Reflections on grief, place, and mourning from the contributors of Locations of Grief

Exploring death and mourning, Locations of Grief (Wolsak and Wynn) collects essays from twenty-four Canadian writers that span different ages, ethnicities, and gender identities about their struggles and journeys relating to death. Below editor Catherine Owen asks some of the contributors of the collection to share their thoughts on grief, place, and mourning.


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Catherine Owen: Everyone grieves each death differently. What are some of the ways you grieved in the years after your loss?Lynn Tait: I’ve grieved differently depending on who and what I’ve lost. My mother—a weight lifted off, her brother: heaviness with regrets regarding my whole family. A close friend who passed in 2010 – I miss now more than ever before. My son—there is still delayed grief that I’m working through. I write poetry more about grief than about him. Mourning my son is like an iceberg. More under the surface than what I allow myself to show or feel.Daniel Zomparelli: I always have had problems with vivid dreaming and specifically nightmares, so the years after my loss where mostly combating with dreams where my mother returned. It was constant and still happens now, these many years later. To deal with that I wrote them down. Processing the dreams felt like a way of processing grief.Katherine Bitney: After the death of my little sister I simply remembered her. When I would walk that cemetery to visit a parent’s grave, and I did that many times, my head always turned toward her forgotten gravesite. I remembered. I grieved also in my terror that something awful would happen to my two brothers who were born after her, and also my own child.David Haskins: I am old enough to have outlived many of my immediate family and friends, but I grieved the loss of none of them as I did my second life partner. My Grief Journal, the source material for my essay here, began when she died and continues four years later, now longer than many novels.Ben Gallagher: In the first year after Zoe’s death I felt numb, or that my grief was insulating me from the flow of the world. But I simultaneously felt a sharp clarity, that I was somehow seeing through the superficial distractions of life and into some core truth, a sort of vast emptiness underneath the busy growth around me. I spent a lot of time that first year talking directly to Zoe, looking at photos of her, retreating inward. I couldn’t drink, or dance, or spend time in crowds, and I resented anything that felt like a distraction from loss. Over the years this has lessened, and I’ve begun to establish rituals that return me to my grief. Every year on the anniversary of her death I go somewhere I’ve never been before, build myself a small shrine out of the objects at hand, read some old letters she sent me, and do some writing myself. I created a ritual that contained both old familiars and newness, some way of bridging her loss with my current life.Nikki Reimer: My grieving included but was not limited to: making major, ill-advised life changes; overeating; excessive drinking; picking fights with strangers; self-harm, internet addiction and other attempts to numb out; looking for my brother and obsessively trying to connect to people who knew him; listening to sad music, and writing. Catherine OwenWhat have you learned about the connections between location/place and grieving in writing these essays?Lynn Tait: It has really helped travelling with our son’s ashes. I think that’s why we travel. We regret the lost opportunities to explore the world with him. Writing this essay also sustained my belief he’s everywhere. We feel closer to him when away. His gravesite (that we call Steve’s Place, which he shares with his beloved cat, Kilo), is more a memorial to him than a resting place. I found going back and editing the essay harder emotionally than the initial writing.Daniel Zomparelli: My sister passed away when I was really young so we were always at the cemetery growing up. I assumed that place would be a point of grief for me, but after my mom passed, the grief was in places I really didn’t expect. Thinking of location, it became obvious that memory and place had a bigger hold on my grief than expected. The essay reminded me that sometimes a place would unlock a memory that I had forgotten, and that became a grieving process. Kind of like a really terrible scavenger hunt with no list of items.Katherine Bitney: I don’t think I learned anything so much as I expressed, and opened by description, what I already knew. Memory and place are always deeply, inextricably connected in a grief. David Haskins: She watched me tend our garden over the years. I buried her ashes there. In bad weather I look out from the window where she stood. In good, I am in it every day. Like life, it is a continuing pageant of successes and failures. Its deaths feed its lives. I am careful not to disturb her ashes, but I am sure they have disbursed among the living by now.Ben Gallagher: Over the years I’ve been struck by how tightly memories are anchored to place. For the first while I was terrified of walking around places that I had been before with Zoe, because I never knew when I’d turn a corner and be hit in the stomach with a memory I didn’t know I had. Then again, there was the pain of experiencing an entirely new place, and realizing it was something she’d never see. There are still places I refuse to go, like the intersection where she was hit and killed. And as the cities we spent time in grow and change, storefronts closing or condos being built, the nature of those anchors has shifted; I increasingly find myself caught in memories both of her and of the things that used to be, a sort of cloud anchor. What struck me most intensely when I began to consider “location” as part of this grief essay, however, was the way in which the entire location of my life in Canada is built on the deliberate cultural rejection of grief and pain woven into the colonial project. Central to the founding myth of this country is that Canada is a site of hope rather than grief, and I can’t disentangle that fact from my own personal experience of loss.Nikki Reimer: Grief is embodied temporal-spatially: When you grieve a person you’re also grieving a time and a place to which they were tied, and to which you can never return. You’re also grieving the foreclosed potential of existing in that space with that person in the future. We’re told that scent is the most powerful memory trigger, but sound and space in my experience are just as potent.Catherine Owen: How can our society increase in its sensitivity and empathy towards those in mourning?Lynn Tait: I’m not sure it’s society, more individuals. Death makes people unsure. They don’t know what to say or how to act. Many are uncomfortable with open displays and discussion of emotion. It’s not as if death is anything new. When experiencing a substantial loss with someone you had a loving or important connection/relationship with the public expects you to move on rather quickly. That’s not how it works. Loss changes us and though we adapt it’s ever present.Daniel Zomparelli: I remember shortly after my mother’s death I couldn’t get out of bed. I would wake up at 12 or 1pm and be four hours late for work. I did this for a couple weeks and would stay late to make up for the hours. My boss took me into her office and basically said I couldn’t do that anymore or else I’d be fired. I was in a bad financial place so I stayed and forced myself to get up on time again. I thought about how little time we are given to grieve from a capitalistic place. I thought about those with less privilege who wouldn’t even get the two weeks off I did. We can find a way to increase the sensitivity and empathy towards those in mourning by providing them the basic necessities and a universal basic income to allow them space to grieve in the first place.Katherine Bitney: Don’t expect it to conform to any standard process, or set of behaviours. One size, however well-intentioned in its construction, does not fit all. And don’t make someone else’s grief all about (the collective or individual) “you.”David Haskins: I don’t think I needed society to do anything. Her wake was a party for others who needed it. Society can’t stop long for grief. Its job is to keep moving. My loss does not belong to society, it belongs to me. What I did need was one friend I could bring my grieving to. A friend who listens to my sorrow as long and as often as I need to share it. If you’re inside a pressure cooker that’s about to explode, you cannot release the valve. Only someone outside can do that. If you’re having days when the weeping paralyzes you, or your anger at the unfairness of death wells up in you, or you are sinking into some irrational alternate reality, or your thoughts turn to ending your life to join your beloved in spirit, the right friend will shine the light of day on your absurdity just by helping you listen to yourself. Ben Gallagher: The thing that was hardest for me to reckon with, on an interpersonal level, was the way in which our cultural habits around grief emphasize the importance of getting rid of, letting go of, releasing, or dismissing grief. I used to get angry, not in the moment I was told “this too will fade” or things happen “for a reason” or whatever, but when I got home. Because above all I wanted to feel my grief, feel it as deep and as long as I possibly could. On some level, I suppose, I realized that my grief contained wisdom and was a source of power, although I couldn’t see where it was taking me. I think society will become more sensitive and empathetic when it stops trying to change people or bend their impulses to its own. As we collectively grapple with the vast uncertainty and grief of this pandemic we’re in, I sincerely wish that the shape society takes when it emerges again is built on principles of mutual care, values the wisdom of emotions, and rejects “productivity” and other rapacious hallmarks of the pre-COVID social order.Nikki Reimer: This is such a timely question, as we are now all witnessing the potentiality of mass COVID-19 deaths around us, and part of my answer is that we need to create an anti-capitalist society. We need to value each other as inherently worthy beings, outside of our ability to contribute to the GDP index. We also need to become reacquainted with death as a natural part of life, and not fear the expression of “negative” feelings. Mourners should never feel that they need to apologize for crying or feeling sad. We need to practice sitting next to another’s suffering and being present with it, rather than thinking we need to try to fix it, or them.Catherine Owen: Anything you want to share to assist those newly in grief?
Lynn Tait: Don’t be afraid of joy. Don’t be afraid of humour. If the individual you’ve lost gave you great joy when alive, it’s possible to experience joy, through them after they’re gone.
Do not apologize for this or for your sorrow.
Daniel Zomparelli: Keep a dream journal.Katherine Bitney: Each grief is unique, expresses itself differently, feels different, from all others. Also, don’t feel you have to follow any prescribed or conventionally expected rules, steps, time spans, or processes. Also, grief is a gift. David Haskins: My tears are less frequent now, but their triggers are still sudden and unpredictable. You fear you will wear out your welcome. You won’t. You think you are becoming only the sadness that you carry, dependent on it for your identity. You are not. You don’t snap out of grief, and people who encourage that are useless to you, but you can find ways to use it. Grief does, after all, keep your beloved present in your daily life. And if you’re not willing to let go of your love, then grief may become your strangely welcome companion. For a while, you may tell yourself that the measure of your grief somehow parallels the measure of your love. Just as you outlived your beloved, your love will outlast your pain, but there will be no closure.Ben Gallagher: You do not have to do anything to change your grief, and it does not have to go away. You do not have to do a “good job” of grieving. Trust your impulses, no matter how absurd they feel. It is fine to be lost.Nikki Reimer: The grief will come in waves, and the pain will not always feel so acute. There is no wrong way to grieve if you are being true to your own needs and your own experience. Be very kind to yourself, and try not to compare yourself to others. They are on their own journey. You’re not okay, but you’re okay.

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Thanks to Catherine Owen and the contributors of Locations of Grief for sharing their insights and reflections on grief and mourning with us. Locations of Grief is available now on All Lit Up.