Name: Leigh H.
Tell me about the person who died:
On Sunday, September 19th, 2004, at the age of ten, I lost my father to terminal lung cancer. I remember being pulled out of my grade five class to find out that we had to make a decision whether to "pull the plug" by Sunday night. I was not present for the decision, but I was informed on Sunday evening that my family decided to take my father off of life support upon the doctor's advisement.
Flash forward nine years to early morning on Monday, March 4th, 2013; I was 18. I had spent the previous night with my mother on the palliative care unit at the hospital, just waiting for the gurgling to cease. She was steadily declining in health, since she could no longer swallow food or water. The doctor informed us that she had about a week left to live. But two short days after we were told this, the moment I left her to go home and shower, my mum passed.
Both losses were equally significant, but struck me in entirely different ways. I’ve attributed the differences to the ages at which I lost them. I had more time with my Mum, and we had to fast forward through time as if we were running against it. I went from rebelling against her, always up against a wall, to taking care of her in her darkest days. The times she wept because I needed to be there for her and it was painful for her. The things I didn’t expect to hear until I was at least forty. Whereas with my Dad, it’s not that it didn’t hurt, it’s that I didn’t know. I was too young to comprehend what was going on around me, and I was kept in the dark because of my age. To me, the deaths are united by a feeling of incomprehensible loss, because when I lost my mum, I lost my father all over again. My world fell apart with an unavoidable immediacy.
What was your experience of grief like after your loss? How did it change over time?
Something that I’ve noticed about grief is that it has no boundaries whatsoever. It will invade every crevice of your mind, bones, heart, and spirit. It is a circular staircase, where you climb each stage of grief and then end up at the bottom stair again, because you never truly stop grieving. It is an ongoing process.
My grief has exacerbated my everyday anxiety and “depression,” whatever that constitutes. But what is grief if not the experience of loss? What is anxiety if not the fear of losing something? What is “depression” if not feeling as though you’ve lost your vitality, your source of content, your entirety, and ultimately your soul? Few understand this, and if this can’t be understood, how can my grief progress? How can I climb the stairs without falling on each step?
I’ve been made very well aware that the losses I’ve experienced are rare for someone my age. It’s not that I desire for anyone to comprehend my loss in the same way—I would never wish that upon anyone. I do desire that my grief be understood, and a few years ago, I would have never expressed this. But recently, I have found contentment in sharing my grief with others. How else could I become comfortable with this experience if I didn’t speak about it? The stage that I have reached is “acceptance”–the top stair–but I will end up on the bottom stair again soon. It’s a natural process that is marginalized and dismissed, but in actuality, bereavement is essential to our well-being.
If you had to describe your grief as a literal landscape, what would it look like and feel like at different points since your loss?
Encompassing darkness, overwhelming confusion, skin crawling, desperation, melancholic, discontent, anger, red, black holes, tunnel vision, irreconcilable rage, tingling sensations, lost/sinking/falling, dizzy, light, hopeful, angels, emptiness.
Tell me about an object that reminds you of the person who died, and why?
We used to all gather in our basement for family time. I remember vividly the image of them at the basement bar—a shandy (beer and ginger ale) filled to the brim for my Daddy, in a distinct glass cup he had. He would be behind the bar pouring my mum a vodka and coke, or a Baileys, preparing for the evening. We would listen to music—they enjoyed American Graffiti and other oldies too. “Distant Drums” by Jim Reeves always made my mum tear up, as it reminded her of my dad after he passed. We would have ice cream, chips, and drinks. And play darts. My childhood, encapsulated.
Did anything surprise you about your experience with grief?
The most surprising thing was when my grief officially settled with me. When I was younger, it was difficult for me to wrap my head around everything. But I distinctly remember a point where I felt guilty for continuing on without my dad as I was a kid. Guilty for carrying on like everything was fine. And this feeling only grew after I lost my mum. It truly is life-shattering to lose your parents, and to pretend to be brave at times when you feel the most vulnerable. Grief allowed me to realize that it isn’t even the big things anymore; it’s not the holidays or the birthdays, it’s the little things. It’s my inability to run to my mother to share with her my day, how I’m doing in school, to gossip or cry on her shoulder. Or to share with my father a boy that I wish for him to meet, or to have him mold my everyday actions—and not just to have him influence me, but to hear him say what I’ve done right and wrong. To have that sink in.
How did the people in your life support you in your grief? What was helpful? What was frustrating?
The most frustrating thing for me with grief is that there is a skewed and widespread conception of grief being disordered if it goes beyond, stereotypically, six months. Some jobs only allow a few days off for grieving. How is this humanly possible? At what point did we tear death away from compassion and humanity? At what point did grief become something we get over, or move on from, because someone is still “with us” or “would be proud” of us?
Another substantial frustration for me is that people often don’t understand the sensitivity of the topic. For instance, I understand that some people do not get along with their parents. But when people complain to me for hours on end about a parent who, for the most part, is genuinely kind and treats them well? I become enraged, jealous, and selfish. This is the worst side of grief.
How did people who were grieving the same person respond to the death compared to you? What similarities and differences did you notice?
Something that I have noticed is that people try to compare grief experiences, but each experience is unique. The meaning you pull from it is simply your own. Even the role of the individual in your life contributes to the meaning you gather from their death. I found that with my mum, I couldn’t speak to her about the loss of my dad, because it was her husband. It wasn’t until she lost her dad that she truly understood. But the intimate love she had with my father formed her perspective, and I can’t disregard that. Similarly, these are my parents, and no one will understand the depths of my grief. However, they may relate to my grief in some ways, just as my mother did when she lost her father.
How did your private grieving relate to your public mourning?
The funerals felt like bombardments. I had chest pains. It felt like everyone and their mother was there, but the most important people were notably missing.
I received comfort from people for about three weeks after the funeral. People ask you how you are, if you’re holding up okay, how your relationships are, and offer assistance. But when I really needed it, a year later—when I realized how difficult it really is to carry on—it wasn’t there. The mourning I experience now occurs privately since I’m past that “acceptable” time frame for grief.
Was there anything about your cultural or religious background that affected the grieving process for you?
I asked my mother to connect with me in any medium she could, to reassure me. She has visited me in dreams, and I’ve felt her energy. She has visited me more than my dad, and I believe this is because I was so young when he passed and he kept me in the dark with his illness. I was his little girl, and he didn’t want me hurt. He still doesn’t, and while he’s come a few times with my mum, I know this is because of her spirit.
Were there any personal or public rituals or structures that helped you in your grief?:
There was a Christmas tree ceremony at Durham Hospice. Putting an ornament on the tree in memory of my parents, I felt as if they were there. I also wear a necklace and a claddagh ring my father gave to my mum, as it makes me feel connected to them.
How did your loss and your grief change you?
My grief made me appreciate life for all that it is. I’ve used my parents’ strength to bring me to where I am, and understand my weaknesses as acceptable in my journey—a journey I begin every day, in a physical sense, without two of the most important people in my life. They both passed young, and recalling all of my memories with them—good or bad—makes me value the time I have with them, and with anyone. I strive to believe that everything happens for a reason, and that people come in and out of your life for a reason, too.
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 photograph an object that evokes the person who died, transforming it into an abstract landscape inspired by the story.