Finding the way forward after a tragic loss
When I was in my second year of teaching, I lost a student to suicide. I remember marking assignments one weekend and receiving an email from a student with the news. That started a flurry of emails within the school between teachers and students as we learned more details.
Monday morning, we had a standup staff meeting, which was an awful surprise for those teachers unaware. They walked into the staff room to see 100+ people quietly preparing to help students deal with this loss. It’s a sobering feeling to be hit with sudden and unexpected death. The mind runs many places. In reflecting on that season, I realize how little I understood about death.
When a school loses a student, the school board sends a team of grief counsellors to your building for the week. I had two classes affected by the loss of this student, so I spent the majority of my day with this team. One piece of advice they imparted has stuck with me for over a decade.
They said that even if a student wasn't connected to the person that died, they will experience a number of feelings related to grief. A student might remember a lost grandfather, or a tragic accident from their past. The grief counsellors told us to remember that a student processing a death like this might also be processing emotions from some other place or time. I found this really profound. It made me realize that grief carries with it a weight of emotions, ones that cannot be readily identified.
So despite my inexperience as a teacher, I mustered the strength to help two groups of Grade 12 students process this horrible event. One thing I remember being very purposeful about was including music. During that day, I left an aux cord open at the front of the classroom so students could come up and play songs that reminded them of the deceased. It was amazing to see how the music swept over the room. Each song provided a new insight into the deceased, as well as the students making the selection. Later in the year, I actually wound up trading mix CDs with a few students who were deeply affected. Ten years on, I still count those song collections among my most prized possessions from my teaching career.
As I have grown and had my own losses, I have held on to the lessons from that time. I’ve seen how death invokes feelings of grief from all corners of my life. Knowing this has helped me be aware of myself in those moments, but you can never be aware of your own reaction until you're right in the thick of it.
Facebook informed me of the death of my friend Tanya four days after she died. A post from someone she knew. This was a complete shock. I knew she was sick. I knew she was having a rough recovery. But I always expected her to recover. I scoured the Internet for information.
I remember the sharp irritation that I was finding out four days after her death. My reaction betrayed the entitlement of this information age. I bristled at the fact that I couldn’t find more details about her passing. I Googled everything I could think of. Facebook searched everything I could think of. I found a tribute or two from other friends of Tanya’s, but no obituary, no post from any family member. I wasn’t sure how to process what was happening.
Over the coming days, information trickled in -- again, Facebook posts from friends and colleagues, but nothing with insight into what happened. Not fully knowing was as equally painful as acknowledging her loss.
Tanya and I were working together on my podcast, an interview-based show in which I converse with close friends, colleagues and other people I admire. She was the show editor and a great sounding board for new ideas. When she first got sick with a bacterial infection in February, we had to delay our plans to record the first of many check-in shows where she would host and I would be interviewed. She was going to be a regular contributor to my show. We kept in touch as the days of her recovery turned to weeks and then months, all the while planning about the work we would do when she was back at full strength. And then suddenly, those plans were gone.
I remember contacting her two years ago, after she was surprisingly and unceremoniously let go from a long time radio gig. Even though we lived in separate towns I would check in on her, encouraging her as she healed. I watched her get back up on her feet, decide on a new career path, go back to school, start her own business, and navigate a slew of seemingly random health problems. I was amazed at her resilience in every step.
As soon as I found out she lost her job, I knew Tanya was going to start her own podcast. I could just feel it. I even tried to plant the seed in conversation, only to realize it had been something she was already considering. Knowing I wanted to start my own podcast as well, I decided to sidle up to her and asked to work together.
Tanya had been a long-time supporter of my music and creative work. In the days after her death, I was looking up her old Facebook posts, only to see the number of times she had shared and reposted my work. She was a cheerleader, a networker, and had come up with numerous ideas over the years to help me find new paths for my artistry. Amazingly, as people started posting more Facebook tributes for her, I could see she was that same kind of person for many other people.
As I reflect on how this Coivd-limited world is going to be robbed of a proper celebration of Tanya’s life, I feel another twinge of sadness. I bet there would have been lots of people in attendance, holding scores of stories about the way her presence was encouraging, motivating and inspiring.
And yet, in the weeks after her death I couldn’t bask in this imagined celebration. Her death invoked feelings of grief from too many corners of my life. I tried to only be sad for her, her husband, and her family. But I was being flooded with ideas about loss. This made me feel guilty, and it was all I could think about.
On the day I found out about Tanya’s death, I had a personal conversation with another musician. I asked for his opinion on some of my future plans and opened up to him quite vulnerably about what I wanted to accomplish in the next five to 10 years. I am about to turn 40 and surprisingly, the reality is hitting me hard. This is a big decade for me. I have five kids to propel towards meaningful adulthood. I have a bunch of ambitious, larger-than-myself creative ideas. This is a big decade for me.
I don’t know about you, but milestone birthdays always remind me that life is short. And I haven’t needed help with those types of thoughts lately. I have six-year-old triplets. Since they were born I’ve noticed in myself a rapidly-growing fear of getting hurt. When the babies were still small, I remember mentally checking out of a recreational softball game for fear of injury. Suddenly I was no longer the catcher and team leader, I was worried about getting hit with a foul ball and breaking my wrist. If that happened, how was I supposed to hold the babies? I quit softball. Amongst all the intense feelings I had about having triplets, I didn’t need to add this kind of fear.
When the babies were two-and-a-half years old, a doctor told me he had found a precancerous polyp during a routine colonoscopy. He told me I was incredibly fortunate.
The route to finding that thing was miraculous, and a much longer story than I can tell here. But I have to admit it has taken me nearly five years to find any gratitude, and accept this as a miracle. With the clarity of hindsight, I can see that’s exactly what it was.
Hindsight also allows me to reflect on the amazing chain of events from an innocuous visit to my family doctor, then two separate gastrointestinal specialists, and finally to the knowledge that if not for their early intervention, I would be having colon cancer surgery right about now. Still, it’s only recently that I have found gratitude for any of this.
Instead, this situation only reminded me of my mortality. I was 35 when they found that thing. All I could think about was my five kids and that I didn't want to die. I didn't want to have the word cancer written over my life so soon.
I wanted to be a present parent with strong relationships with his adult children. I wanted to be around to help field the calls and questions I couldn't ask of my own father. The desperation in me was so intense, and it didn't dissipate. I don't know if it ever has. My sense of mortality is significant.
How do humans find the balance between making long-range plans and seizing the day? Like the emcee Blueprint, I’m always thinking long term. I am here to milk every ounce of my God-given gifts and abilities. I’m casting vision, I’m formulating plans and I’m working for things that are bigger than me. It’s an extended game of chess.
At the same time, it’s so clear to me that God wants us to savour the beauty of the everyday. We are called to recognize that tomorrow is not promised and we are encouraged to pray for our daily bread. Finding the balance between those two things has been a lifelong pursuit, and it definitely feels like I’m failing. I cannot say that I am at peace with it.
So on the day I told my friend about these large creative endeavours, ones that could take up to a decade to complete, I began confessing my fear: I don't know how long I'll have. I want to use my talents to their fullest and explore these ideas as thoroughly as possible. And somehow I have to find a way to be okay with the possibility these things may not work out.
That same day I learned Tanya’s plans will not be achieved, and it shook my already vulnerable psyche.
Tanya was only 41. Her Facebook feed over the last few years chronicled that journey of going back to school, succeeding in assignments, fighting to maintain good health, and the daunting task of launching a business. But the post that struck me was one where she shared a deep excitement for the podcast she wanted to start. She had a long list of people to interview. I felt that, because I have one too. She had hopes and dreams. Now, those things are gone.
Like I said, I tried to only cry for her, but I cried for the loss of our plans together. I cried for the loss of her plans. I cried because I would never be able to be her cheerleader or listen to her first podcast. I cried because of my fear. The things I want to do and the parent I want to be. All of that seems at risk in this fragile life where we make big plans that can so easily crumble.
As I watched the tributes for Tanya get posted, I started to think about what it means to truly celebrate a life. I soaked in the stories of meaningful interactions people had with her. My lament for her fractured plans may be valid, but it is incomplete. If life is a vapour, and tomorrow is not promised, then I need to accept her life as simply what is. And in that posture, be thankful for the great moments she was able to share with people. Like all of us, Tanya had an important story, and we become better if we are willing to mine her story for things that will inspire us, correct us, engage us and give us hope.
I may not live to see tomorrow, but when I go I want my story to exude love, encouragement, inspiration and hope. I hope there are scores of those kinds of stories. That will be a complete life, no matter how long it lasts. I work with a drive towards accomplishing these personal goals, while keeping a faith that my celebration of life will yield stories about how I helped others feel encouraged, motivated and inspired.
It’s been a few months since I learned of Tanya’s passing. I’ve been processing the pain of this loss. In a little while, I’ll go back to thinking strategically and long-term -- playing chess instead of checkers. But for now it is imperative for me to remember that along this road, all I can do is to be thankful for today, consider the plans of tomorrow, and remain hopeful that my life will tell a good story.
Jon, thanks for sharing this beautifully written and vulnerable reflection. It brought me to tears. I resonate deeply with what you said about feeling like you're failing at living both in the moment and with long-term goals... the ability to live with open hands, both to receive all that is good and beautiful and to be free of fear from losing it all.
You are living a good story, my friend. Keep feeding your hope, and doing that for others as I've always seen you do.