Shandy and Vodka and Coke


Shandy and Vodka and Coke, 2016


Name: Leigh H.

Age: 21

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. 

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