The Essence of Grieving: Embracing Sense and Sentiment


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24 September would have been our 39th wedding anniversary.

I returned the night before from a week-long canoe trip in Algonquin Park, and I’d planned to continue “going dark” until today so I could spend our anniversary uninterrupted, alone with my memories.

(I’m getting ahead of myself with this post–I have a half dozen or so other other pieces on grieving to write before I’m through. But this one is fresh in my mind, so I’m going with it.)

Last week I went to a local florist and ordered a big bunch of white daisies for the occasion–daisies were Donna’s favourite flowers and the ones she carried in her wedding bouquet. My intention was to visit her grave yesterday and put them in the bronze vase that slides up out of the marker and then slides back down so the caretakers can mow. I thought our anniversary would certainly be an appropriate day to visit the cemetery.

On the way home from Algonquin, I rethought the whole thing. I could almost hear my wife asking, “Rob, why would you want to go there and mourn my death, when you can stay home and remember the wonderful life we shared? Nobody’s even going to see those flowers if you put them there (this was her practical side speaking), so why don’t you take them home and enjoy them yourself?”

10320528_10152769789874515_1791706950900169756_nAnd that’s exactly what I did–the sensible thing, the thing I know Donna would have encouraged me to do if she could. Wasting perfectly good flowers on a cemetery was not her style. Nor was mourning death when one could celebrate life.

I was dreading this anniversary–the first one without my darling. 24 September was perhaps the most important day of the year for us. Most years we went away for a three-day romantic tryst at a boutique hotel or B&B in a place we’d never visited before. In 2014, we took a road trip through Quebec’s Eastern Townships. It was one of the best times we ever had together–talking, laughing, singing, reminiscing, planning, eating, taking in the spectacular scenery, and delighting in one another without the distractions of home and work and other people.

Last year was a different story. Donna was not well, though we didn’t yet know why. We had a nice day together in downtown Ottawa and found a special café that has since become my favourite. But our usually festive and romantic mood was overshadowed by  pain. My “Firecracker” was fizzling.

On my drive home from Algonquin Park the other night, I stopped in the village of Barry’s Bay for supper. I bought the schnitzel special, and the three dessert choices included were pecan pie, bread pudding, and something called, “Hot Love.” Anyone who knew Donna knows exactly which of those she would have ordered, and can imagine the witty comment that would have accompanied the order. As I sat and ate my bread pudding (I’m not a fan of vanilla ice cream, even when it’s oozing hot fruity goo of some kind) I pictured her in my mind, smiling flirtatiously at me as she slid that first spoonful into her mouth. I yearned for her then. I yearn for her now.

I didn’t visit Donna’s grave yesterday, and I don’t know when I will–maybe at the first anniversary of her death, unless it’s -44º C again. I struggled in my mind with the compulsion to honour her memory by going to the cemetery, but then common sense–one of Donna’s greatest qualities, and a treasured legacy to me–took over. A clear biblical theology makes visiting the graves of redeemed loved ones unnecessary and perhaps even unhealthy, as it forces one to look backward instead of forward–to mourn rather than to anticipate; to recall the unspeakable anguish of sharing pain and witnessing death rather than to revel in the certainty of resurrection and eternal life in the unimaginable glory of heaven.

Absolutely nobody would have benefited from such a visit. She wouldn’t have–rejoicing with the Lover of her soul, she is beyond caring about what I do or about anything that goes on in this broken world. I know I wouldn’t have–just thinking about that grave brings tears to my eyes as I type. Going there would have conjured up the horrible images that I’ve been trying to get out of my mind for over seven months. I would much rather remember Donna as the beautiful, energetic, vivacious, passionate, delightful woman I loved for over forty years.

So I stayed home. After doing the laundry at 6 AM and restocking my refrigerator a few hours later, I stopped at the florist’s and picked up the daisies. I brought them home and put them in a vase. They’re beautiful, and they fill my heart with warmth and make me smile as I remember how many times I picked wild ones for my lover when she was here. They always delighted her.

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I spent several hours in the afternoon looking through the things she had put in my grandfather’s big black steamer trunk that sits at the foot of our bed–memorabilia from her childhood, her school years, and from our life together. There’s a lot more in the basement, but I think I’ll wait to go through that with my kids.

I had never seen some of the items before, but the rest precipitated a flood of memories. She had saved many cards and letters. Some are intimate and passionate, and they brought back a deep sense of longing. Some are hilarious (especially the birthday and Mother’s Day cards from our kids) and made me laugh out loud. Some are poignant and gut-wrenching, as the scores of cards she kept after her leukemia diagnosis in 2000. As I sat with my back against the black chest and relived so much of my life with this one-of-a-kind woman, touching photos and clippings and some of the personal items I kept, I thanked God through my tears for the years He gave us. I am truly a blessed man.

20160924_181240When Donna and I weren’t able to get away on our anniversary, we would often stay home and cook a special meal together. That’s what I did last night. To mark the occasion, I prepared something I know she would have enjoyed: freshly-baked rustic bread dipped in good olive oil; cedar-planked salmon with maple and mustard glaze; polenta with shrimp, cheese, and fresh oregano; and vegetables tossed in olive oil and balsamic vinegar and roasted on the grill with the salmon. I washed it all down with Martinelli’s Sparkling Cider, the delicious beverage we enjoyed on our wedding night at the Sheraton Hotel in Valley Forge, PA, and followed it all up with dates stuffed with bleu cheese and baked until the cheese oozed onto the plate. (We got this 20160924_191702idea from a cider salesman in the Eastern Townships in 2014.) Even though Donna wasn’t here, I imagined us working together, listening to the opera as we did every Saturday, talking non-stop except for frequent breaks to kiss and flirt. I have to admit I stopped to weep a few times, but I enjoyed a day full of precious memories.

Since DJ wasn’t with me, I forewent the candlelight on which she always insisted when we ate “alone together.” And I cleaned up the kitchen and did the dishes before I went to bed.

Had she been here, we would have left them until morning.

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