How did you two meet?
Cate: We both grew up in Owen Sound and took the school bus together…
Laura: We’re country kids. I’d be on the school bus for like 20-minutes before we’d roll by Cate’s place.
Tell me about when your dads got sick.
Laura: My dad had a tumour on his pancreas about six years ago and it was in the perfect position that it could be removed. So they did, but it was a situation where it would come back and it was just a matter of when that would happen. My dad being a typical man of that age (he was 56 when he passed) was the type of man who didn’t think he needed check-ups or to keep an eye on it. But he did make a conscious effort to change his lifestyle. In December of last year he found out it came back. He was having back pain, went to the ER and found out that the cancer had spread and that it was terminal. We had a family trip to Mexico booked and he was adamant on going. The doctors told him if he went he would die there. It turned out he lived another 8 months.
Cate: My dad had yellow skin and went to the hospital to have it checked out. They admitted him to treat him for jaundice, noticed his liver wasn’t working properly, put in a stint and found out he had a huge tumour on his liver. He was in the hospital for 2.5 weeks, went to hospice and died 2 days later. We will never know the answer when it comes to what he actually died of…they were never able to biopsy the tumour. Were they unable to see something or was this truly the most aggressive kind of cancer there is?
When did it feel real for you?
Cate: The whole time my dad was sick and going through all of this my mom would just tell me to do whatever I wanted to do in terms of leaving Toronto and going home. One day I called her and told her that I was thinking of quitting my job so that I could be at home and she told me that it was probably a good idea. When I got home it was my brother’s birthday and my dad came home for the day… and he just looked… fucked. He had lost so much weight, was as yellow as a banana and his abdomen was swollen. That’s when it hit me like, yeah, this is real. And honestly, as someone who works in healthcare, I wish I had been there so that I could have advocated for him. I will always wonder… would it have been different if I had been here?
Laura: Do you think he would have let you though? I really struggled with that with my dad, too. He didn’t let me. He didn’t want to make a fuss.
I am getting the idea that your dads were like the same person.
Laura: Our dads had the same vibe. They were the centre of attention at parties. They always wanted to have one more Bud Light or Busch. Both worked outdoors and loved fishing. I think that’s why Cate and I connect so much.
Cate, what was it like for you having just lost your dad knowing that Laura’s father’s death was inevitable?
Cate: I weirdly don’t know what to say more than anyone else knows what to say.
Laura: Yeah, but when I am having a really hard day you are there for me. No judgement. You’re just there and you listen. It’s like a whole different level of understanding and empathy.
Laura, you mentioned earlier that throughout your father’s illness, you were doing a lot of active healing for yourself and the relationship you had with your dad. One of the most complex forms of grief occurs when someone has a fractured relationship with the deceased. What steps did you take to heal that?
Laura: Apart from a lot of personal work on myself, over the course of a year I had been preparing to have a conversation with him and ended up writing him a letter about our relationship. I gave it to him when I was on the east coast with him and told him to read it and “not to die” because I needed him to process it and then discuss it with me in person. So, in early September he came here for a weekend. I picked him up in Hamilton and we drove together and spoke about the letter. He was so defensive the whole drive- until I dropped him off at his friend’s house. I felt depleted and somewhat regretful for having sent the letter at all. The next morning I picked him up and asked him what he did and he said he stayed up all night talking about my letter. And he was so thankful for it. He told me that he “got it.” Then that night we went to a wedding together with my siblings and a lot of my closest friends. And Cate was there, super fresh in her grief. I had the chance to share a last dance to Harvest Moon with my dad, sister and brother. And that was so significant to our story because he died on the Harvest Moon in September.
Cate, can you describe what that was like? Going to this wedding 2 weeks after your dad passed away and bearing witness to how sick Laura’s dad was, knowing that his death was not far off?
Cate: I just felt like, fuck… I really wish you (Laura) didn’t have to go through this. I just experienced how much it sucks to lose a parent and I just so, so wished that Laura didn’t have to do this. That being said, it is really nice to have that shorthand when you’re having a tough day. I know Laura gets it.
Laura, on the flip-side what was it like for you to go to the wedding knowing that Cate just lost her dad and that you were going to lose yours so soon, too?
Laura: Oh man, I just wanted to be there for Cate. And it was such a reality check. Like “yes, my dad is going to die, it is going to happen, his organs are shutting down.” And that pushed me to say everything I possibly could to him. I think having the time to prepare is almost easier, because I could really prepare myself. And Cate, you didn’t get that time to process.
Cate: Conversely, we didn’t have to go through all the “pre-grieving.” It wasn’t a long drawn out thing. If it were, my life would look very different. I would have dropped out of school and moved home.
Yeah, I can relate. I am almost grateful I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to my mom because I don’t think it could have ever been enough. I am grateful it was sudden, if that makes sense.
Cate: For sure. But I do wish that I had more “things” to hold onto. Laura had all of these letters from her dad that chronicled his illness and I remember reading through them wishing I had something like that.
Laura: Cate had a very different relationship with her dad. But there was shit I needed to work through and the process of his passing gave me that opportunity.
What has that done for your friendship?
Laura: It has brought us so much closer. We have been able to put so much on the back burner and really appreciate and understand what is important in life.
Cate: We put our differences aside and held space for each other, without an ounce of judgment or fatigue that might come from other well-meaning people.
It sounds to me like having your dads die so closely together ended up being a tremendous gift to you both.
Cate: Yes, absolutely, because people can quickly become fatigued. That’s just a fact. And with Laura, I know that because our grief is so closely aligned, time-wise, there is no fatigue on either one of our parts. I never worry that she is feeling fatigued. We share resources and we are planning a podcast together. It just makes me feel like- I don’t know- there is no hesitation to tell her exactly how I am feeling.
How did the death of each of your fathers impact upon your family dynamics? From other people I have spoken to, in addition to my own experience, I have realized that family dynamics can be a major secondary loss. Can you each speak to that?
Cate: Still figuring it out. Actively seeking therapy for this exact question. Each member is dealing with the grief in a different way. I really just think about my mom and maintaining our relationship. And I honestly love my brother so much and I know he loves me so much and would do anything for me. He took on the role of caregiver, for sure. He’s who I call when I am in a pile of shit and I need someone to drag me out of it, just like my dad was. But you know, my brother and I weren’t super close before my dad died and I kind of thought that going through this would make us grow so much closer- but I don’t think it did. I can’t be mad at my brother for not showing up in the ways I expect him to or how my dad did. He is showing up in his own way and I get that he is hurting, also. The changing family dynamics just mean that I am focused on my mom and I am taking her into consideration as I plan out my life and my future.
Laura: I also have a brother who is two years older than me and we have always been really close. And I have a sister who is nine years younger, we’ve always been close but the age gap has meant that we’re now just getting to know each other as adults . We have the same dad and different moms. So as we were growing up, she sometimes felt like the third wheel because of the age gap. We all have such different relationships with my dad. My sister was just starting to get to know him as an adult, which changes how she grieves. My brother has a lot of anger towards my dad, which changes how he grieves. I’ve been most surprised at how things have changed between the three of us - how much more they will change as we all build our own families and get older. Christmas was tough, we didn’t have a family home to all gather at, our wonderful friends let us move into theirs, which was so lovely but still wasn’t dads. There were lots of different expectations, charged emotions. I didn’t expect that because we all had such different relationships with my dad, it would change how we grieve, how we connect and create space between us. I just hope that in the end it is ok that we all have different feelings towards my dad and that all feelings are valid and we can just move forward.
What is the most surprising thing about grief?
Cate: How it so obviously is never going to go away. From now until the day that I die I will be grieving my father and the intensity of his absence.
Laura: I just assumed that we would all become closer as a family and it has not always been that way. We talked more during my dad’s illness than we do now. I did not expect there to be this distance or hardness. And I didn’t expect my siblings to be the ones that I can’t always sit and talk about my dad with. With Cate, I can just reach out to her and she’s there. We instantly connect. It is not always that way with my family. It is very complicated and difficult to navigate that aspect of the grief. The question is “what is our relationship now without Dad?”
Tell me how grief impacted upon your physical health. I think we overlook the physical manifestation of grief and it’s not really understood. Tell me about that.
Laura: Over the years, even before losing my dad, I have started to identify the ways in which my physical body has taken on stress and trauma from the relationship with my him and from my childhood. For me, all of my grief is held in my chest and through a shallow breath. It’s in my inability to move forward. My body shuts down and doesn’t want to move… my anxiety increases and I don’t feel grounded. I used alcohol and food to cope, for sure. An overall heaviness, I would say. The deepest depression I have been in was this year… a feeling of hopelessness and loss of purpose. I have gained weight and am less mobile. It’s been so hard. I wouldn’t say that yoga saved me, but I was able to practice and get on my mat. I wasn’t present on my mat all the time but for the times that I was, I am grateful.
Cate: For me, the physical manifestation of grief was more of a fatigue, exhaustion and lethargy. But also there was an okay-ness with that. Like I watched Buffy seasons 1 to 9. And I was okay with it. I watched 10 hours of TV today and I am cool with that. It was more of “we are all so close to death and so we must live,” but instead of living hard, I was resting. Going to bed.
How has creativity helped you navigate your way through your grief?
Laura: For me, definitely in the early days, I was writing all the time! Journaling helps me access and see my thoughts- physically on a piece of paper- that I find really helpful. And yoga is big for me. It has helped me carry the grief, literally and figuratively.
Cate: I would agree with Laura. Words. Writing. Conversations with friends and even people that I don’t know who are going through similar losses. Music, too. My dad and I always shared a love for music. When he was in hospice I brought in my guitar and his record player and was able to play him some songs. Now, when I pick up the guitar, there’s a handful of songs that I’ll play and no matter what, when I play them, I feel like I am playing them to him.
Describe your grief in 3 words.
Cate: Long. Sneaky. Catalyst. I am still figuring it out, but it’s a catalyst for growth and reflection.
Laura: Yeah, it forces us to grow in ways that most people won’t for a very long time.
Cate: It’s like a mean aunt that intimidates you into being and doing better. Like that song by Chumbawumba. If grief were a song, that song would be it!!!
Laura: Constant. Process. Purposeful. I feel like in a lot of ways, my dad and I are so much closer. His cancer diagnosis brought us so much closer than I could have ever imagined.
Cate Best and Laura Campbell are working on a series of interviews with those who have lost a loved one. They hope to talk about loss and suffering, celebration and rituals, loneliness and community.