We move in our communities and help shape them. But we rarely speak of how grieving and loss change how we perceive and connect to places, or how that connection to the land and community helps us move forward. It’s an aspect of placemaking–the way we create places around us to be distinct–that I’d never considered until it became such a critical part of my own family’s healing…
Not Your Average Day at the Lake
It’s a hot day in August 2017 and I’m up to my chest in lake water, wobbling with my hands above me. My feet are hesitantly feeling their way across a clay and rock land bridge of sorts lurking in the depths below.
The submerged berm leads to a small island. My ten year old son has already made the 50-foot swim there from the lake’s shore. He is standing triumphant and dripping, waiting for me on the island’s narrow beach.
But my six year old son, not yet as strong a swimmer as his brother, can’t make it that far yet on his own. Which is why he’s teetering on a partially submerged rock halfway out from the shore. And why he’s expectantly watching me. He’s waiting for me to report on whether the suspected land bridge still exists so he can get to the island, too.
And held high above my head is our ragged family pack. Which holds three water bottles. And a box of date squares. And an old cast-off Christmas cookie tin. And in that tin are the ashes of the man we love. Their dad. My spouse.
We’re here because the last time my sons made it to this island, it was their dad who brought them here. A drier summer that previous year, they were able to wade across the clay berm instead of having to swim. But it was just as fun an adventure then. And just as memorable.
And that memory, and wanting to anchor it as a physical connection to their dad, is why we were there in that curious watery scene. And why it was just one of the places during that summer of 2017 where we sought to make sense of our loss by very physically giving it ground. To root it to the land around us and by doing so make it okay to keep moving forward.
How Quickly Life Changes
At the end of April, 2017 my partner of 12 years, Dave, began experiencing headaches and nausea. Maybe a touch of the flu, we thought. Maybe spring-related allergies, the clinic doctor said a few weeks later as the intensity of the symptoms grew.
On May 14th I was switching planes at Toronto’s Pearson Airport on my way to a transit conference in Montreal when I got a text from my Mom: “Call me as soon as you get this.”
Dave’s conditions had abruptly deteriorated and the hospital emergency ward had done a scan. They had found a tumor in his brain. I immediately turned around and headed back home. They operated two days later.
He recovered speedily over the next two weeks but long term healing was not to be. A particularly nasty form of brain cancer called Glioblastoma (the same kind that infamously affected Canadian musician Gord Downie), it claimed his life at the end of June 2017. He had just turned 52.
Choosing What Happens Next
In the weeks prior to his tumor’s resurgence, Dave and I had a lot of time to consider the future and all of its potential outcomes. While we never expected the time to be so short, we knew the outlook was grim: even with treatment, on average half of those with Gioblastoma die within the first 14 months and only 5% make it longer than three years.
With that in mind, while we also made plans for his treatment, we also spoke of his death and what Dave wanted. The theoretical conversations that couples have about “what if” suddenly became very real.
A green burial was his first choice, but this turned out to be a costlier option than expected, especially for a family with young kids facing uncertainty. In the end, he chose cremation. And without realizing it, this choice put our family on its own DIY path to making sense of this passing and digesting it.
Giving Ground: Community
Sitting here now almost a year and a half later, the things that strike me about this period in my life are the themes of community and place.
We had always tried to teach our boys that contributing to a community is key to a life well lived and a self that is happy and whole. Whether that be family, friends, work or neighborhood, all the little deeds we do for others add up and make us feel connected.
However, I hadn’t ever considered the power of a community responding back in a time of crisis. The care and support that was provided to us in the time after Dave’s passing was overwhelming and deep.
I had never sought to teach my sons that what you give comes back to you, since I’ve always thought the essence of freedom and love is giving without expectation. However, our experience of those around us and how they responded during that time can’t help but demonstrate how care can be reciprocated.
And the breadth of that care was plain to see. Walking into the community centre on the day of the neighborhood gathering to remember Dave, my older son was blown away by the number of people attending.
“That was your Dad,” I said, “and a mark of all the people he touched with his life. I hope it’s how all of us can live.”
Considering this all now, I also realize how lucky our family has been to be able to physically stay put in a community long enough to build those roots and connections. It has underlined for me how important it is that we make it possible for people of all economic backgrounds and life stages to evolve their families and age in place. It is something that I hope all of us can help foster through our actions and advocacy.
Placemaking and the Great Beyond
Beyond the community of people, though, it was the wider connections to the actual physical world that had the biggest impacts for me and my kids. It was reconnecting to spaces and places that most helped us come to terms with this change in our family.
Why I should be so surprised that death is also a part of placemaking is a little dumbfounding. When you stop to think about it, the examples are all around of us of how we shape and reach out to physical places to remember the dead.
From the massive scale of the pyramids and the Taj Mahal, to Indigenous cairns and centuries-old graveyards, to war memorials in city squares and the names inscribed in park benches, a huge part of making place has always been comprised of remembering those who have passed.
And this isn’t even speaking of all the informal ways we shape places to remember: roadside memorials, garden and tree plantings, the special things displayed in special spots within our own homes. And yes, the places we seek out to visit. But somehow before I’d never consciously made this link between geography and remembering those we have loved.
Within our home, after Dave’s passing I felt compelled to reorder our space. Move furniture around. Sort through and pass on stuff no longer needed.
Not since the final stages of my pregnancies had I felt anything like this tumult of tidying. Rearranging space seemed to be the physical manifestation of coming to terms with how our own family had been rearranged. We didn’t choose this situation but we could choose how we lived with it and within it.
The real healing, though, came through each external link to place. Our family has always loved adventures. Hikes and growing things have been a part of most weekends.
That summer, me and our kids visited the places where we remembered Dave best and made a connection between a little bit of him and things that will keep on living.
A fruit tree in the neighbourhood garden where I first met him. Trees in ecosystems spanning many adventures on this island we call home: a coastal forest Red Cedar, a lake view Arbutus, a Garry Oak high on a hilly meadow.
The grasses and cast-off-plum-pit tree growing on a bank of a cliff over the Pacific. And the final stop by myself, my hands quietly digging in the last of Dave’s ashes into a spot in our own garden.
For a summer he rolled around with us in the tin under the passenger seat of our car. Not the noblest of containers but a passage that was right for our family. And reconnecting with him and all these places was how we grew stronger. And stronger we did become. On his way to the pool at the end of that summer, my son stopped and turned to me and his brother: “You know, I don’t think we seem as sad anymore.” And he was right.
Making space and place weren’t just the way to cultivate community. They were also a balm for our heads and our hearts.
Going Full Circle
While I initially drafted this post the first winter after Dave’s passing, it has taken almost a whole other year to make it okay to share here. It’s very different from my typical blog topics…but maybe deep down, not really.
In either case, this post felt like it was the one caught in my throat. Like it would be an untruthful gap to not share here, but until I shared it, my other standard posts on mobility and city building would have to wait. And I’m hoping that with this one out, my other writing can return on a more regular basis. And if you think this post can help others you know or further a discussion that sooner or later will touch each of our lives, you are welcome to pass it on.
And reading this, you may have other questions:
Do I suggest that how we dealt with this is the right way for you and your family? No way. Each of us needs to make choices as we see fit and I respect yours, so please respect ours. Aside from cultural, spiritual and environmental considerations that each of us will weigh differently when it comes to placing and remembering those who have died, each jurisdiction also has its own legal and logistical frameworks (for example, in B.C. see here and here). Our family is also comfortable with impermanence, which may not be the case for everyone. Part of our healing was connecting to places but we also know that the nature of those places may change over time.
Are me and my guys okay? You bet. Thank you for your concern and we are doing well. Remembering Dave is just a part of the life we lead and it’s a life still filled with much laughter, wrestling, music, and adventures. And my work continues with people, towns and cities across Canada to create more resilient and sustainable communities, and that calling and those projects continue to buoy me.
And what of that day at the lake?
Going back to that watery scene at the start, I did indeed manage to wade across and wrangle the pack to the island safe and dry. With a little help and encouragement, my younger son made it to the island, too. We explored it and found a small tree near its centre that looked like it might benefit from some attention. Afterwards we took a moment and said our goodbyes, and then we also took time for us. “Come sit beside me,” I said patting a log and rummaging in the pack. “Let’s have some of those squares.”
We munched and drank from our water bottles. And we sniffled and laughed and took the time to be fully there. And when we were done, we jumped in the lake. Because after all, life goes by all too quickly and it’s by embracing the living and going forward that we can ultimately best honor the dead.
Floating on my back with the curve of blue sky above us and my heart still ready to live and love, I watched my son cannonball off a rock. He hit the water with a yelp of joy. I smiled and took hold of that moment and watched how the silvery ripples spread. And who can tell into how many dimensions they might stretch.