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. 

Music Box


Music Box, 2016


Name:  Julie Fitzpatrick

Age: 38

Tell me about the person who died:

Elizabeth was my first friend. Literally. My folks were driving me home from the hospital after I was born in New Haven, Connecticut, and stopped off at the Rigneys’ house on Three Corners Circle Road so that we all could meet. Elizabeth was just over a year old at the time.

I can't remember not knowing her. We carved pumpkins each Halloween, went to church together, went to the beach together, were always at each other's houses, went to Friendly’s together. Elizabeth was in many ways my opposite. She was on time; I was late. She was neat; I was messy. She was clear and direct, while I was often indecisive and uncertain. Elizabeth knew who she was from day one, it seemed, and I only knew what I wanted for lunch. That was a major crossover point for us: lunch. Food. We'd gab for hours over ketchup and fries, or ketchup and microwaved melted grilled cheese. We’d pour a mountain of the red sauce into the center of our shared plate and then dip away.

Elizabeth said "what" all the time since she was deaf and I was not. I filled her in on what was happening around us in the hearing world, and she kept up by lip-reading with remarkable accuracy. She spoke in a loud funny accent and often beeped because her hearing aid needed adjusting. “Elizabeth, you’re beeping,” I’d say, and she’d nod and raise her arm to twist the knobs at the top of her hearing aids and then she’d suddenly go quiet, the whistling kettle sound silenced. I remember someone asking me if I minded filling her in all the time, and I didn’t at all. Elizabeth grounded me. In many ways being with her gave me a sense of purpose. I was her conduit to the hearing world and she made me feel like I had a place in the world in general. Elizabeth was a straight shooter, very frank. This was refreshing for me because my family was incessantly polite and politically correct. I knew where I stood with her. In many ways I was the deaf one.

Elizabeth had a host of physical problems that really caught up with her in high school: she had a kidney transplant freshman year and then struggled with heart problems in the next few years; eventually her lungs stopped functioning. She died the day after my birthday in 1999.

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

I have to say I was pretty numb for a long time. I was in college when Elizabeth died and I always thought she'd just be there. She had been such a fixture in my life. It was like she had a sensor on her car for when I returned to our hometown. Moments after opening the front door, I'd hear her car in the driveway. It's Elizabeth - she knows I'm home, I'd think. And lo and behold, there she’d be. After she died, it took me a long time to stop checking the driveway for her car. I’m home, I wanted to tell her. Come over. Drive on up. I’m here.

I don't have that many girlfriends with whom I am still close; I have many friends, but no one as close to me as Elizabeth was. I was so comfortable with her, so seen and understood. Elizabeth was great at giving me basic instructions throughout our childhoods: do this, Julie; do that; clean your comb, put on lotion daily, read, keep things tidy, write letters and save your pen pals’ notes in stacks tied with ribbon. It was simple wisdom that Elizabeth knew innately, but it helped me. 

My folks were pretty much done with teaching kids how to do things. I was my mother’s sixth child, though a brother had died before I was born, and I think they just trusted I would figure things out. In many ways, Elizabeth helped me to do that. Her mother often told me that Elizabeth looked to me for an entry into the hearing world, and she’d tell me what a good friend I was to her, but I don’t think that’s the full story: any help I gave her, she returned to me tenfold. I didn’t get the chance to tell her that–I mean I think she knew but I wish I could just sit with her over some melted cheese and thank her.

If you had to describe your grief as a literal landscape, what would it look like and feel like?

A windswept field with cattails blowing in the marsh and a few wildflowers popping up here and there. Elizabeth loved Anne of Green Gables and Prince Edward Island and I love Irish countrysides so in my mind, my grief picture is a blend of those two scenes: harsh and beautiful, with a sense of emptiness and loss.

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

There was a shelf above her bed that ran the length of her wall, and on it, Elizabeth had a collection of music boxes neatly lined up one after the other. There was a trolley and a ballerina and a circular one–different compact boxes with lids and cranks. She’d turn the crank and watch them spin. Of course she couldn’t hear them but perhaps she sensed the vibrations. I’m not sure what it was about them but their delicate designs fascinated her. She dusted them and treasured her collection.

Did anything surprise you about your experience with grief?

Just that it continues. I guess love is like that. What also surprises me is that it still surprises me that Elizabeth is no longer alive. How can that be? Someone as bright and funny and opinionated and detail-oriented as Elizabeth? She’s not still here? She’s not in the kitchen in the house her parents no longer inhabit, putting marshmallows in her hot chocolate and writing notes on the margins of her books in pencil so that she’ll remember everything?

At the time of Elizabeth’s death, I was relieved for her that she was no longer yellow with jaundice and could breathe comfortably in heaven–her body had gone through so much and it was tough for her to constantly visit doctors. But I was numb to the reality of her absence. I shoved those thoughts to the back of my mind and carried on with my busy collegiate things.

Now, the Friendly’s where we used to ketchup-dip has morphed into a bland cafe and I can’t believe we haven’t tested their fries and rated them against their predecessor’s. I’d like to sit across from her there, or anywhere, and talk to her about how my marriage has broken up and how I have a little boy who loves to do the alphabet in sign language and that I am rethinking being an actor and what does she do when she gets down? Can she remind me? She was a good friend to me as a child and I wonder what we would be like as adults. I would have brought her to the recent Broadway production of “Spring Awakening” with deaf and hearing actors lighting up the stage. I would bring her to a church I’ve found with a deaf community and an interpreter where we could listen to the priest together. I want to hear about how she is as a woman–what kind of work she is no doubt excelling at, and if her heart still beats for Jeff Marcino.

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

I think my parents said the right things, but they were pretty wrapped up in their own grieving–my brother was hospitalized for mental illness during the same time and my sister had gotten sick with breast cancer. It’s like we were separate orbiting agony balls that couldn’t align with one another. We couldn’t see past our own atmospheres.

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

I was kind of shocked by how her family members seemed to shut down about her passing. Perhaps they were too sad to fathom talking about her or staying in touch, but her older brothers seemed particularly reserved when she died. I ended up writing a performance piece about my friendship with Elizabeth several years after her death, and after her family saw the show, one of her brother’s wives told me, “He never talks about Elizabeth. This was good for him. Thank you.”

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

Not really. I pray now and I prayed then. I suppose now I think the line between here and not-here is thinner though, so I have a sense of her presence even to this day and for that I am grateful.

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

I call her mom every year on the 10th of December, her birthday. Somehow I often miss the 22nd, her death day. I tell myself I will call Sue then too, but I often don’t. The day Elizabeth was born feels so special and the day she died, so confusing, sad and ugly. I call Sue and we talk and catch up and this year she said, “Oh, you called. All of my kids called.”

How did your loss and your grief change you?

I have gone on to study sign language and have been involved with two productions that include signing and deafness as themes with deaf and hearing characters and actors. I feel so at home when I hear Elizabeth in the deaf voices around me or when I experience their candor. I am learning that is a common trait amongst deaf people: honesty and directness. And devotion and loyalty and good humor and incredible expressivity. Or maybe I am just projecting her on all of them. Probably.

In many ways I think I’ve shortchanged myself in the grief department. I am still pretty sad about Elizabeth and haven’t given myself a whole lot of room to feel that sadness. I am good at compartmentalizing and forcing myself to show up for life even when I probably ought to take a pause. 

Elizabeth really cared about me and took care of me in many ways. I think that sweetness of her in my life is still changing me–she continues to move me and sometimes that takes the form of sadness and sometimes that looks like delight. Elizabeth never spent time dwelling on her waist size or her hair style. She was staunchly who she was and I found that calming and kind to be around. We championed each other. So if my grief changed me, it made me sad, and also very glad for having known her.

Julie Fitzpatrick is a mother, actress, writer, and car salesperson-in-training based out of New York City. She grew up in Guilford, CT near a family car dealership where she has recently been working and enjoying herself learning about cars and the business world. She is grateful for this opportunity to share a slice of her friendship with Elizabeth Rigney in Mindy Stricke's Grief Landscapes Series and she would welcome hearing from readers at

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.