Holding Grief and Happiness in the Same Hands

A few days ago, I wrote about a retirement party I attended, and talked about the importance of paying attention to life transitions. The past week has been very full of those, with a workplace baby on the way, two funerals, and the ongoing decline of the Brindle Dog. And today in particular is special because it’s the birthday of an amazing woman who is a talented artist and a wonderful friend. (I know you sometimes read my blog, J., so happy birthday to you in yet another public venue–did I do Instagram yet? 🙂 )

It’s been hard. Exhausting. Heartbreaking. But also beautiful and hopeful. The first funeral was for someone at work whom I’ve known for the decade I’ve been here. For a few years, we even worked at the same location. We were not close, but I liked and respected her. Karen used her words sparingly, and was almost always gentle and kind—but she had a spine of steel and a definite sense of where her boundaries were. She loved German Shepherds, and a lot of our friendly conversations over the years were about our beloved dogs.

Karen’s funeral was heartbreaking and beautiful. She was so young, only 55, and she had three kids, all of whom spoke at the service. The slideshow was incredible, and showed Karen from babyhood until near-death. There was some controversy swirling around the workplace afterward about that slideshow, actually; some felt it was inappropriate to show the pictures of her when she was so helpless and ravaged by illness near the end. They were indeed hard pictures to see. Karen, always so graceful and active, looked in the end much like my old grandmother did at ninety years old: worn and thin and sick and almost empty. But at the same time, it was really quite beautiful to witness this, to bear witness to one way that the end comes for us. She was surrounded by family in those last pictures, outside in her wheelchair, touching a tree, holding a flower. Fuck cancer.

The news of Karen’s death hit the workplace last Thursday, the day before my department was planning to have a little baby party for a colleague going on maternity leave. Some people felt it would be hard, at that little get-together, to hold the recent death and the upcoming baby at the same time. But to me, it made sense. Holding grief and happiness together is not only entirely possible, but entirely necessary. Bad things happen, and good things happen, and they do not ever cancel each other out. One of the ways I know I am sliding back into depression is when the good escapes my attention while the bad dominates it.

The second funeral was my Grandmere’s twin sister. Tante Anna’s funeral was very emotional for me. The twins had been very close, and so there were lots of mentions and memories of how intertwined the families were. When I was very little, I didn’t really understand that my grandmother was a twin (and this was made harder by the fact that I was only around that side of the family half-time). It gradually dawned on me that there were two of them, but I couldn’t tell them apart by looking at them. The way I could tell them apart was when they looked at me: Tante Anna looked at me like she’d look at anyone, but when Grandmere looked at me, her eyes and mouth softened with love, and even if she didn’t move, I could feel her leaning toward me. She rarely said my name; I was always simply “la fille” to her—the girl—but her voice was always filled with affection when she spoke to or about me.

Grandmere and I were never really close. The most time I spent with her as an adult was when I was in university the first time around. I briefly had an apartment a few blocks from her. On  Saturday mornings, I’d throw all my dirty laundry in a big black garbage bag and walk over to Grandmere’s house. It would always just so happen that when I arrived, Grandmere was poised to climb a ladder to wash the outside windows, or she was getting ready to move the furniture so she could vacuum underneath, or she was about to dig out potatoes, or something else totally ridiculous for an ancient (to my twenty-year-old self) woman of sixty-three. Wow, I just counted on my fingers to figure out how old she was that year. That’s younger than my mom is now! Grandmere seemed so old to me then, and my mom seems so young to me now. How perspectives change.

Well, the funeral of my grandmother’s beloved identical twin sister brought up lots of memories and feelings, of all kinds. I drove my mom to the funeral; she was sick, but wanted to go anyway, of course. I visited with the aunties and uncles and great aunties and great uncles, the cousins and second cousins and third cousins and family friends who are also in some way related through all the little Franco-Manitoban farming communities. It’s hard for me to remember everyone’s names and how I am related to them, which is a source of embarrassment and some shame for me, since the rest of the family always seems to up-to-date on everyone and their business. It always feels like I am an outsider, and that this is rooted in my half-time childhood. So as much as I like to see everyone, people are draining in general, and family gatherings in particular often leave me feeling somewhat inadequate and disconnected.

At the same time, I appreciated how heartbreaking and beautiful this funeral also was. The cousins from my generation did most of the speaking and the readings. I coped with the waves of emotion by internally criticising the priest (I counted six “you knows” and two “whatevers” so I had some satisfactory eye-rolling). I coped with the old-school patriarchy and misogyny and gender-role stereotyping of the oldest male cousins by gritting my teeth behind a sweet smile. (The one who called me a “bad girl” for getting divorced and then later complained that I refused to sing the hymns was especially hard to take.) But when the cousins stood up there talking about the last years with their granny, how her memory was failing, how she thus had to relive the deaths of her parents and twin sister over and over again, I was both so sad for my great-auntie, and so grateful to the family for sharing that. As with the end-of-life pictures of Karen two days earlier, I found it beautiful and honest and moving that people were sharing the raw truth. They were trusting us to bear witness not only to the beauty and happiness in someone’s life, but also to the pain and sorrow. It felt very real to me, and very deep.

It has been an emotional week. I am exhausted and cranky, and somewhat overwhelmed. The Brindle Dog is still declining. Although her decline is slow, it is not as glacially slow as I would like. She’s now on the almost-maximum daily possible dose of deramaxx, and so I’ll have to look at adding a different type of painkiller soon.  Her mood is often uncharacteristically sad and low; I wonder how much she understands, and how much it bothers her. Slowly, I am figuring out the things that bring her comfort now: my presence (fortunately), seeing and barking at neighbourhood dogs through the front window, visits from people she loves, walks that are short in distance but long in sniffing. I hold her beautiful life and her imminent death cupped in my hands like water, and I drink this daily. I am completely at peace with the fact that she will die. But I grieve for her fear and pain, and for the empty space she will leave behind. At the same time, when she has a good day and the painkillers are working, when she grabs a stick and wags frantically in the hope that I will play Fetch or Tug, I am filled with the joy of the present moment, the moment where everything now is good, and everything good is now, and all the griefs and happinesses merge until there is nothing but this moment.

It is not either/or; it is both/and. Here in the Good Now, my dog is dying. My dog is alive. Here in the Good Now, we are all dying. We are all alive. Drink this like water.


4 thoughts on “Holding Grief and Happiness in the Same Hands

    1. nissetje Post author

      Thank you, Col. It was lovely to see you last week. It made me happy that my old girl was napping with her head on your foot. I’m glad to have met you.

      Liked by 1 person


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