Name: Sandra Pate
Tell me about the person who died:
My brother, Kevin, died on May 19th, 2014. He was diagnosed with late stage, inoperable, metastatic kidney cancer at the beginning of March of that year and was told that he had just a few weeks to live. Ten weeks later, at the age of 62, he died peacefully, with my partner and myself present, in the palliative care unit at Toronto's Grace Hospital.
Since Kevin was five years older than I was, we weren’t very close when we were children, but I know that he adored me when we were little; in fact, he named me. He was a brilliant child, an Ontario Scholar, although severely lacking in confidence. In high school he became derailed, perhaps mixing with the wrong crowd. Today I believe that he most likely suffered from mental health issues that he never got any help or support for. Our mother kicked him out of our house when he was just sixteen.
Four years later my parents and I moved to Montreal and Kevin stayed in Toronto, and we lived in separate cities for many years. For decades, he struggled with drug and alcohol abuse and as a result, he had trouble keeping a job. He moved from rooming house to rooming house, struggling to find his place in the world, although he did manage to hold down two jobs for several years. About twenty-five years ago, Kevin became disabled at work, and he was fortunate to find a subsidized apartment, in City Home, with rent geared to his minimal disability income. With his now very limited proceeds, he was unable to drink excessively and our relationship improved dramatically. Our friendship grew as we talked weekly, finally getting to know each other. At the end we had a deep and affectionate friendship.
Tell me about something I can photograph that reminds you of the person who died, and why?
My favourite objects that will always make me think of Kevin are two small hand-carved totem poles that he made when he was eleven. I was only six at the time and I thought they were wonderful. I still do. They’re both quite small, about 8” high, made from wood with various screws, tacks and beads affixed. One has been painted with several colours – red, black and yellow. The other is just natural wood. On the back, in his childish writing: “Made by Kevin, 1963”.
What was your experience of grief like? How did it change over time?
My other brother, Kim, came from Nova Scotia to visit with his wife and son shortly after Kevin’s diagnosis. Kim was in disbelief, but I am a former R.N. and I was quite sure that the prognosis was accurate. We had a busy, emotional, but somewhat harried time together. It was a crazy time of year at work, and I tried my best to navigate the required tasks while my business partner was out of town. After my brother Kim returned home, I began to feel overwhelmed with sadness and the pressure of all of the responsibility on my shoulders - to visit my brother daily and spend as many of his remaining hours together as possible, to clear out his apartment (25 years of hoarding piled high), and to continue to live my own life. After a few weeks, I sought out a grief counselor, who was very helpful. I only saw her once, but the timing was remarkable. I met with her on Friday May 16th, three days before Kevin died. Unbelievably she sent me an email just an hour before he died, telling me that she was thinking about me and that she was sending me strength and love.
How did people in your life support you in your grief? What was helpful? What was frustrating?
The most helpful for me was visiting Kevin with a few friends who volunteered to come with me. Visiting, day after day, is tough and yet felt essential. Today could be the last, today could be the last. But when you aren't used to visiting with somebody every day, it can become difficult to know what to talk about. Another person brings different conversations to the visit. Refreshing!
Other friends who hadn’t seen him for years also came to spend time with him and he loved it. His friends visited regularly and had great times with him, playing music and games. He kept a diary until the very end. It was terrific reading about his visits and the events of each day.
On several other occasions friends came to Kevin's apartment and helped me with the huge task of clearing it out. I knew that once Kevin died, I really wouldn't want to go to his apartment anymore, so it was important to me to get it done as quickly as possible. We finished it two days before he died.
How did people who were grieving the same person respond to the death compared to you? What similarities and differences did you notice?
My father was his typical stoic self. He's quite elderly and unable to drive anymore. Every other Sunday, his wife, who was never one of Kevin’s fans, dropped off my father while she sat in the parking lot and waited for him. She never visited Kevin once. I found it incredibly disrespectful and hurtful and it is hard to spend time with her now.
Did anything surprise you about your experience with grief?
I was surprised at how overwhelmed I became and how alone in my grief I felt. My brother, Kim, was in denial most of the time and so it was hard to connect deeply with him. I didn't know very many of Kevin's friends and most of my friends did not know Kevin. Since we were not close as children, and we lived in different cities for several years, we really only connected deeply over the past twenty-five years. We had little in common but Kevin often needed help with things and so I became his go-to for help and emotional support. We finally bonded, and it was too bad that we couldn't have enjoyed our friendship through more of our mature years.
After Kevin’s death I felt a huge gap in my world. We had a gathering to celebrate his life, and it was surreal to look at all of the collected and assembled pictures of us with Kevin. Memories come, unexpectedly, in waves and short bursts. Fun times, difficult years, challenging events. I was glad to hear one of his high school friends say he thought that Kevin had a good life.
Sandra Pate lives in downtown Toronto with her wife and their six pound poodle, who is firmly in charge. She has been a real estate Broker since 1981 and in her spare time she enjoys time with her friends, volunteering, traveling, games, great food and wine, and the outdoors. She is currently a volunteer at Emily's House, Toronto's first hospice for children.
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