card, an e-mail or a phone call. Try to use your judgment on whether the person needs seclusion or company and if you’re unsure, ask them what they’d prefer. Offer practical help with daily tasks such as dog-walking or grocery shopping. Be available. Listen if they want to talk. Don’t look for the silver lining: there isn’t one in the first pangs of grief. Give people time to get over the immediate shock. Don’t rush their grieving because their grief makes you feel uncomfortable. There is no timetable for grieving and it isn’t a linear progression.

It took me a whole year to recover from my mother’s death. I felt as though heavy weights were attached to my body. I had a job and two little girls, aged 3 and 5, who would never know their grandmother. Mourning my mother was exhausting and I was thankful for every bit of support I got. In one instance, solace came from an unexpected source: a music therapy student at the college where I worked, he was a young man from a different country and culture. He spoke gently as he offered me a book about the healing energy of music. My favourite music – jazz, rock, blues – now sounded harsh and jarring and made me even more exhausted. I couldn’t stand to listen to it. With the music therapy student’s encouragement, and for the first time in my life, I listened to classical music. It was the only music I could listen to, and mostly from the Baroque period. After work, after dinner and after my daughters’ bedtime, I would lie down and surrender to the calm spaciousness of Bach, or the majesty of Handel.

I knew I was finished mourning my mother when I turned on the car one day after someone had borrowed it, and the radio blasted Jimi Hendrix singing All Along The Watchtower. I turned it up even louder, rejoicing in his voice and guitar, his powerful life force. Life came flooding back on that song and carried me away from the shadows of grief. I remember feeling a strange pang as I recognized the end of mourning. By mourning her, I had kept her close to me. I could finally let her go and move on with my life.

Thirty-five years have passed. I am now the same age my mother was when she died. That year of grieving my mother helped me to be less afraid of being with heartbroken people. I know there is no template to follow and that grieving is unique to each of us. I try to choose my words carefully and like most people, I find it hard to find the right words.

Recently, my husband asked me what he should write on a sympathy card for our friends.

“Write what’s in your heart,” I suggested. He paused, then wrote one or two sentences, simple words acknowledging their loss and offering his support.

The pandemic made the isolation of grieving much worse. Two of my friends who live across the country endured the deaths of their spouses and the loneliness of empty homes without visitors. There could be no gathering, no funeral, memorial service, or celebration of life during the lockdown periods.

In the days when many were attached to a religious organization, traditions and rituals could offer comfort to mourners. When I used to attend church, flowers and cards would be sent, food dropped off and, if requested, the minister, or a representative from the congregation, would visit those who were in mourning. In our more secular times, many people have disengaged from religious organizations and traditions. They have to get by with the help of friends and family and community. As the English writer Julian Barnes put it, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.”

Those who have suffered the death of a beloved one never forget the people who showed up for them when they were at their most vulnerable. I don’t remember the name of that music therapy student. He was a passing acquaintance, but the unexpected kindness he showed me is locked permanently in my memories of that painful time of loss, along with the others who reached out to me.

Connie Gibbs lives on Salt Spring Island, B.C.

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