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. 

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