What to say to someone whose spouse or beloved has just died

It has been a few months since Susan died. Over 300 persons attended her funeral and many thousands have visited her blog. I have been sheltered a little bit from public interactions, first by taking some time off work, and by spending more days and weeks with my two sons. As Susan was very open about her illness and coming death, and as I was writing when I could about my own experience with her, it was safe to say that it was a public affair. Many people heard about her death through Facebook or her blog. When I was requesting time away from work, I was asked by an administrator if it was okay to inform my department chair. (I work at a university and the chair is kind of like my boss, but without much or any real power.) When I told people that Susan was ill 18 months ago, I was confronted by the same question around secrecy. I had asked the department to inform people that Susan had died. It wasn’t a secret.

For me, this just seemed like the right thing to do. It would explain why I was away, and it would give people some time to gather their own thoughts about any number of things around death and dying and grief. I also did not want to go through the task of informing people firsthand when I encountered them. Though not as tiring as when Susan was first diagnosed, I felt it would be easier for anyone who encountered me, and for me as well.

I received some beautiful emails over the first weeks. Lovely, touching, heartfelt. I responded to them all. It was healthy for me to do that, as it helped me connect with people who cared about Susan and me. I liked that part. I also received a few cards in the postal mail! That was also very pleasant and helpful. I have not responded to those people just yet.

Running into people since Susan died, I have experienced an array of responses from them. Many people who wrote emails to me confessed that they didn’t know what to say and were thus explaining why their note was so late in coming. So in the spirit of all that Susan was doing, I have decided to write down some of my thoughts on the matter of what to say to someone whose spouse or lover or partner has just died. This post follows up on one by Susan and one by me on sharing the news of a terminal illness. Some of these suggestions are meant to be a first response, something to say that is kind, and to allow a bit of time to assess the needs and state of the bereaved person, and to collect one’s own emotions. For some, finding the appropriate words comes naturally, for others, like me, I need a bit of prethinking. These, of course, are my opinions on my situation and might not be for everyone.

I have to admit I have been a poor responder in the past to hearing the news from someone about the death of their loved one. I have opened my mouth and a whole bunch of anxious, nervous, stupid words came out of my mouth. Or I avoided talking about it, or avoided the person all together. I don’t want anyone to replay any of our interactions and wonder if they misspoke, or acted weird. I don’t judge and I am forgiving! This whole death and dying topic is treated like an elective that we can avoid taking and still graduate with a degree in living.

  • If you know someone has lost a lover or spouse, here are some things that were helpful for me to hear when I ran into people in public spaces

“Oh Roy, I read about Susan. I am so sorry to hear the news.”

This was the most common reply. We often think of the word sorry to mean “to apologize” and in that context we think the other person is to blame or somehow responsible. As in, “I’m sorry I spilled coffee all over your new pants.” I recently told someone I was sorry for the hardship that their spouse was enduring with a cancer treatment and they replied with, “ That’s okay, it’s not your fault.” To which I had to explain my use of the word sorry. So, depending on how one interprets the word sorry, I think maybe sad is a better word.

“Oh Roy, I read about Susan, I am saddened to hear of your loss.”

“I heard about Susan’s death. It is so sad, for everyone. How are her sons?”

I heard these a few times. To which I often replied, “Yes, it is sad, it really sucks, for her and all of us.”

“Oh Roy, I read about Susan, I can only imagine what you are going through, that this is an extremely difficult time for you. I am so sorry for your loss.”

This one is pretty good! Expressing that you can imagine what I must be going through suggests a level of empathy, a capacity to imagine my grief. Calling it a difficult time is a pretty good adjective.

“She was an exceptional person. You must be missing her so much.”

Either one of those on its own is a kind thing to say. And both statements are not about the person speaking, but rather about the deceased and the bereaved. This is the type of thing one says when they knew the deceased person really well. I think one can express their own longing for the dead person after acknowledging the grieving person’s longing. And oh yes, I am missing her, dearly! If you want to see me cry on the spot, you can say: “you must be missing her”.

A few weeks ago, I walked across the street from Susan’s home in Montreal to knock on the one door that housed a friendly family. The neighbour knew about Susan, had spoken to her over the summer as Susan watered her garden. The woman was wondering where we were but had no way to get in touch with us. I told her Susan had died. Then, without really saying anything, she threw her arms around me and gave me the kindest hug. She didn’t have words. That might be the best response yet.

Offering to help in any way is a most gracious ending to the conversation. Just be sure to honour that offer should the person contact you.

And please please, mentioned the dead person at the beginning of the conversation. I’ve had numerous conversations, in which a person starts in about the weather and the rain and how many errands they ran that day, and then as an afterthought, they offer condolences. That’s hard, because as you are talking I don’t know if you know that Susan died, and I’m trying to think of ways to tell you while you chat about the humidity. I don’t feel present in the space when this type of avoidance is happening. The conversation running in my head is completely opposite to whatever you are saying. And I’m standing there, listening, and waiting to either to tell you the news, or for you to acknowledge her death.

If you yourself have lost a spouse, I think this is helpful information, but not right off the top. Being a good listener is more important. Mentioning that your spouse also died and then offering to be there for additional conversations is a nice closing gesture. I have had a few people tell me that their spouse died, months or years prior. And this helps deepen a connection, and it helps me rehear their words.

  • Things NOT to say when you already know that someone has died and you run into their spouse at the grocery store or the gym

“I can’t imagine what you are going through.”

This phrase is highly subjective. And some people may not have any problem hearing that response. But to me, this phrase makes it sound like you are incapable of empathy and it makes me feel incredibly alone in that moment. I wonder if people who say they can’t imagine what I am going through really mean “I am terrified of my partner dying and I hope I never have to think about it.” Because I feel even the most creatively challenged person has some capacity to imagine a significant loss. Better for me to hear: “I can only imagine how you feel.” In that way I have a sense that you are making the effort to empathize. The important word in that sentiment is “only”. If you say you can imagine what I am going through, it might sound presumptuous. But by saying you can “only imagine” I feel it suggests a certain effort on your part without implying that you actually know what it is like. And the above rationalization might just read like an unbalanced person whose skin is thin in the moment.

“How are you doing?”

I’ve had this question so many times. How to answer that question? One minute I’m fine, thinking about something wonderful, the next I’m a puddle on the couch, or weeping behind the wheel of my car. Then I’m stable, meditating, managing the grief, then I’m not. After a while, I just told people that I didn’t know how to answer that question. I know, it’s an automatic interrogative right after we say someone’s name in almost all of our greetings. Hard to catch oneself. I found “How is your day going?” to be a better alternative. Grieving is not linear. It’s not a nice sloped landing strip. It’s fraught with unexpected twists and turns and numerous black holes.

  • Things NOT to say when you are just hearing for the first time that someone’s partner has died but you knew they were ill

“Well, at least you had 18 months together.”

Yes, except I don’t need to be reminded to be grateful that she outlived her expected prognosis by a few months.

“Shit happens.”

Yes, a direct quote heard just last week. I know shit happens, but that’s not what I need to hear.

“God has a new angel. God works in mysterious ways. All part of God’s plan.”

I suppose if you know the person was devoutly religious this could be helpful. But for me as part Buddhist, part agnostic, part Susanist, this sounds condescending and completely fake. It doesn’t feel like it is from the heart. To be honest, I’d rather hear “Shit happens.”

“She is in a better place.”

She was alive, vibrant, positive, super cheerful, kind, brilliant, fit, beautiful, funny, fully looking ahead to numerous creative projects, contributing to the world, and enjoying her life. Hearing someone tell me she is in a better place denies all of that. Maybe there is a better place, but from my vantage point it was a lot to lose. It does nothing to make me feel better and actually makes me feel worse.

  • What to say when blindsided by the news of someone’s spouse dying

This one has a bit more latitude but I think there are some general replies that everyone could write down and put in that little wallet where one keeps their bank card and driver’s license. Take it out every once in a while and practice saying them. Because even in spite of all our connectedness through the online world, there are times when one won’t hear about every death. So chances are you’ll be buying unsweetened soya milk at the IGA and someone you haven’t seen in a while will pass by and you’ll ask them how they are, or what’s new, and they’ll tell you that their partner or lover died recently.

“Oh no, that is awful news. I had no idea. I am so sorry. You must be hurting a lot.”

“Oh boy that sounds so tough and so sad. I hope you have family or friends close by.”

If the bereaved person gives you some details about the deceased or their death, just listen. Don’t feel pressure to respond and make it a conversation. Don’t ask questions about the death (What did she die of? How old was she? Did she try CBD oil?). Sometimes questions and conversations are draining. Allow the bereaved person to have your ear. Listen to what they are telling you and it will help you determine your response. Don’t jump into a story of your own, and don’t offer a bunch of advice. If they ask for help or ask a question, then you can respond. If you feel like offering anything then make the offer. If you don’t feel comfortable about offering help, then tell them you hope they grieve well and find whatever they need to make their way through this difficult time.

Someone who did not know Susan or of her illness asked me what I had been up to. I replied: “I am grieving. My beloved long-time partner died a few weeks ago.”

“That’s unfortunate,” was the response. I felt bad for the person, because they had been caught off guard, and without a lot of practice, those are the kinds of things that come out. I responded with, “Yes, it is unfortunate, thank you.” I am not sure if that was a good or not so good thing to say, by either of us. Her comment did surprise me though, as it didn’t make me feel better, but it didn’t sting either.

Other things to avoid saying, in case your filter is damaged and your brain is on cruise control, and maybe avoid in any situation.

“I heard Susan passed away. You look terrible. Are you eating?”

“So, what are you going to do with all your spare time?”

“Are you sad?” (Yes, an actual question asked of me recently.)

Questions in general are sometimes just difficult, no matter what. I have been in conversations with close family or friends and expressed my worries and fears or whatever I might be feeling. They have asked: “What do you need to help with that?” Which is actually a pretty good question because it gives me pause to reflect on an answer. What do I need? I admit often that I don’t know, or perhaps there isn’t any answer. This can lead to some frustration and fatigue, as though I am attempting to solve a puzzle that I don’t have the knowledge for. In my case, the answer is often self-compassion. I need to be kind to myself. And perhaps that can be a nice way to end a conversation with a grieving person. Merely tell them to be kind to themselves. Because in many cases, as a lover or a spouse, they have been the primary caregiver, and have averted many of their own needs to pour love into their partner. I did not neglect myself over the past 18 months, I did my best to take care of my health and to remain Susan’s trusted partner, not just someone who cared for her needs. But I can now feel how the last 18 months chipped away at me, physically, spiritually, and most of all emotionally. And the one person most able to comfort me is no longer available. So being reminded to be compassionate with myself has been a mantra over the previous weeks. People often close off a letter or a conversation with “take care”. And it becomes an unheard imperative. One needs to deliver the message to a grieving person in a direct, loving way, so it is not just a tacked on ending to an email. “Be kind to yourself” feels easier to hear.

  • Knowing that someone has died and then pretending like nothing happened when I run into you

This is the one that is both completely understandable but also the most painful of all. I have been in social areas, like the gym, with people around that know me. Some knew Susan was dying, some did not. Someone asked about her and I told them she had died. The response was polite and kind and fell amongst the many simple things to say to someone. But there were people around us, who knew me by face and had engaged in small talk with me over the years, who heard my brief conversation declaring Susan’s death. None of those people came over afterward. I spent an hour in the gym and those people avoided me. When I say I understand their response, it’s this: we live in a death-phobic culture. We don’t practice what to say, and we don’t process our emotions or understanding of a situation in order to respond in the moment. I get it. We are mostly ignorant. But even knowing those reasons, it still felt awkward. It’s okay to say you overheard me speaking in a public place about the death of Susan, and that you want to recognize the journey I am now taking. It doesn’t have to be a lot. “I heard you talking to so-and-so about the death of your girlfriend, and I’m sorry for your loss.” I would respond with: “Thank you, I appreciate hearing that.” It can be as simple as that. Otherwise, I feel a huge disconnect in the room. Perhaps you might think you are intruding on my private space if you approach me. Now that I am grieving Susan’s death, I think it is worth the risk. I had no idea in the past how much of a difference it makes to hear acknowledgement from others. And, you know, much like an apology, it’s never too late to offer another person your sympathies. There will most likely always be another opportunity. I’ll be at the gym again, you can take some time at home over the days, and think about what to say. Maybe even google a query and find this blog with some suggestions. Or if you are a fan of the TV show Seinfeld, you can channel your inner George Castanza, and when you come up with the perfect response to a previous missed opportunity, in which you didn’t have a good reply, you can wait for a second chance and roll out your well rehearsed words!

To back up my point about it never being too late, I recently expressed condolences to a colleague who lost his sister many years ago. I realised I had avoided him at the time and never spoke about it. He accepted my belated sympathies, and we had a good conversation about death and avoidance. I also got to hear what he was going through at the time, which I appreciated.

  • Honouring Susan

I am sometimes playful with people who have been reading Susan’s blog and know how candid she was. Neither of us like the terms “passed away”, “passed”, “her passing”. So when I hear them used in a conversation about her from someone who knew her, I smile. Sometimes I offer the person the chance to use the word death. I tell them I am the perfect person to practice using the words “death”, “died”, “dying”. One friend took me up on the offer, in the grocery store no less. When I saw her she said: “I heard about Susan’s passing and I want to tell you how sorry I am.” I smiled and made my offer. She paused for a second and rephrased her sentiments. “I heard about Susan’s death and I want to say how sad I am for you and her sons.” Using the word death even changed the content of her condolence! It was more sincere, not sanitized, and in some ways I feel it allowed this person to reach a deeper understanding.

It wasn’t so hard, to say or hear. Susan and I always found those humorous terms to be part of the phobia around talking about death. Susan’s end-of-life event? I have not heard that one yet. If you have read Susan’s blog and learned anything from it, then you can honour her perspective and the gifts she shared with you by calling her death what it was: her death. It honours her life, as well as all the things she was giving to us through her writing on The Passing Away Blog, er I mean, The Death Project.

Same

Today is one of the saddest days yet. Returning to work seemed to have triggered a technicolor image of what my life used to be like. And yet, it’s missing Susan. She is gone. But the hallway at work is the same, my office is the same, the classroom is the same, the people are the same, but my life is not. And the vivid sameness of everything only serves to remind me that nothing is the same for me. I feel like a ghost, walking in my own life.

It is so beautiful this early June morning

Since Susan’s death I have spent numerous nights at her house in Sutton, Quebec. Susan’s yard is an expansive, one-acre property on the edge of the town. I have revisited the many paths and places we ventured during this past summer. There are two places where I can see that the deer bed down at night. One is near her apple tree just past her driveway, and the other is behind her pond. I can see deer scat, and even the trail they walk through the yard as they come and go. I had set my alarm the first few nights to get up before dawn to catch a glimpse of them. It is very dark at 4 am, and just as dark at 5. I stretched my eyes over Susan’s yard, hoping to see the deer. But the undergrowth was just too thick, and the light (or my eyes) too weak. I am sure they silently walked right past me.

The view from Susan’s window looking on to the back forty

This spring I embraced all of Susan’s yard. As I looked one April morning from her living room window out onto what I called the back forty (old homesteading term), I suddenly saw it as wondrous. There is an escarpment of about 15 feet, with a rock wall, and below that stretching out is a wooded area with open meadows. In the middle is a pond with a liner that was built by the previous owners and was landscaped at one time. But Susan let the universe back into the space, stopped grooming it, let the plants move at will, let the trees seed as they desired (seeding liberties had been revoked from the sumacs, however). And so as I looked down on the yard I believe I caught a glimpse of what Susan would see. Nature was awakening, and reclaiming and beautifying the area. One of the problems that prevented Susan or us from spending more time down there was that by June, the wild raspberries and flowers and grasses and the diverse bio mass would overtake the place and it almost required a machete to venture through it. I told Susan that I wanted to help her reclaim that part of the yard. She smiled.

Where’s Susan? Taking photos on the back forty

During all the weekend visits in late April and May, I set about cleaning debris and deadfall from the previous year. I would rake and haul mounds of deadfall on a wagon or a wheelbarrow to the back corner of her yard where she had a compost pile going. It was fun and rewarding work. I came to be able to work in only shorts. No shirt or shoes. My body seemed to withstand the foliage scraping me. My step was sensitive to the ground and if anything jagged like a rock or a stubborn stem poked at the soles of my feet, I was able to navigate around it. I did use gloves to pull the wild raspberry stems that had invaded many parts of the yard, smothering out other things. It was simple but physically demanding work. I loved it.

Deadfall and Roy, photo by Susan

As I cleared out deadfall, the new budding plants underneath danced upward. Within a few weeks the green buds of a flower garden appeared amongst the beige and browns of last year. It still had a wild untamed flare, but growth was accelerated. It made Susan so happy; happy that her yard was getting some much needed love and attention, and that I was genuinely receiving joy from the work.I wasn’t just doing it for her. We were both in the moment, happy and grateful to be in nature.

Me (in purple) with my wagon, photo by Susan

 

When someone has a terminal disease there isn’t anything anyone can do to change that. Accepting that fact made it a bit easier for me to feel less, for lack of better word, useless. Nothing can be done to change her disease or diagnosis and so doing nothing about it didn’t feel like doing nothing. There was a release from that challenge. And with that came a release from the idea of hope. Susan and I found that hope was the one thing we both dreaded hearing from someone else. To have hope, as we discussed, meant to be living for a future moment. It meant missing out on the current moment. Having hopes also meant that one had to deal with what it felt like when they were dashed. Of course, there were always accounts of some miraculous story of a person near death, springing back to good health without any medical explanation. Susan sought treatment, a palliative chemo, which was undertaken to lessen her symptoms and/or temporarily halt the disease progression, so she might enjoy more moments and days and weeks. And for the most part the treatment delivered, but Susan didn’t wait for, or hope for results to enjoy future days. Today’s moments were what mattered. To spend one’s final months hoping for a miracle really seemed to Susan like, well, a waste of precious good time.

The house and Bee Balm as seen from the back forty

And so I couldn’t change the diagnosis, couldn’t conjure up some obscure cure. (There were always the many cannabis crusaders, vitamin C evangelists, coffee enema enthusiasts, etc. who repeatedly offered suggestions on cures even after she had already asked for people to refrain from advice.) But I could help Susan live in this moment of her life as best as she could. I would process things emotionally and intellectually with her, witness her tears, be comfort for her, be her lover and confidant, her most trusted partner. And she mine.

Susan, May 2018

Susan loved gardening. Loved to be in the earth with her bare legs, bare feet, hands full of dirt. I recall one summer she was working in the garden in only a dress, maybe gloves, and she scraped her thigh on a rose bush. She had this eight-inch wound (she called it a scratch) across her leg. It healed but the red mark on her skin remained well into winter. In her last two summers, her heart ached that she was no longer physically able to do many of those things. But watching me, seeing the results of my effort, made her happy.

I groomed numerous narrow paths at her request through the entire yard. Always with a serpentine shape, sometimes ending at a meadow or a tree, or swirling back to another path. Sometimes a path just ended where I felt it was a good spot to pause and look.

One of the paths led to her pond. Any remnants of the previous landscaping were lost. The manufactured pond had become Susan. There were two meditation stones that she had placed there years before.

The pond and meditation stone

They were now covered in moss. Numerous trees: oaks and maples had volunteered and had grown in behind. I had dredged part of the pond. Years and years of fallen leaves from the surrounding tress had turned it almost into a bog. I dredged about three wheelbarrows of beautiful compost and spread it around the yard. Susan didn’t want me to do the entire pond, only about a third. She was concerned about the tadpoles. I found an elaborate plumbing system that the previous owners had installed to pump water from the pond up the escarpment and then fall back down a stream into the pond. Susan wasn’t interested in a noisy pump so I found the buried conduit at the top of the escarpment and set about connecting it to the drain from the eaves of her house. I was able to add much needed water to the pond through the buried pipe.

Susan and I went down there often, sometimes alone, sometimes together. Sitting next to the pond, one could imagine a fairy tale about a magical forest. The dense trees and foliage covered us from all sides. There were water lilies and some type of tall grass plants shooting out of the water. Wild flowers everywhere. And frogs and snakes!

The other paths Susan loved just as much. She had this wood nymph persona that loved the feeling of following a path through the green. There was something of great comfort for her in these paths. She used her new smartphone to record her walk along these paths, perhaps to look at them again when she was no longer able to be physically on them.(I’ve embedded a video that Susan shot at the end of this post. Take a walk with Susan and see what she saw!)

Daffodils in springtime

I found myself becoming sensitive to the flora. Barefoot, I could feel the ground, the energy ever so slightly. I was/am a complete novice when it comes to identifying weeds from flowers. Which was fine, because to Susan there really weren’t any weeds. Just life. (With the exception of two things: an invasive vine that crept up other trees and smothered them, and the sumacs, which, like the zombie hoards in popular television today, always seem to be multiplying at an alarming rate and threatening to choke out everything around them.) But the rest was pretty much to be left alone. There wasn’t any weeding per se. I used a battery-operated weed whacker to carve out 12-inch-wide paths. This is when I needed information on which plants were going to become beautiful tall flowers. Susan would walk with me and point to a low plant. “See that umbrella-shaped set of leaves? That’s a flower, don’t cut that.” So I would wind my way around, suddenly noticing tiny, tiny flowers, low to the ground. I’d stop and kneel. Yes, some type of plant was flowering. And then I looked and saw another next to it, and another, and soon I saw hundreds where before I saw none! What an awakening! This reframing of my gaze happened over and over again during the spring and early summer. I was becoming dialed into the natural world. And this type of shift of perception was something that Susan did for me long before I came to love her home in the townships. She often helped me shift my perspective ever so slightly, on so many things. Politics, environmentalism, feminism, racial bias, living while dying… And in the conversation of shifting perspectives I would present my own view, and it helped her see something new as well.

As I spent time in the yard, clearing out dead branches or pulling wild raspberries that had encroached on the periwinkle, my comfort level – no, not comfort, my awareness of the life underfoot expanded. The ground, the bugs, the vines, the flowers, the trees, the bushes were no longer just a forest. I was seeing the trees. And my awareness made me love all of nature. And when one loves all living things, it changes the way one approaches everything.

I guess Susan practiced democratic-socialist gardening. She let nature run its course so that each living thing could have its own agency and right to be. But she also protected and nurtured those who needed her help. She cleared away the mint around her blueberry bushes so they might get more light. She removed the sumacs because they invaded the space of the crabapple tree. And the blossoms of that tree were a work of art in the spring, and Susan loved to drink in its beauty. And then the apples that hung on it would stay the winter and feed the birds. She left some sumacs because the birds in winter continually returned to feed on them. The forget-me-nots along the path needed only a little tending from the occasional overbearing something or other. If a branch from a tall shrub fell over from its own weight, she would tie it up, or prop it against another rather than cut it because the flowers it bore attracted the bees. And when plants and flowers volunteered to grow in new places, all on their own, she would smile at the marvel of seeds moving from one place to another, taking root and reaching upward. The beautiful willow tree in her front yard, over 100 years old we think, is so majestic and gnarly. A fairly large branch split during a wind storm and the end toppled to the ground but remained attached to its larger branch. And so we thought we might need to get that cut off. But as spring progressed it became apparent that the branch was still very much alive. Its buds produced leaves, and it looked no different than the rest of the tree. She left it alone. The tree is fine. It’s more than fine, it’s magnificent.

The Willow

Susan let things grow in her yard as long as they didn’t bully anything else. There was a stinging nettle plant that currently grows just inside her garden gate. It was small at first. Susan pointed it out to me, I touched it, got stung and wondered why she just didn’t cut it down now while it was manageable, and then neither of us would have to worry about it. Susan’s response: it was a living thing. Leave it alone and just be careful coming and going. I was mindful of the nettles each time I went into the garden. We got along fine.

Now as I walk along these serpentine paths, alone, I often feel like I am going to round a bend and see Susan sleeping, curled up like the deer, or that I will find her caressing the branches of a tree. And always she is smiling. I am grateful for many things. Grateful that Susan brought me out to her home in Sutton. And she never preached to me about nature, nor lectured me, she let me find my own path there, in oh such a subtle way. Like the flower and tree seeds that found their way across her yard, or the way the young new buds pushed up from the ground, or the way a manicured pond became an image from a book of fairy tales, I too was welcomed and nourished and blossomed in Susan’s garden.

(Click full screen to enjoy a ten-minute walk with Susan.)

(Click full screen to watch a 30 second clip that Susan shot of her willow.)

At Susan’s pond

It was a week after her funeral, and I was sitting on a rock next to Susan’s pond and crying when she came to me. I had wandered down to the pond because I had some fear running through my mind that fuelled my anxiety, and I wanted to be close to Susan. It was well above 25 degrees so I took off my shirt and walked barefoot down the paths to the meditation stone she had placed there years ago. I removed my shorts and sat bare butt on the mossy stone. It was cooler than I expected. I startled two peeper frogs as I arrived, and they hopped into the water. I took off my glasses and things went soft.

Susan's pond green
The pond at Susan’s.

I sat looking out at the pond and the trees and listening to whatever sounds presented themselves. In my stillness, one of the little frogs jumped out of the water and sat on the edge of the pond. Without my glasses I could not really get a good look at it. We sat together, both of us still and quiet. Images and memories of Susan began sifting in. I closed my eyes, and allowed my limited meditation practice to take over. Deep waves of sadness began rising in my body. A fierce longing for Susan accompanied it. And I guess somewhere in that sadness and longing, the fear of the future without her startled me. I began to cry, and then intense feelings of loneliness fell upon me, and my cries turned to sobs.

And then, for the second time since her death, she came to me. She walked out of the woods from around the pond and approached me. She was smiling, her long brown hair shimmering in the sunlight, her slim, plum-coloured dress moving side to side across her hips. My crying continued and my head hung down. She stood next to me and took my head in her hands, running her fingers through my hair. This was something she did often when comforting me. I felt my arms around her thighs even though they hung at my sides. I embraced her and I could feel her strong legs. I conveyed my fears about the future to her, about the unknown whereabouts I was headed to, how much I counted on her wisdom and love, how much in that very moment I needed her to take care of me. It may have been the most vulnerable moment I had felt in all my years with Susan. And then, quite simply and soothingly, she told me I was going to be okay. And my whole body became enveloped by tiny tingles, somewhere between goose bumps and the sensation of a limb reawakening after it has gone to sleep. It was brief, but completely head to toe. I couldn’t help but smile and chuckle because the feeling was almost like a tickle. I sensed she had many things to do and she couldn’t spend much more time with me (the afterlife seemed just as busy as her regular life). But I had already been so filled with her love that I didn’t mind her leaving. I went to thank her, and she put her finger to my lips. Shhh. And this part, I am not sure, but I feel as though she was thanking me, or perhaps reminding me that these are just the things that lovers do for one another. Then she stepped away, around the pond, under the oak tree, and looked back at me. It was the same look, the same smile she gave me when she caught me looking at her as I was falling in love with her at the backyard party in 2012. And there I was, my face wet and salty, sitting bare butt on a mossy stone, and suddenly not so alone anymore. She vanished around a bending path of wild flowers and trees. I stayed for a while, sitting with the little peeper frog, both of us content with each other’s company and in the stillness of the pond.

She reminds me

I started reading The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje. I suppose I felt the need for a love story to help manage my way through the grief around Susan’s death. Early in the book I found a sentence so lyrical that it held a beauty all unto its own. And I thought, how beautiful this is, and how beautiful it is that I am able to see its beauty. And I thought of Susan, of how she was like this. How she could drink in a song, a flower, a word, a face, a moment, and feel all of it, feel what it was to be alive. And I thought, yes, this is me now. I have travelled with Susan and now I am learned. Yet a part of me was sad, because having gone through the journey with Susan I have evolved into something much more than just Roy. I don’t know what it is, not yet anyway. But the sadness was this: I wished the newly evolved Roy could now share himself with Susan. Then a thought struck me, that as I grieve, and things simmer inside me, slow from this heavy boiling of emotions, that I might return to normal. But I don’t want to return to normal. And so like waking from a dream that one doesn’t want to forget, I thought I had best keep retelling myself who I am, what I have learned, how much I can appreciate things. And I do this so I won’t forget them, won’t forget how rich Susan has made me. As I turn toward that fear of losing sight of who I am, and who Susan was, I imagine myself shrinking down to a person who is consumed by things, gets caught up in pettiness, possession, drama, conflict. And I don’t want to be there. I want to stay in this world of enriched awareness. And so I am writing this down to remind myself of that. Oh how I wish I could tell Susan this. It would be such a wonderful morning conversation over a coffee, and she’d be happy and encouraging me to follow that thread. It would bring us even closer together, and the dialogue would lead us someplace new and most likely creative. Even just visualizing our time together grounds me in awareness.

Susan was so thrilled by this piece at the Tate Modern.

O Susan! My Susan!

Below are the words I read at Susan’s funeral service on Saturday, September 8, 2018. As with most things we wrote, we invited each other to read drafts and offer comments. This piece was no different. I started this particular remembrance about 4-5 months ago and showed a draft to Susan at the time. She offered her first impression, made a few literary suggestions, cried a little, and noted a sentence with four prepositional phrases that I might want to revisit. 🙂 This draft has revisions that she did not see because I finished it after she died. I could feel her arms around me as I read it aloud in the church.

O Susan! My Susan!

Susan and I were sitting on her front balcony on Marlowe Street. Both of us had our laptops open and were working on something. We had been together for over a year, and I guess I felt secure in our relationship. Secure enough to make a confession. I am not sure what prompted it. “Susan,” I said. “Hmm-mm,” she mumbled, still fixed on her writing. I cleared my throat. “I have read Stephen King novels.” She looked up from her screen. “Really?” I nodded. “About two dozen.” Then she looked away for a second or two as she did when she needed to be alone, and then back at me and said with her trademark smile: “I still love you.” She returned to her laptop screen and continued working. After another few seconds, without looking up, she said: “Just don’t tell any of my literary friends.”

Susan’s sense of humour was quite odd, often dark, and sometimes just weird. She would recount something to me and laugh and laugh out loud as she shared the anecdote. At first I just looked at her and thought maybe it was nervous laughter but it turns out she just found humour in odd things, and enjoyed laughing almost as a gift to herself. Sometime in the last year, she made a blueberry crumble cake. As the crumble baked, the blueberries would secrete juice and it would collect on the bottom of the pan. So as to avoid a soggy crumble she poured out from the pan about one-half cup of pure, undiluted blueberry juice left over, which she put into a mason jar in the fridge. No lid on the jar. That evening we were in the kitchen with Oliver and Lauren, and we were going to have the crumble. She went into the fridge to get some cream, which was behind the jar of blueberry juice. She took out the jar of juice, and I think the door may have bumped her a little and she dropped the jar, the one without the lid. The jar fell perfectly perpendicular to the wooden floor. It hit with a smack between Susan’s feet. The jar didn’t break but the blueberry juice exploded like a geyser right out of the top and splattered Susan from head to foot, and ceiling, and across the room, and into the fridge, and well, everywhere. She looked like Sissy Spacek at the end of the movie Carrie (which, ironically, is a movie based on a novel by a writer whose name I won’t mention again). But in the kitchen in Montreal, Susan is laughing. Laughing and laughing. She said: “I must look like I’m in a horror movie.” I nodded but didn’t mention the movie by you know who. Her face and arms were freckled with blueberry juice, her long dress spattered everywhere, her bare legs and feet too. And still she was laughing. The rest of us, I believe, were only thinking about the mess we would need to clean up, and how this was going to slow down getting to eat the crumble, but Susan was in the moment, laughing at the absurdity, at the mess, at her humanity. Her laughter made it easy to relax, to laugh with her, to share with her what became silliness. “I still love you,” I said, as I went to fill a wash basin.

Aside from loving her sense of humour I also came to love flowers, and to understand the meaning of compassion, partly through her own love of flowers. Wild flowers mostly, the kind that grow where they want, without boxes or pots or any type of restraints. It was so beautiful to see them expand across her yard as summer moved along. “Don’t step there, that’s a young bee-balm, watch out for the forget-me-nots.” And on the occasion that we brought flowers into the house, we were both very mindful of cutting them. It was almost a sacred act: we quietly gave thanks to the flowers before cutting them, and then took good care of them once inside the house. She had such great love and compassion for all living things.

Such compassion. I’ve had some struggles with anxiety and depression, and while I am highly functional most of the time, I often slip and fall into shadowy states of being. Of late not so much, ironically, but over our nearly seven years together I’d stumble along the way, and swirl into some vortex that made me dark and distant. Susan had an admitted impatient streak; it’s a family trait, so she came by it honestly. But I never felt that she was impatient with my emotional slumps. On the contrary, she was kind and caring towards me. Compassionate. Susan always looked for ways to help me, to listen, to back up, to come closer, to be there for me; she offered comfort in many ways. Sometimes it would take hours or days for me to feel ready to express what was happening. She waited, patiently. One time, after a few days of a dark mood, I expressed a completely irrational fear of some kind, that type that leaves a non-worrying person rolling their eyes. But ours was such a trusting love that we could confide anything to each other. Susan took my face in her hands and said: “You really are fucked up… but I still love you.”

I told Susan earlier in her diagnosis that if she should slip into a deep sleep, she need not doubt where my love was. It was still here, in the room, in my heart. And I promised Susan in a love letter last year that wherever I go I will plant wild flowers for her. And that she can nourish them, and I can talk to her through them. Hopefully I’ll receive some comfort from those flowers through the sad times and worry. And while I can’t be certain, I’d like to think that those flowers will look back at me with Susan’s big smiley smile and I’ll hear her voice saying: “I still love you … I still love you … I still love you”.

On Susan’s Death

The Death Project

Susan Jeanne Briscoe
November 13, 1966 – August 31, 2018

It is with great sorrow that we announce the death of Susan on Friday, August 31, 2018 in Montreal at the Montreal University Health Centre (Glen) palliative ward. Her sons, Oliver and Nathan, and her beloved partner, Roy Cross, were by her side. Susan also leaves to mourn her parents Bob and Raye Briscoe, sisters Lorraine and Tracey, brother Rob, nine nieces and nephews, and numerous dear friends.

Susan was born and raised in Montreal. After completing a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature at McGill University, Susan moved to Vancouver and worked at a women’s shelter before returning home to Montreal, where her sons were born. Susan’s greatest joy in life were her two sons: Oliver and Nathan. She moved from Montreal to Sutton when her boys were young to give them freedom to roam, explore, and blossom. She…

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Let’s dance

If I could only have one record, this it it.

Not long ago, Susan and I spent the night playing old records. We got up to dance. Bowie’s Five Years came on. We held each other and swayed. Bowie’s voice was close, our bodies were close. The lyrics poured out: “we’ve got five years, that’s all we got, we’ve got five years,” and I could feel Susan tremble, crying in my arms. We hadn’t been a couple for much more than five years, and it was a beautifully tragic moment and there we were, dancing together.

One of my favourite photos of Susan.

I fell in love with Susan at a party at her friend’s place. It was near the end of June, 2012, and the promised pleasures that summer offers were beginning to pop up everywhere. It was a warm evening in an urban backyard with trees and plants and grass. I was only just meeting many of her friends that summer. Our exclusive dating was fairly recent and I didn’t really know anyone so I just played wallflower. I sipped from a bottle and watched. There were about a dozen people in the backyard, chatting and hanging out, as music drifted from the kitchen. I don’t recall the song, but someone turned it up and a couple of people started to dance. Susan watched them. I watched Susan. She started to move her hips, and her skirt swayed, while her long hair, draped over her neck, brushed across her back. As a filmmaker, I can recognise wonder and beauty in a moving image when I see it. And like most people when they are being watched, Susan sensed my gaze and turned my way. She caught me looking, but I didn’t make shy and I wasn’t going to look away. She continued to sway to the music, then she smiled at me. Susan has a million-dollar smile, but when I recall the moment, it’s her whole face, and especially her eyes locked to mine, that is the most vivid. And that was that. By the time she turned away I wasn’t the same.

As our campuses were situated downtown Susan and I would often meet on the corner near my school and walk somewhere to eat. If I happened to be early I could always see her coming, even at a distance. In a sea of people, her hair and head bopped from side to side, she had a bounce and a swing in her steps. If she wanted to rush along a little she would chassé for a moment. Lighter than air. And always smiling. I’d like to say the smile only came after she caught sight of me but that wasn’t the case. As for myself it was difficult to be anything but cheerful with that image coming toward me! I’d seen the same thing in the hallway at her school. Sometimes I’d stop by to see her, maybe bring her a coffee or something. And I’d wait by her office and catch her walking down the hall. Same dance, purposeful, happy, with speed and grace.

Susan at age 6?

As a child she had taken ballet lessons. She told me she was a dedicated pupil and had excellent form. She loved those classes. The one thing she wasn’t good at was remembering a series of steps. So in class she always made sure she had another student in front of her to follow. She recounted to me how at one recital she and her classmates had to dance across the stage to a choreographed sequence of steps. Susan, being the star student, was unexpectedly put at the front of the line. Her memory failed her, and without anyone going before her to follow she didn’t know the steps. She fumbled the recital, to the dismay of her teacher.

About two years ago, Susan informed me that she was going to take a ballet class. Okay, I said, not at all surprised. She told me she couldn’t decide between three different classes. One was a classical class, another was a floor class, and well I can’t recall what the other was. She couldn’t decide between them so she took all three. Susan went to her dance classes that winter, every evening, Monday to Thursday. Never missed a class. She’d practice pirouettes and other steps in the kitchen. I’d watch. She wore tights and a skirt most winter days so when she practiced she kind of looked like a ballerina. Sometimes I’d straighten my leg, point my toe, and try to turn. Humorous to say the least. Susan had great flexibility and strength. She could stand facing me, and lift one straightened leg off the ground and point her toes in my face. She was Bruce Lee. She would have made a hell of a prima ballerina, or kung-fu master!

Before Susan got sick, we were hanging out at her flat in NDG. I can’t recall the context of our conversation, but I think it had something to do with CBC radio theme songs. I mentioned how I always liked Bob Kerr’s radio show because he closed it off with Pachelbel’s canon. I found the version online and played it through some speakers in her kitchen. We embraced and danced a slow one. It was a simple dance, nothing much more than a junior high school embrace. As the song ended, Susan was crying a little. She was crying at how beautiful the things are that we humans are capable of creating, of giving to the world. That is one of many instances in which Susan has shown me the wonder of being here. As someone preoccupied with life to a fault, often fueled by anxiety and worry, I miss a lot of things. I’ve seen them. I’ve heard them, but not fully. Not really even at all. That is one of the many gifts that Susan has given me – she taught me how to pause, how to get out of my mind, and to be in something, like a song, a painting, a forest, a sunset, a moment. It’s not always easy for me, not having had enough practice, but I’m better than I was.

And I think in a lot of ways, that frame of mind is what creates that lift in her walk, the lightness in her step, her cheerfulness, her positivity. Even as she faces death, she seems to always find a reason to be dancing.

On Travel

The Death Project

When I returned from London in December, I was unwell and sure I would not travel again. Yet here I am on a plane somewhere, perhaps over Florida, on my way to Costa Rica. Last year Roy and I had been planning this trip when it became suddenly apparent that I was too sick to go anywhere. We’d never taken a real vacation together before – nothing more than a weekend in Toronto or Ottawa. So I felt this was something we should do if I had the chance. And with him on reading week at the university and me on my week’s chemo break and relatively well, this was the chance, perhaps the last one.

I’m ambivalent, though, about traveling. I always have been. I’m a rooted sort of person, so something always feels wrong to me about flying around the globe. My parents and siblings are the opposite:…

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