Holding Hands with Grief
Funerals have never really fazed me. From the age of eleven, I remember packing up my violin, slipping on a black dress, and marching my way over to the church. I would tune my instrument, adjust my microphone, and arrange my sheet music on the stand. My fingers would glide up and down the neck of my violin. My eyes glazed over, staring at the pages in front of me but not really digesting them. I knew every line of every piece by heart, and I had the timing of a Catholic funeral completely memorized. My cues were now instincts. I didn’t have to listen to anything that was happening. My brain chanted: You don’t know them. You’re getting paid. It’s almost over. Funerals were a job. That was that.
I only dreaded the ends of funerals, when the family of the deceased would gather at the back of the church in a receiving line, making it nearly impossible for me to exit the building without interacting with them. It was always the wails of the widow or the cries of the children that made my arm hair stand on edge, rather than the closed casket sitting just a few feet away. Besides, in the few times I attended the visitations, I always found that the dead radiated a sort of eerie peace, as if they were finally getting the rest they so desperately craved.
It was also helpful that I had never really come face-to-face with Grief. It lurked between the pews—you could always feel its frigid breath and beady eyes tracing the back of your neck—but in the church the creature stayed, while I went home after every service.
Though Grief did pay a brief visit to the Stacey household. In the eighth grade, I lost my best friend of twelve years—my chihuahua, Chica. She was a small, peppy dog, with jet-black hair and a white stripe running down her forehead (I called it her skunk stripe). Pictures of me as a child almost always include her; from the time I was born, I had a personal security detail, except this guard occasionally took time off to unravel an entire roll of toilet paper, or to use the bathroom underneath my parents’ bed. I went to school one day and returned to an empty crate—she didn’t make it home from the vet. Sadness seeped in and left me crying in a ball on my bathroom floor. But the next morning brought clarity: she was 16, a monumental age for any dog, and her heart was giving out. She wasn’t with us, but she also wasn’t in pain anymore. My 12-year-old brain made sense of this quickly, and the puppy we had just gotten was enough of a distraction from my pain. Grief’s stop on my front porch was over as rapidly as it had begun.
Grief kept to the walls of the church for a long time afterwards. I caught glimpses of its presence, shedding the occasional tear when I made unintentional eye contact with a grieving loved one. Don’t look up. But the blinders grew larger with time, and I became an expert at avoiding Grief as it stalked its way down the centre aisle, following every footstep of the deceased’s family. Just another paycheque.
Grief visited my home one more time before it decided to take up permanent residence. In the summer of 2021, Mom’s father passed away after battling dementia for some time. I didn’t know him very well—Mom’s family lives in New Brunswick, so we don’t visit often. The person I knew was gone long before he passed, withered down from a man who used to build Lego houses with my brother, Alex, in the basement or wake up at 6 a.m. to work in the backyard, to a man who didn’t recognize his family’s faces. I had already made peace with his condition. I winced when family members or friends passed on condolences—they were constant reminders that I had lost someone, that everyone expected me to be in pain. You should be hurting.
The day Grief came to stay was August 22, 2022. Grief called Dad during the second intermission of an Imagine Dragons concert. He stood up, reassuring Alex and I that he would be back, and walked to the main lobby of the Rogers Centre. Alex and I joked around and took selfies—it was his first concert, and I wanted him to have pictures to look back on. I’ve deleted those pictures since.
Dad came back halfway through “Believer.” The strobe lights and smoke didn’t let me see his face clearly, but I caught a tear welling up in his left eye. I had never seen Dad cry. Years of stubbed toes and stomach surgeries barely elicited reactions, apart from scrunched-up faces and an occasional curse word. Now I watched his eyes water as Dan Reynolds jumped around the stage shirtless, singing about perseverance and hope.
We exited the building the moment the concert finished, rushed back to the car, and merged onto the highway. Dad said nothing. Alex droned on about how great the concert was. We drove home with Grief in the backseat and Dad hoping it would go unnoticed.
Dad retreated to his office in the basement as soon as we walked through the door. Alex gobbled up a couple of Eggos—the double-patty burger with a large side of fries that he devoured before the concert was apparently not enough for his 13-year-old stomach—and made his way to bed.
“What’s going on?” I asked Mom from across the kitchen table, her face buried in her phone.
“Ask your father. This isn’t for me to tell you.”
I took the basement stairs one at a time, my fingers clenching the railing. Dad was slumped over on his desk. His back vibrated with each sob. When he looked up at me, the whites of his eyes were gone, replaced by intricate pathways of angry blood vessels.
“The call was about your grandfather. He isn’t expected to make it through the night, and if he does, he’s chosen to go ahead with Medical Assistance in Dying in the morning.”
My grandfather suffered from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) for more than 20 years. COPD is an umbrella term for a collection of conditions that cause breathing issues—specifically chronic bronchitis and emphysema. As the disease worsens, most patients end up requiring constant oxygen therapy. There is no cure for COPD, only tools that aim to make life a little more comfortable.
Early memories of my grandfather involve spending time in his backyard, riding around the two-acre property on the back of his tractor-mower, and playing badminton, using my grandmother’s clothesline as our net. As his COPD progressed, my grandfather’s lung function dwindled. The oxygen tank appeared when I started elementary school. At first, my grandfather only used the tank when he had to leave the house, although it was recommended that he used his oxygen at home as well. He always said that the hose got in the way; he didn’t want a leash holding him back. My grandfather never lived tethered to the rules or recommendations of others.
By the summer of 2022, my grandfather could no longer walk from the living room to the kitchen—20 steps—without needing 20 minutes to catch his breath. His oxygen machine was replaced, with his new machine providing double the oxygen saturation of the last. His lungs reached critically low levels of function and sent him into frequent breathing attacks, where his chest filled with thick mucus, and he would sputter and wheeze and gasp for air. He slept for more than 18 hours a day, waking up only to eat small meals and go back to sleep again.
There was no quality to the life he was living. He was forced to watch his body fail while his mind remained crisp. He only felt pain.
We left early the next morning. Dad and I quickly packed a few days worth of clothes, then began the four-hour drive to my grandparents’ home just outside of Sudbury. Grief was folded neatly in my suitcase, waiting for the right time to unzip the bag and climb onto my lap.
We arrived to find my grandfather sitting at the kitchen table, peeling a tangerine. He smiled when he saw me, and I gave him the best hug I could. Tears slipped out as I took a seat next to him.
“You don’t need to cry sweetheart. It’s okay. I just hope you understand why I’ve chosen this.” His eyes always had this magic to them—a sparkle that danced across his pupils whenever he made a joke or asked you if you knew a certain song (it didn’t matter if you did or not; you were about to hear it).
That sparkle was gone.
I did understand, in the adult sense of understanding things. I knew that he was in pain, that he wasn’t able to breathe, that choosing Medical Assistance in Dying would be a much more peaceful way to end his life than waking up in the middle of the night and choking to death. But the little girl who played X’s and O’s or Battleship with him at the kitchen table; who looked forward to every birthday just because he would always call and always sing “Happy Birthday,” even though he couldn’t breathe and she truly hated that song; who was always excited to tell him about the latest movie she watched or the newest album she was loving; who spent hours listening to his stories about his time as a sergeant in the Royal Canadian Air Force—that little girl didn’t want to let go.
The procedure was scheduled for one week later—an expedited process, but one filled with hours of paperwork. I was asked to write the obituary ahead of time, so there was less to worry about after. I sat at the kitchen table and pulled out my laptop, looking to scrounge together something comprehensible. A blank Word document stared back at me for a long time.
My grandfather was a
Not was. He’s still here. He is. He still is.
My eyes stung. I couldn’t write his obituary. Not here. Not now. Not while he was getting ready to walk over to the table and read it over my shoulder. Not while he was still cracking jokes in the other room. Not while I could still hear him laughing.
Obituaries are for the dead.
I would not write his death into existence.
On August 31, 2022, I woke up in the basement of my grandparents’ home. Sleep came in short spurts throughout the night. My grandparents’ room was directly above mine, so frantic footsteps and constant coughing kept me awake, staring at the clock on my phone, counting each minute, figuring out how long we had left.
The procedure was scheduled for 1:30 p.m. I woke up early, hoping to catch as much time with my grandfather as possible. By the time I made my way upstairs, the medications had already taken effect. My grandfather stirred in and out of consciousness, occasionally asking me to turn up the TV or telling me how much he loved us all.
I had no plans of being in the room when it happened. Dad and I had talked this through several times: we were going to excuse ourselves and go sit in the trailer outside the house. We would not partake in the procedure.
But when the doctor arrived and the nurse showed up and everyone was trying to get everything ready, I found myself huddled in the doorway of my grandparents’ bedroom, holding Dad as tightly as I could. Grief had now checked in.
I watched the doctor explain which medications she was giving him.
“Safe journeys,” she said, then started the procedure.
I watched as his breathing slowed, then stopped.
There was no sense of peace this time. The air was empty.
I spent my 21st birthday sitting by the phone. I knew he wasn’t going to call. He couldn’t call. But I still wanted him to. It wasn’t a birthday without hearing my grandfather belt “Happy Birthday” as loud as his lungs would let him. Sometimes, he would stop in the middle of a line, panting and coughing between syllables, but he never stopped singing until the song was over.
Now the song is finished.
There will be no more Happy Birthdays. There will be no call on my graduation day. There will be no conversations about engagements or weddings or kids or promotions.
Instead, Grief whispers “Happy Birthday” into my ear as I blow out the candles. Grief holds my free hand as I brush my teeth. Grief sits in the passenger seat while I drive to school. Grief turns the pages of every book I read. Grief guides my fingers as I type each word on this page.
Grief is a part of me now. It always will be.
Managing Editor (Volume 49); Senior Copy Editor (July–November, Volume 49); Copy Editor (Volume 48) — Juliana is a fourth-year student completing a double major in English and Professional Writing and Communication. She previously worked as a Copy Editor for Volume 48 and briefly as Senior Copy Editor for Volume 49. When she isn’t adding commas or splitting up run-on sentences, Juliana loves to read, play violin, sing, fangirl over multiple TV shows, and completely spoil her two dogs.