Irish Cape


Irish Cape, 2016


Name: Merri-Lee Agar

Age: 43

Tell me about the person who died:

At the time of her death, my mum Sandy was my best friend and biggest fan. It wasn’t always that way; she and I butted heads from the time I was a teenager into my thirties. She’d had lung disease for decades, for so long that I don’t think any of us actually believed she would die from it. She was an incredibly strong woman who was much sicker than she ever let on. She lived for her family; her husband, her kids, her grandkids, and her one great-grandchild. Her family was everything to her and that was what kept her going.

A few years before she died, I started a Mother’s Day tradition where all the mothers and daughters in the family went out for brunch together. My Mum loved the idea and added her own touch to it by bringing a corsage for each of us: a single red carnation to be worn over your heart if your mother is living, and a white carnation if she has died. Being the matriarch, she was the only one who wore white. In the weeks leading up to Mother’s Day in 2010, she had not been feeling herself; she asked me to pick her up for brunch as she didn’t feel well enough to drive. 

As we drove the 20 minutes to the restaurant, she reached for my hand and told me how she had been to the emergency room the night before because she couldn’t breathe. Based on her history and her symptoms, the doctor had run tests and confirmed that her pulmonary disease had progressed to congestive heart failure. It was time to get her affairs in order; she was dying. While it was difficult to have confirmation, a part of me already knew. I told her that I would be there for her and would help her in any way I could, and she said she knew that. We spent the rest of the drive in silence, holding hands with tears streaming down our cheeks. At the restaurant, as she pinned the red carnation over my heart, we exchanged a look of understanding that the following year, mine would be white. 

June 29th will be six years since she died, just seven weeks after Mother’s Day and my last red carnation. She was 71.

What was your experience of grief? How did it change over time?

I had a considerable amount of anticipatory grief. Not only over the several years of her declining health, but especially over those last seven weeks of her life. As soon as Mother’s Day passed, the busy work started: updating finances, advance directives, wills, funeral planning. I will never forget the day I watched her choose her casket and urn. Sitting in the selection room, she had a look on her face I had not seen before; a combination of peace and pain. She was tired of the struggle, and yet she knew that her peace meant our pain. That was one of the hardest days of my life.

It was her wish to die at home so her doctor educated us on what to expect and how to keep her comfortable. On June 26th, she became bedridden but was still completely lucid and we were still checking off her ‘to-do-before-I-die’ list. She had me email distant friends and relatives to thank them for their love and wonderful memories and we called the family home to say goodbye. We even had a minister come to the house so she could have last communion with her husband and four children—equal parts beautiful and emotional. I never left her side.

She was having more difficulty sleeping at night due to increasing discomfort, and I was sleeping in her bed with her, so we talked to distract her and pass the time. One night, I found myself confessing every “bad” thing I had ever done in my life, and found that she already knew about most of them! We laughed until we cried, and then she talked to me about dying. She wasn’t afraid, because she already knew where she was going. 

It was a story I had heard my whole life. She had hemorrhaged giving birth to me due to a rare and serious pregnancy condition that had gone undetected. The doctor was forced to perform an emergency hysterectomy to stop the bleeding and she was clinically dead for four minutes before he got her heart beating again. In that time, my Mum recalled seeing her own body lying on the operating table as she floated up towards the ceiling. She spoke of the bright light and feeling completely enveloped in an almost overwhelming feeling of warmth, peace and love. She heard a distinguished and welcoming voice speak to her, and she bargained for her life, saying that she had to go back; she couldn’t leave my Dad to raise three kids and an infant. He granted her enough time to raise her kids and see them grown and happy, but she wouldn’t live to be old. Because of that experience, she knew the beauty and the love there, she knew she wouldn’t be alone and she had so much gratitude for the 37 “extra” years she had been granted. 

The afternoon she died, she wanted to have one last euchre game with her friends so she decided to nap. I went out to the living room to go through albums to choose pictures for the funeral home slide show. As I came across one group photo, I placed my palm over her face to try to imagine her not here. As I did that, I heard her call to me, “Chumley, I need you” (Chumley was her pet name for me; mine for her was Mumley). What was incredible was that there was no way I would be able to hear her call to me from all the way down the hall to her room and with her door closed. I had heard her in my head, and I knew that it was time. 

When I got to her room and opened the door, her eyes were closed and she was moaning quietly. I went to her side and took her hand in mine and asked her what she needed. She opened her eyes and moved her hand to cup my cheek and said, “Just you.” I placed my hand over hers and told her that I wouldn’t leave her again. My sister looked in and I nodded to let her know that it was time, so she lightly rubbed her back while I gently stroked her hair, both of us trying to comfort her. Silent tears ran down our cheeks as we watched her skin change colour, from her toes towards her torso. While we knew it was her circulation ceasing, it seemed almost as if we could see her soul gradually leaving her body. Moments later, she turned her face towards us, and said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life…” and then she was gone. The person I had known to be my mother for 37 years was nothing more than an empty shell of a body. It was palpable.

In spite of all of the planning, reasoning and preparation I thought I had done prior to her death, nothing can actually prepare you for losing someone you love, especially a parent. It is impossible to contemplate what your life will look like without someone in it who has been there since you took your first breath. It felt like I had dreamed it all and I just wanted to wake up. I remember feeling confused and then angry that the world still looked the same and still sounded the same, and yet it was completely different. Birds were still singing and the sun was still shining. How dare they? I questioned everything. Was I still her daughter? Was she still my mother? Who was I without her? I felt that a physical piece of me was missing. As much as my Mum and I fought, any time I needed her, she was always there, and now, when I needed her most, she was gone. 

Weeks later, my husband gave me a grief kit and in it was “The Mourner’s Bill of Rights” by Alan Wolfelt. I was stunned by what I was reading. Everything that I was feeling that I couldn’t put into words was right there in front of me, and it made me feel less alone. I also saw the grief counsellor from the funeral home for a few months, and it helped me immensely. I learned from both that I didn’t have to let my Mum go entirely, that I was allowed to bring her with me in my life. I was allowed to talk about her and love her and keep her alive in memories and stories. I learned that death doesn’t end a relationship, it changes it. I began to heal. I still keep her close to me. I feel her with me, I talk to her and she is still the compass that guides me.

Tell me about an object that reminds you of the person who died, and why?

Her Irish cape. Her father was born in Ireland and came to Canada as a young lad, and she was very proud of her roots. She loved her drink, she loved to dance, and Murphy’s Law has always been quite prevalent in our family. It was always a dream of my Mum’s to go there, and it was always a dream of mine to get her there, but it didn’t happen.

But she will get there yet. My husband and I are planning a trip in 2017 to celebrate our 45th birthdays and I will be bringing some of her ashes with me to share with her father’s county and anywhere I feel she would love to “be”. Her cape is as green as any Ireland landscape, as were her eyes—as are mine. She only wore her cape on special occasions, but each time she wore it, she beamed with pride. So when she died, it was one of the few things that I wanted.

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?

Before my Mum died, with the anticipatory grief, I felt as though I was looking at a horizon way off in the distance, with gradual darkness leading to it. It turned out not to be far off at all, and after her death the terrain was more edgy and jarring than I expected. Almost immediately it seemed I was falling into a deep, dark pit. That was okay, as I wanted to be alone there and not have to deal with anything. So I did, for the first year–—it just seemed easier to get through all of the ‘firsts’ cold and numb. 

Then I started to climb back to civilization, only to find that what I thought was the top was simply a plateau, and that I had a much higher hill to climb. The second year was worse than the first year for me, because it was all about realizing that this was my new normal. I gradually climbed the rest of the way out into a more forgiving terrain, mostly warm, sunny, green and lush, though with bumps here and there.

How did the people in your life support you in your grief? What was helpful? What was frustrating?

My husband had never seen me in that state and didn’t know what to do for me, so he just held me, which was exactly what I needed. My daughter was 14 when my Mum died and she and I were already going through our own mother-daughter teenage crap. But she was hurting and so was I. She has never been a big communicator, so she would come into my bed and snuggle with me and we would just hold each other and cry together. I was thankful for that as I missed the snuggly little girl who used to be my daughter and I missed snuggling with my own Mum. I think it even gave me hope that one day my daughter and I would be as close as my Mum and I were—something to look forward to. And Panther, my cat and constant companion for 12 years at the time, could sense my pain and never left my side.

How did your loss and your grief change you?

Companioning my Mum at the end of her life inspired me to change my career entirely. She taught me that there is so much to learn from the dying–the stories that need to be told, the need to make meaning, the need for reconciliation, the legacy of their lives, and the beauty in all of that. So I became certified in Bereavement Education and Grief and Trauma Counseling, and became an End of Life Doula. I dedicate several hours a week to volunteering for hospice, providing respite to dying people in the community. People who are dying are alive in ways that we are not; it is an honour to work with each of them. While pursuing my education, I realized that my Mum not only chose me to journey with her, but had in fact groomed me my whole life to be comfortable with death and to care for the dying. This is what I was born to do, what she raised me to do. I could not feel more blessed or grateful.

Merri-Lee Agar lives in the Niagara region of Ontario with her husband and daughter. She is a Reiki Master and incorporates the healing energy into sessions with both grief clients and end of life clients to help make living and dying more meaningful. When not working or volunteering, Merri-Lee loves to be in nature, especially near water, and spend time with those who matter most.

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 more submissions and for a range of experiences, so please share widely! Learn more about the project and submit your story. - Mindy Stricke

Art Supplies


Art Supplies, 2016


Name: Molly Mackay

Age: 45

Tell me about the person who died:

I grew up in a small village called Kilmalcolm in Scotland, and my grandfather was my closest friend when I was a child. He died when I was 7 on New Year's Eve. Every evening, my grandfather would ask me,”What shall I bring you home after work, Molly? Art supplies or chocolate?" Every day when he returned from work he would have something for me. We would sit in his room, talk about the world, and tell jokes, and he would talk about his life stories and ask me about my day. We would share a glass of Irun Bru or Lucozade (British pop drinks) and say "Cheers Beers” as we would clink our glasses. To this day I recall the sound of his voice. He was a tall, distinguished man, quiet, kind and a good friend to a small girl. I will always love him and remember him.

What was your experience of grief like after your loss? How did it change over time?

When my mom came into my room that New Year's Day to break the news that my grandfather had passed away I was devastated. I let out a loud scream.

The strange thing is the day before my grandfather died I had a sense that he was going to pass away. Even at age 7 I knew this. I have a memory of playing in the backyard and thinking to myself, "I need to go upstairs and see my grandfather one last time”. He was very ill and was too weak to get out of bed that day. I remember opening his bedroom door and asking him if he was ok and would he like a pencil and paper to draw with because drawing always made me feel better. He said no, that he just wanted to rest. I told him I loved him and closed the door. The next morning he passed away.

If you had to describe your grief as a literal landscape you've been passing through, what would it look like and feel like at different points in your journey? 

There have been some dark clouded mountains to climb but also sunny memories to reflect upon.

How did the people in your life support you in your grief? What was helpful? What was frustrating?

My family didn't handle grief very well because they didn't acknowledge it. It was never spoken of or discussed after the person passed away. I guess in a weird way that was their way of coping with it. I have always been more of the kind of person who thinks talking about grief and letting yourself go through it is far healthier.

I was seven years old so I dealt with my grief through drawing and doing art every day. This helped me greatly.

In general since then, although I do cry and talk about it somewhat when I lose someone, I deal with grief mostly on my own. That way it slowly makes sense and I can eventually accept it. I spend time thinking about the person, how they lived, my sadness at losing them; I do eat a vast amount of chocolate while doing this.

Was there anything about your cultural or religious background that affected the grieving process for you?

In Scotland we have the tradition of having the person who has passed away lie in their home for 3 days. The person is laid in their coffin as an open casket and friends and family members pay their respects to the deceased. It is cold enough in Scotland that doing this in a home is no difficulty at all. The belief is that the soul of a person lingers for 3 days. Thus the soul is present when family and friends come by to pay their respects.

This tradition wasn't done for my Grandfather but it was done for my Grandmother. I found it gave me closure and I was able to say goodbye.

Did anything surprise you about your experience with grief?

I learned to take each day as it comes and to try and not take life and the people you love in your life for granted. I also learned that even though the ones you love will pass away they never really leave you.

Molly MacKay was born in Scotland and moved to Canada when she was twelve years old.  She currently lives in Toronto, Ontario with her husband and her cat Toby. She enjoys playing her cello, ukulele & harmonica, painting from her home studio, and teaching art to 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

Crescent Wrench


Crescent Wrench, 2016


Name: Mark K.

Age: 63

Tell me about the person who died:

My father was a family practice doctor who retired early, at the age of 60. He continued to consider himself a doctor, though, until his recent death in January at the age of 93. He had many health issues and after his retirement he spent much of his time diagnosing his own infirmities and felt that he and the doctors were working as a team—and I think he considered himself to be the lead doctor. 

My dad was born on a farm in Iowa and lived in small towns his whole life. His father owned a John Deere tractor dealership and my dad learned early on to fix things, build things and grow things. He defined himself as a doctor, a father, a husband—someone who made decisions, worked hard and got things done. When he could no longer work, and later as his other hobbies and his role as a provider became more difficult, he became depressed, feeling that he was no longer useful, as if he was losing his identity. At the same time, he became more philosophical and spiritual and, at times, less authoritative and judgmental. We could have “meaning of life” conversations and he enjoyed some of the quirky stories that I would write. He even tried his hand at poetry—this from a man who didn’t really see the point of reading fiction or watching movies, perhaps because it meant paying attention to a “made up” story.

In his last years he could barely walk, even with the help of a walker. He loved it when I would take him on drives, though. He had a special fondness for Fairfax, California, a small town near our home. It amused me that he liked it so much, being that he was such a straight-laced Midwesterner at heart—Fairfax is sometimes known locally as “Mayberry on acid.” He would see little cottages on small lots on narrow lanes and observe mountain bikers and joggers coming and going and exclaim, “I like this place—these people know how to live, how to get outside and enjoy nature and live in homes that are just the right size.” In fact, he told me once that as he started to get a bit of dementia and have trouble remembering things and distinguishing between reality and imagination, “Fairfax” became a special word for him. If he could still remember “Fairfax,” he knew that he was still thinking clearly.

Tell me about an object that reminds you of the person who died, and why?

There’s a lumber yard in Fairfax that has an area in the back with used tools, lumber, doors, windows, fixtures and the like. It’s called “The Away Station,” maybe because that’s the place you take things that you would normally throw away. When I first took my dad there, he said that he thought he had died and gone to heaven. He wasn’t able to make it upstairs to the rooms with used tools, but he would have enjoyed that. He had quite a collection of tools and cried the day that he gave them up and moved them to my brother’s house. The one item that might represent his passion for building, fixing and being useful would be a crescent wrench. It couldn’t be just any old adjustable wrench, though. My dad always told me that the Crescent brand was really the only kind of adjustable wrench that was worth owning.

What was your experience of grief like after your loss? How did it change over time?

My dad was in pretty good shape up until about a week before he died, when he must have had a small stroke which made it harder for him to communicate. His eyesight was almost gone and he started to hallucinate. He expressed his fear about dying and described being transported up a hill on a train, moving toward a door. This really bothered him and I worked and talked with him a lot, trying to make the end easier or at least less fearful. I even tried to give him metaphorical tools to make the train stop if he wasn’t ready. I spoke of things he was familiar with from his lifetime of fixing and building—brakes, welding, chains, locks, a roadblock. We slowed the train a bit and it even went back downhill for a while. Eventually, after two days of this restlessness, he became unconscious and then finally the end came.

My mother and sister and I were with him at the end. It was at the same time the most difficult thing I have ever done and the most natural. I’m glad that I was there with him, and I hope we helped make the transition though that gate he feared a little easier.

My grief started with a profound tiredness, and images of his last days that were hard to get out of my mind. The tears still come from time to time and I catch myself saying, “Oh, I need to ask my dad about this,” or “Dad will get a big kick out of this,” and then I remember that I can’t share things with him anymore.

Has anything surprised you about your experience with grief?

Maybe I’m surprised at how I was able to be present and calm at the time of passing. I’m a little surprised that I suggested that we break out some brandy moments after my father’s body was taken away, and also that my mom and sister agreed that it was a good idea. 

How did the people in your life support you in your grief? What was helpful? What was frustrating?

It’s been very comforting to me when people say kind things to me about the passing of my father. I wrote a little something and posted it on Facebook and it was nice to hear from people in my life today as well as students from long ago, relatives from Europe, and friends with whom I had lost touch. Some people apologize for taking so long to say something, but I actually like thatit’s like the support is spread out over a period of time. 

Some reactions are a little odd, though. Sometimes I’ll tell someone that my dad passed away and they don’t really say anything—they talk about other things, almost like they haven’t heard me. Maybe they feel that they are saying it without saying it, but are too uncomfortable to come right out and address the issue. A couple of people who were once close to me haven’t responded at all—and that makes me sad.

How did people who were grieving the same person respond to the death compared to you? What similarities and differences did you notice?

My mother is experiencing a fair amount of regret along with her grief. I have felt some of that, but mostly I feel pretty good about how my relationship with my dad was at the end. I don’t think there were any unsaid “I love you’s” or apologies. He wanted to end his days at home under hospice care, around his family, and that’s exactly what we did.

How did your private grieving relate to your public mourning?

I wouldn’t say that it’s too different. I thought that I might be breaking down in front of people, but that tends to happen only when I’m alone. I’ve learned, too, that there are some tender personal things that I can’t share with everyone, so I only talk about those things with people who I trust and I think will understand. I’m coming to realize, though, that there are more of those people in my life than I thought.

Was there anything about your cultural or religious background that affected the grieving process for you?

My dad was Lutheran and the rest of the family is Catholic. He seemed to become more religious as time went on, and said that he was spiritually comfortable with his death and confident he would go to a better place. As much as I want to believe in the same way, I am not as certain of all of these things. It was ironic, then, that I found myself reassuring him of his faith during his final days.

I do find the rituals and prayers of my Catholic religion comforting during the grieving process. I have long put off deciding what, exactly, my faith and religious practice is all about, but my father’s passing will probably lead me to examine this more carefully. 

Were there any personal or public rituals or structures that helped you in your grief?

We decided to have a small prayer service just for immediate family right after my father passed. To my surprise, my brothers, who both live quite far away, decided to come as well. We set up a table with photos and mementos from my dad’s past—there were tools, his old doctor’s bag, a microscope, a John Deere hat, a picture of a street car that he had rebuilt, and a carpenter’s apron. Someone said that looking at that table gave you a good picture of what my dad was all about. It turned out that that ritual was very beneficial to all of us—we put it together very quickly, but it helped us to process what had happened and support each other.

I had planned a trip to Yosemite with a couple of childhood friends and we went ahead with the trip just a few days after the memorial. That was the perfect thing for me at the time—good friends who knew my dad, lots of laughs and stories. We played music and spent time in nature. It definitely helped with the healing.

How did your loss and your grief change you?

There is something profound about being with my dad when he died—talking with him and comforting him and talking about his faith, even when he wavered and was fearful at the end. It made me feel like I could be present with something that uncomfortable and unsettling without being afraid. It confirmed something that I hoped was true about me, but I wasn’t sure about. It made me want to be present to comfort others when they are fearful or hurting, and it made me hopeful that I can face my own difficulties and the end of my life in a peaceful way.

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