Today marks the 47th anniversary of my first grave encounter with death. In the fall of 1970 my best friend Ingrid and I embarked on an adventure across the U.S., in a camper van we bought used in Edmonton for $1,200. Driving west on Route 66 through Arizona to the Grand Canyon, I hit a patch of ice, spun wildly out of control, and flew 12 feet from the van. Ingrid died at the Holbrook Hospital on February 1, 1971, 11:45 a.m., the day before her 19th birthday.
After relating the outcome of his efforts in the ER, a doctor injected me with a drug that stupefied me. I phoned my Dad’s office only to hear he was driving home from his Father’s funeral in Winnipeg. What? Just two months prior, Grandpa had marched Ingrid and me around San Diego, his winter residence, appearing in robust health. The RCMP pulled Dad over on Highway 16, west of Saskatoon, to deliver news of my tragedy. He came to Holbrook to manage the business of death (filing a police report, collecting my belongings, disposing of the van, etc.) and to accompany me home via Phoenix, where friends from California met us to commiserate. By the time we reached Edmonton, a memorial service for Ingrid had already taken place. I missed two occasions — in the hospital and in the church — to say farewell to my soulmate.
As the driver in a single vehicle fatality, I was swamped by guilt. I could not bear living in our house, in the neighbourhood, in my hometown. Insomnia clutched me. For 15 months, I functioned on one to two hours sleep a night, all the while working to support myself as I moved from place to place. I escaped into the bottle, a cliché, yes, yet I couldn’t conceive another remedy to numb myself. I made a drinking buddy, Jack, also lost, and together for four years we tried to find ourselves. Thank you Maharishi Yogi and transcendental meditation for the gift of sleep. And thank you remote Seymour Arm BC for being a refuge for us to take solace in nature and to dry out.
Grief and guilt were my constant companions as I careened through my twenties, until… Ten years after the accident, a psychiatrist’s counsel (not a psychologist who failed me miserably years before) led to my healing. While I’d attempted on my own to pass through Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of loss — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — apparently I misunderstood anger. He advised me to get angry, fiercely so, with Ingrid for dying. Although his advice seemed counter-intuitive, the perpetrator angry with the victim, I followed it. And the dark cloud that had hung palpably over me for so long drifted away.
Why am I writing about death? With aging comes the inevitable deaths of people we love. We need to give them their due.
GRAPPLING WITH GRIEF
My young self mourned the fact I had no chance to prepare for Ingrid’s death. I’ve since understood we cannot prepare, emotionally, for death. In reality we’re seldom ready to say goodbye to our loved ones, whether they die from old age, an illness, an accident, a suicide. Perhaps, however, we can learn about grief and how to endure it.
- Grief is a process, not an event. Be patient and tolerant. The death of a loved one changes our life forever.
- Take care of our relationships. Express often our feelings for those we love in life. They won’t hear us in death, and we’ll regret sentiments unspoken.
- If someone tells us how we should react or behave, pay no heed. Grief is personal, specific to each individual. There is no right formula to follow.
- Given the circumstance of Ingrid’s death, I learned about forgiveness, in its profundity. I went through an arduous process to forgive myself so know how to forgive others.
- I also learned about choice. Guilt inhabited me for ten years but, in recovery, I realized I could choose to live without its debilitating effects.
- When well-intentioned people say of our grief “this too shall pass,” ignore them. Grief wants to ebb and flow within us for the balance of our life.
My first journey of grief began long before the Internet dominated our world. However, I would have benefitted from articles on the website of Dr. Alan Wolfelt who says we all must face the “six needs of mourning”:
- Acknowledge the reality of the death.
- Embrace the pain of the loss.
- Remember the person who died.
- Develop a new self identity.
- Search for meaning.
- Receive ongoing support from others.
Later in my life, I took two trips dedicated to the memory of Ingrid: in 1993 I made it to the Grand Canyon and in 1999 Glen drove us by the fateful site. And so I closed the circle… ♥
P.S. Early on, Dad recited (and I memorized) Alfred Lord Tennyson’s immortal lines from In Memoriam (1850), but considerable time passed before my heart affirmed the poet’s belief:
“I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
’Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.”