The events outlined in this text happened in August 2020, and it’s now March 2022. I’ve lived with the memories and trauma of the events with my dad for nearly two years at this point. Thinking about how I engage with these memories now versus how I did in the fall of 2020, I’m aware that the memories have become increasingly abstracted in my mind, becoming easier to live with. I’ve found that to be able to live with these traumatic memories, I’ve had to come to terms with knowing that the memories will always be with me. Rather than striving for a complete recovery from my trauma, which would insinuate that the traumatic memories are either gone altogether, or maybe locked in a box somewhere safe from my view, both of which feel like unrealistic outcomes, I’ve grown to be able to weather bouts of emotion that may spring up as time goes on.
I began writing this text by asking if what I was feeling could even be considered grief. I questioned if the emotions I was contending with were something I didn’t know the name of, given that my understanding of grief up until that point had been predicated on my past experiences with losing loved ones. Through the creation of Meditation on a Potential Death, I understand that while feelings stemming from the traumatic experience with my dad may have been grief or something else altogether, what is more important to me than naming these feelings has been fostering a deeper understanding of how I cope in the face of trauma. George A. Bonanno, a professor of clinical psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University, has conducted extensive and ongoing research into how individuals respond to grief and trauma. His research shows that “resilience (not recovery) is the most common response to potential trauma,” with Bonanno stating that,
In this framework, recovery is defined by moderate to severe initial elevations in psychological symptoms that significantly disrupt normal functioning and that decline only gradually over the course of many months before returning to pre-trauma levels. In contrast, resilience is characterized by relatively mild and short-lived disruptions and a stable trajectory of healthy functioning across time.³³
Prior to reading about Bonanno’s findings, I had been under the assumption that a recovery response was the predominant, if not the only response when facing trauma or grief. For example, Klinic Community Health in Winnipeg, Manitoba, has a website aptly named, trauma-recovery.ca, where a three phase approach—Safety and Stabilization, Remembrance and Mourning, and Reconnection and Integration—is outlined for trauma recovery.³⁴ This isn’t to say that recovery isn’t a possible or even positive path for some people, but I believe that there needs to be a societal shift in thinking around how trauma and grief are approached, given that data shows that a recovery response isn’t the standard for most people. If the majority of people have a resilience response when faced with trauma, as Bonanno’s findings would suggest, then it can feel quite alienating, and be potentially damaging to be told or to believe that trauma recovery is the primary and/or only response. I had no idea that how I responded to trauma was actually quite normal; I was under the assumption that, since I didn’t often have an outwardly emotional response to trauma, I was in fact the outlier.
When my grandma Jo passed away, I joined my dad, Peggy, and a family friend in bringing my grandma’s ashes to French Beach Provincial Park. Ivan French owned the land before it became a provincial park. My grandma had met him at some point, and he offered her the opportunity to live with him at French Beach. My dad eventually joined them, and they had their own cozy cabins steps from the ocean. While the cabins aren’t there anymore, the old wood stove from Ivan’s cabin is still standing at the group campsite, with a plaque commemorating him. Needless to say, French Beach was an important place to spread my grandma’s ashes. Prior to departing on the lengthy drive to French Beach, I was feeling gutted about losing my grandma. Her death was the first loss of a close family member I had experienced up until that point. I didn’t have a pre-established routine in the face of death, and so, did the only thing I could think of, which was to make sandwiches and snacks to bring. I didn’t even think of preparing food as a grief response, but reflecting back, the act of ensuring people were fed was the only thing that made sense to do when faced with the grief of losing my grandma. While preparing food is a relatively simple task, it’s something that I always default to doing when facing grief or trauma, as it keeps me busy when I don’t know how else to react to the situation. I’m not a huge crier, and I don’t like talking about my emotions; these things don’t fall under the recovery response umbrella, as defined by Bonanno. Bonanno writes, “When theorists have considered [a resilience response], they have typically viewed it either as an aberration resulting from extreme denial or as a sign of extreme emotional strength.” Considering this, I’m comforted in knowing that making sandwiches and being stoic is actually a fairly healthy response to trauma. When I think about my dad’s suicide attempt, I’m unsure if I’ll ever get over it, but I’m fine with that. I’ve worked to be able to build resilience for the inevitable day or time when the memories and associated emotions come flooding back, which I’m sure they will, but for now, I’m able to live with the memories, and continue on my way.
This body of work is a consideration of the uncertainty of death at the time, and while it is a meditation on a potential death, it could as easily be a meditation on a slow death, an inevitable death, or a death in action. Whatever it may be, these are the pieces that I picked up in the wake of the events with my dad: the art, this writing, all of it. With this presentation, I think I’m finally done screaming into the abyss.