Good Grief

by Kira Vermond

photography by Sofie Kirk

Barbara Heagy (MA ’03) remembers the exact moment she fell in love with her husband, Tom. They’d been friends since high school, more than 30 years, when in 2001, on the heels of her separation, he’d asked her to a party to give her a break from a crammed schedule of parenting, teaching elementary school and working toward a master’s degree in dance at York University.

But when she went to give him a perfunctory kiss at the end of the night, Tom proposed trying something else: a real kiss. Just to see how it would be.

“And I thought, ‘Alright, let’s do it,’” she says now, laughing, from her home in Guelph, Ont. But their embrace didn’t go as expected. “The whole Earth moved! We were shocked. When we parted, we both went, ‘Whoa! What kind of chemistry was that?’”

In 2006, they were happily married, and everything clicked as they merged their lives.

Until it didn’t.

In 2010, Tom developed small cell lung cancer, a particularly aggressive form. He held on for seven months, travelling the waves of punishing treatment before he eventually succumbed to the disease. Heagy was devastated. And although she can now speak about her husband without falling apart, she’ll still feel flooded by emotion if she sees a man who looks like him walking down the street.

“At least for me, it’s not like you go in one end of a truly deep grief and come out the other,” she says. “You’re in it – but the intensity of it dies.”

Losing a family member is only one reason people experience grief. Combine a worldwide pandemic – with upward of six million fatalities at the time of writing – with the seemingly interminable war in Ukraine, soul-scarring gun violence in the U.S. and a looming recession, and it’s little wonder googling the term “collective grief” results in nearly 20 million hits. From missed high school graduations to missed loved ones around the dinner table, we’re feeling the recent tragic events, says Christine Jonas-Simpson, associate professor in the Faculty of Health’s School of Nursing.

“This is very much a global, collective experience of grieving,” she says. “It can be overwhelming.”

Jonas-Simpson has long been interested in how people experience grief, particularly nurses caring for mothers whose babies have died, and youth who have lost a parent or infant sibling. In many cases, grief is disenfranchised – there’s a sense they don’t have the right to grieve deeply since they didn’t know the child for long. But being encouraged to explore deep feelings of sadness and loss can be greatly therapeutic. One way is through the arts. Jonas-Simpson engages in arts-based research, using media such as film, theatre and painting to help people better understand the experience.

“Some human experiences are, at times, more challenging to speak to,” she says. “With the arts, we can express them in ways that we can’t with words. The research becomes far more accessible. It becomes a way to open dialogue about loss and grief, which is so often considered taboo to acknowledge or discuss. Grief needs acknowledgement.”

It becomes a way to open dialogue about loss and grief, which is so often considered taboo to acknowledge or discuss. Grief needs acknowledgement

This work has been used to help those in the health-care field explore their complex experiences with loss and grief. In Jonas-Simpson’s research film Nurses Grieve Too, one nurse stated that she had been involved in thousands of births, and that she can “recall vividly every family I have been with who experienced a loss. I could tell you what room they were in and who was involved, what the parents were doing. You never, ever forget them.” Fortunately, grief in the health-care setting is finally being recognized.

Understanding the concept of grief in an abstract way is one thing, but the emotional, cognitive and physical symptoms of grief are so varied and numerous that many people may not recognize those symptoms even when they’re experiencing them. Leeat Granek (BA ’01, MA ’04, PhD ’09), associate professor with York’s School of Health Policy and Management, once co-created an online survey for Slate asking people to list their experiences in relation to loss – think stomach pain, headache, sadness and forgetfulness. In the end, they identified about 50 distinct symptoms of grief.

“People have a lot of somatic symptoms, particularly women, that you don’t often see in psychological literature about grief. It’s much broader and more variable than is recognized,” Granek explains.

Granek has also researched the relationships between medical professionals and their patients, as well as the effects of neurosurgeons’ decisions.

“Now, with the pandemic, there’s a lot more awareness of the emotional lives of health-care providers and how much support they themselves need as well,” she says.

Granek decided to research tough topics after she lost her mother when she was in her twenties and received implicit and explicit messages about how long her grief should last and what typical grieving looked like. She says much of her work is meant to help the public feel more comfortable about their own grieving.

“They have the right to understand what they’re feeling is normal, and the fact that they’re being made to feel like they’re abnormal is a construction of psychology,” she says.

Speaking the day after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, Granek says we still have a long way to go when it comes to understanding what actually helps people when they’ve experienced a loss. In short, it’s not about treating grief as a problem to solve.

“It’s something you live with,” she says, pointing out that sending bereavement counsellors out to school shooting survivors in the first days after an attack isn’t likely helpful yet. “The people are just in total and utter shock. They need the practicalities; they need to eat, sleep and have people with them.”

Having a support system helped Heagy through the dark days after Tom died, but so did writing. Four years after his death, she pulled out the journals they wrote during his illness. She eventually went on to publish a memoir, 10: A Story of Love, Life and Loss, and has since worked on four other titles, including co-authoring a book about grief.

Writing about loss has helped her come to terms with it, although she is the first to admit she’s no longer an eternal optimist. Instead, she embraces life as a realist.

“There’s a yin and a yang. The sun isn’t going to shine every day, but you can still learn to live with the rain,” she says. “You do go on.”  

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