Name: Zachary Sera Grant
Tell me about the person who died:
My grandmother, Betty, died unexpectedly of pneumonia on June 6th, 2006, at the age of 81. I didn't get to see her in her last couple of years. I was away at university and was allergic to her home—likely from the mixture of dust, cigarette smoke, ragweed, and emissions from the pulp and paper mill in town. I would always end up in hospital so I was banned from going to visit by my mother, though I spoke with her on the phone every Sunday. About a month before she died she said to me, "You know, I haven't seen you in a while. I miss you, but it's ok, because I know how much you love me." I'm so glad we had that conversation. It gave me a lot of closure.
In my early years, my grandmother was my nanny. She spent hours watching my favourite movie and playing uneventful games with me. She lived in Birmingham throughout World War II, and would tell me stories of growing up in England. I would wake up to her smoking in the kitchen with a pot of tea and a can of carnation milk. I remember the smoke rings swirling around the milk and tea. When I went to bed she would be in the same spot.
She got me through some difficult times in my childhood. How much she knew of that I'm not quite sure; I don't think I actually want the answer. Later on as my eating disorder progressed and she didn't know know to deal with it, I struggled to relate to her. But I always loved her. I still love her.
Tell me about something I can photograph that reminds you of the person who died, and why?
Player’s cigarettes. I used to run to my grandmother’s linen closet and just smell the mixture of Player’s, fabric softener, and Pears soap. Why she kept her cigarettes with the clean linens I will never know. I have such vivid memories of playing with the silver paper from the boxes. My sister and I loved how beautiful it was.
I remember the towels were a light peach/cream colour on the top of the pile. These were the towels we never used, guest towels I guess. The towels underneath would get darker and more worn until they reached a very 70's orange and brown.
What was your experience of grief like after your loss? How did it change over time?
My life stopped. I had no way to cope. I turned down a very dark path. I feel like grief opened up the madness inside of me. I think I did almost anything to not feel. I would spend hours down by the river, just trying to make sense of it all and figure out what I believed. Death hadn't touched me in the same way before. This was the person who loved me more than anything, and she was now gone. To say I collapsed is an understatement. Eventually I found my way back to my art. I started drawing and writing. I began wearing my grandmother’s jewelry. I would read and reread all the postcards and letters she had sent me. I would think about all the stories she had told me. I would watch Peter Pan, the movie I forced her to watch twice a day, every day, in my childhood.
Later I had a portrait of my grandmother at 6 years old tattooed on my arm. I think the biggest part of healing was the tattoo. Doing all these things somehow shifted the pain. The rest of my family doesn't seem to understand how crushed I was after she died. Why I needed her on my body, in my skin.
If you had to describe your grief as a literal place you've been passing through, what would it look like and feel like at different points in your journey?
I feel like grief is a blanket fort. You can see the outside, but unless you're on the inside, you don't know what it’s like. You rebuild the blanket fort multiple times, but it’s vulnerable. Moving one chair, standing too tall, someone touching it, the whole fort collapses. You keep working on it until it's perfect, but it never is. The blanket is too short, or too long, or too heavy. The chairs slide on the smooth floor. The shelf is too far away or too heavy to build with. The cats attempt to jump on it. It all needs to be cleaned up before dinner. But you'll always rebuild it. Looking for a way to feel safe inside of it. Adding pillows to the hard cold floor. Extra blankets to keep the cold out. A light so you can see through the darkness. Stuffed animals so you aren't alone.
Did anything surprise you about your experience with grief?
I was surprised by how encompassing grief is. How it wraps you up. How you feel it in your body. The weight of it.
How did people in your life support you in your grief? What was helpful? What was frustrating?
I isolated myself a lot, outside of work and school. I hated how everyone kept telling me to go home, to take care of myself. I didn't know what to do with that. I also felt like if another person told me that they were sorry for my loss I might punch them. I really just wanted people to talk in real terms. She died, but no one could say that. People would bring me ketchup chips. That helped.
How did your private grieving relate to your public mourning?
In public I was stoic. I never cried. I continued on with my life. In private I crumbled. Eventually I found ways to express my grief outwardly. But it took a very long time. I think I'm still figuring out that process.
Was there anything about your cultural or religious background that affected the grieving process for you?
I sometimes think I struggled more because I had no faith, or hadn't thought about any in relation to death. I did take a lot of comfort from nature and thinking about her body returning to the earth.
How did your loss and your grief change you?
It changed what I began to study and write about. I started to research and learn about death and grief. I currently focus much of my work in social services on grief. I look for death positivity in the world. Allow people to sit with it, express their grief, however that might look. I allow people to talk about grief as something bigger than death.
Zachary Sera is a non-binary artist, student, madvocate and community support worker living in Toronto with their partner and three cats.
This post is part of Grief Landscapes, an evolving art project documenting the unique terrain of people’s grief. Participants share an experience with bereavement, and I then photograph an object that evokes the person who died, transforming it into an abstract landscape inspired by the story. I’m looking for many more submissions and for a range of experiences, so please share widely! Learn more about the project and submit your story. - Mindy Stricke