Name: Catherine Mellinger
Tell me about the person who died:
I met Vick when I was 28, after starting a certificate program in Expressive Arts Therapy in Toronto. She was one of my classmates. The program was a three year program and over the first two years, Vick and I began forming a friendship. Vick was a flame. She has this incredible curly red hair, a deep voice, intense eyes. She was honest, exceptionally intelligent, utterly kind and caring. I remember first bonding with her over California–she was from there, and my sister was living there, so I would go at least once a year to visit. I would randomly run into her on the streetcar and we'd talk about writing and what the process of making art was like for us. It was a slow build of just getting to know each other.
During the second year of the program Vick experienced a lot of upheaval in her life. She switched jobs, and she announced that she and her husband had decided to separate. She decided to leave the program after second year, to focus on her work and her family, as well as her health. She had never had any major health issues but she suffered from intense migraines, some of which caused her to have slight seizures.
We made an effort to stay in touch. A few months after she left, she contacted me to tell me that she wanted our friendship to be sustained outside of the program, and she wanted, point blank, to be friends with me. I told her I felt the same and that year our friendship flourished. She invited me over for meals, and I chatted up her son about Harry Potter. She told me how her separation from her husband was going, and how she was exploring her sexuality after realizing she was much more in her own skin when she could explore bisexual relationships. She talked about going out with women she had crushes on and how happy it made her. We celebrated her 50th birthday over Thai food. I celebrated Passover with her and her son.
During that year, as we bonded, she began to have more frequent migraines and fatigue as well as a lot of anxiety. She took a health leave from her new job and decided to begin writing more. We began working on a project together where I sent her some of my collages and she wrote short poetry to go with them, which ended up being used in a small exhibit I did. We had plans to make a children's book together, and to illustrate and write together more often.
I hadn't heard from Vick in perhaps a couple of weeks, and I wrote her an email to see how she was and ask if we could meet up for tea. Less than 48 hours later, I got a message from one of the professors at the school we attended together. Vick had died. Suddenly and unexpectedly. I don't know that I've ever felt such shock. She was just gone, and I had no idea how, or when. All of the students from the school were sent details of her funeral and invited to attend.
It wasn't until months later that I even found out where or how she had died. Her parents were visiting and staying with her. She hadn't been feeling well. She told her parents she was going for a run and asked them to watch her son. She didn't come back for quite some time and her parents called the police. They thought she'd gone out to run and something must have happened. The police told them that they couldn't file a missing person report until 24 hours later, but that the family could go out looking for her. I'm not sure how they thought to go down to the basement, but it seems someone did, and found Vick there, beside her treadmill. She hadn't gone outside to run, she had gone downstairs to her treadmill. They think she had an aneurysm, passed out while running and just died, then and there. They don't know how long she'd been lying on the floor. I can't even think about it without tearing up again. None of it made sense.
It felt so odd being at the funeral, standing at the back of the room with other students from the class just trying to digest it all. I recognized her son and ex-husband but knew very few of her friends, and none of her family, who had all come from California. It seemed like a strange dream in which I was an impostor who had just lost someone that I had so much more to do with, so much more to know about.
What has your experience of grief been like since your loss? How did it change over time?
Vick's death and the process of grieving was so different from previous losses I’ve experienced. It felt like an assault, like something was stolen from me. It felt harsh and heavy and violent. I was a complete mess when I heard the news, and I had an enormous sense of anger that I carried with me for a number of months afterwards. I remember bawling heavily for hours. I had no idea what to do. I had no one to reach out to. I didn't know her family, I didn't know her friends, I just wanted to reach out to her, to Vick. I was in shock for the better part of six months, not knowing where to put my grief other than on my now husband's shoulders. Mentally I felt confused, lost, mudded. Physically I felt tight and wound. Emotionally I felt angry, horribly sad, and somehow empty. It was a friendship so new yet so meaningful, with so much light and connection and promise, and it was just gone.
Over time it dulled and softened, and went more inward. I learned later that the University of Toronto had erected a commemorative bench for her on Philosopher's Walk on campus, just outside of The Royal Conservatory. I was often at the Conservatory, as I work there occasionally. It felt so special and perhaps even a bit kismet that her bench was right there. It felt like a sign that our friendship was real, that it actually meant something. Whenever I would go to the offices for meetings or classes, I got to sit on her bench, have my lunch, have a tea. She felt so far away yet somehow a little closer, knowing her name was there.
I've realized that every year at the end of May, I can't stop thinking about her. I start to remember our friendship and the things we talked about, the meals we ate together, the streetcar rides we took together either by chance or because we'd planned to see each other. It's when I remember that this was the time of year that she died. My son was born in May, and every year, after his birthday, I'm overcome with thoughts of Vick again.
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?
Initially the grief was a hard and dark brick wall. It was physically painful to come up against. Thinking of Vick was like knives in my chest. Hard, heavy, not cold, but hot, sweaty even. Eventually it started to ease and turned more into waves, like sitting on an ocean and feeling like you wish you could connect with what was on the other side, whoever is out there, wherever they are. It's windy and comes and goes.
Tell me about an object that reminds you of the person who died, and why?
Vick loved to learn to cook new things and one night she invited me over for dinner. She said she was really into this Jamie Oliver cookbook. That night she made me scallops sautéed with arugula and peas. It was one of the best meals I've ever had made for me. We sat, we ate, we drank wine, we chatted about our shared crush on Jamie Oliver. Anytime I see one of his cookbooks I think of that meal, I think of Vick, and it makes me smile.
How did the people in your life support you in your grief? What was helpful? What was frustrating?
I felt like there weren't many people with whom I shared my grief. I shared the most with my husband, Joel. Within the first two years of our being together he held me through the loss of my cousin, then Vick, and then my grandmother. I couldn't believe how understanding he was. He just listened when something came up.
What was the hardest for me was feeling like I didn't have anyone else to talk to about it. None of my other close friends really knew her. Our relationship was quite private I suppose, perhaps because it was still new. It felt strange speaking about it to people who didn't know her. My classmates were good about it too, and we talked about her passing in class for a couple of weeks after. Then it all just seemed to fade for them, yet for me it didn't.
How did people who were grieving the same person respond to the death compared to you? What similarities and differences did you notice?
I felt disconnected from others who were grieving, because I didn't know her family and or many of her friends. I had connected with her brother at the funeral and told him about the project we'd been working on; that she'd written poetry for my pieces. He gave me his email so that I could send him some images. I emailed him and told him I would be honoured to send him a piece, as a gift. He chose one and I mailed it out to him, but we didn't really speak after that.
At one point, perhaps a few weeks after Vick’s death, I emailed her telling her that I missed her, and that I wanted to write to her because I didn't know where else to talk about how I felt about her death. It felt somehow satisfying to send out that email into the void. And who knows, perhaps her family or her ex had access to the email and read it, I don't know. But if they did, they never wrote back to tell me.
How did your private grieving relate to your public mourning?
My grieving was all private. Where the grieving had a chance to be public was perhaps at our graduation from the program. I asked the class if we could honour Vick by putting out a chair for her with ours during the ceremony. The staff spoke about her and we took a moment. It felt nice, but like a token. Something to honour her as much as that setting allowed.
Were there any personal or public rituals or structures that helped you in your grief?
I really immersed myself in my collage work; Vick’s death sparked a huge commitment in me to be the artist I wanted to be. To keep going, to make it my life, my profession. I loved that Vick was not apologetic about who she was or how she felt. She didn't apologize for wanting what she wanted. She made me feel like I had a voice that deserved to be heard, and that my art was worth seeing. I'm endlessly thankful for that.
A couple of years ago at this time, I remember a night when my husband took my son for dinner at his family. We had planned that I would stay home and do some studio work because I'd barely had the chance since my son was born. I went out and bought myself some scallops, and I made a dish similar to the one that Vick had made me. I brought it into my studio and I poured myself a glass of wine and I worked. I toasted Vick and I collaged. It made me so happy, and it made me feel connected to her again.
How did your loss and your experience of grief change you?
It made me very aware of hidden grief, in others and in myself. When Vick died I felt I was selfish for being so upset. How could I feel so violated when her family must feel even worse! How could I admit to my grief without feeling I was being dramatic? The privacy of my grief really made me aware of the "circles" of a death. There is the family, and there are the close friends everyone knows about, people who may have known the individual since childhood. But then there are those that you may not think are affected, yet aren't they? You never know how something will hit you, and you can never know how many people it hits. It's taken me a long time to grieve Vick I think in large part because I never felt seen in it by those who knew her best, because I didn't know them.
It's all feels so complicated really, and it's still hard for me to really accept and be OK with how much I miss her, how much I crumbled when she died. To accept and feel OK about knowing that our friendship mattered, that it meant something. It's like a secret I carry, my loss of Vick.
Catherine Mellinger is a mixed media collage artist, art facilitator and certified Expressive Arts Therapist who lives in Waterloo, Ontario with her husband and son. She is currently working on a visual/literary collaboration with Toronto writer Marianne Apostolides titled Deep Salt Water, which will be published by BookThug Press in Spring of 2017. For more information on Catherine's work, visit her website.
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.