It was a little eerie returning home on Saturday evening. My wife and I went to see the Oscar-nominated SF Fairy Tale, The Shape of Water. It was cold, terribly cold. With the wind chill it was approaching -30 Celsius (below -20 Fahrenheit). As I got out of the car I smelled wood burning in the frozen air, and I remembered the night of Feb 3rd to 4th, 1990.
That night was bitter cold–even colder than the early hours of yesterday morning. My father and his girlfriend had been out for the evening, while my siblings and I watched hockey and found our way to bed. In the middle of the night I was awoken by the smell of wood burning, and then my sister was in my room. The house was on fire and my father was battling the fire in the kitchen. In terror and confusion, we found our way into the Arctic night. In the seconds that it took to move away from our burning home, the wet cloth I had for breathing was frozen in my hand. My father stood for a moment on the threshold, looked at us, then went into the house for my baby brother.
We never saw either of them again. My father was nearly 34, and my brother was nearly 3. I was 14 at the time.
The 4th of February is that day of memory for me. I’ve talked before about the power of grief, of loss, and of what it means to have an event like this in our past. Life moves ever on and on, though, and so does love and loss. The 2016 anniversary of Feb 4th was spent in St. Martha’s Hospital in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, at the bedside of my dying mother. She succumbed to cancer a week later on Feb 12th, 2016. She was 61.
What followed was a profound period of grief for me. It was unlike anything I have ever experienced, less emotional than physiological. I largely hid this experience from people in the community–not because of shame, but because I did not always know what I was experiencing.
In the wake of her death, I thought I was mostly okay. I wrote an intimate and elaborate obituary that I thought she would be proud of. Almost immediately I went back to work. It was not until last summer, a year and a half after my mother’s passing, that I started to see clearly. In all the time I thought I was on my own street, I was in a gray town of choking mist and indistinct buildings. Last summer, in my garden, my fingers in dirt, colours started to peek out of the gloom. About a month ago I began to breathe more clearly again.
I never understood, even in all the moments of grief and loss in my relatively short life, what this experience could be like.
I teach a C.S. Lewis course at The King’s College in New York City. This past week they experienced a very personal moment of loss. Distant though I was, I could see from afar how many in the campus were reeling, and generally how strong the response of staff and students was to the tragedy. I decided to add a short lecture to my course on the Fiction and Fantasy of C.S. Lewis. This lecture considers Lewis’ A Grief Observed, using my own story of loss and Lewis’ memoir of grief to draw out seven lessons we can learn about grief. While I don’t talk about the lasting damage that my period of grief has caused–my current clarity negates nothing of the past–I do share personally with my TKC students as I invite them to think Christianly about grief.
And I thought I would share the lecture with you. If this can be helpful in your own experience of grief, or in support of your thoughts about the problem of suffering in our world, or in your study of C.S. Lewis, I hope you will feel free to share it. If your own grief is very close and keen, it might perhaps be wise to come back to this in the days ahead. An intellectual response to pain is poor fare for those starving of loneliness or loss. But for those that are ready to think about grief–and to know the experience of the community of mourners in the world around you–this may be a resource for you.