Daffodil Month: a time for remembrance, unless your grief doesn't fit the narrative
l4ts via Flickr
I belong to a special club. However, the cost of membership is higher than one would ever be willing to pay, and I did not choose to become a member no more than I was able to choose the day on which I was born.
I was initiated in the early morning of Saturday, August 8, 2009 when my father died of Stage IV lung cancer after a decades-long struggle with diabetes, heart disease, and poor health management.
This month is the Canadian Cancer Society’s Daffodil Month, a national awareness and fundraising campaign. The goal of the initiative is to fund cancer research, support Canadians living with cancer, advocate for positive public policy change, and most pertinently, “remember loved ones lost to cancer.”
I don’t find it helpful to my healing to identify with the work of the Canadian Cancer Society. I am not arguing that the campaign is not worth supporting—nothing like that, as it is invaluable to many. Rather, I am selfishly noting that I personally cannot gain any catharsis from connecting with its advocacy.
However, I do have a problem with the compartmentalization of similar experience. In at least some small way, I can identify with any individual who has experienced the death of someone close to their heart—irrespective of the specific manner through which their blow was dealt.
Several months after the death of my father, I began taking part in group therapy sessions for teens. One week, a participant shared the story of her father’s recent suicide. She explained that her mother and her told most of their family and friends that he died of a massive heart attack.
Subsequently, when I survey Daffodil Month, I see an effective monetary fundraiser and general awareness campaign, but I also see disenfranchisement. More space is needed for young people whose experience of grief does not fit a common or specific narrative.
North American culture considers it taboo to talk about illness without using a shield of positivity and has made it unthinkable to speak about death without the use of euphemism. When our youth-obsessed society does discuss death, two pieces of blanket advice are often doled-out: (1) it’s going to be okay and (2) just be strong.
In my experience, it’s going to be okay felt like a denialist attitude towards the unique and devastating pain brought by death, while the often-stated just be strong seemed like no more than a nicely-packaged way of saying that it was unacceptable to be emotional in my grief.
Jeanette Unger, an Associate Chaplain at U of T and the facilitator of the school's Grief Sharing Evenings, said that "Anecdotally ... [students] feel they need to be “strong” to protect their friends from feeling uncomfortable by their emotions, and that their peers expect them to get over it quickly and resume life as usual."
"On the other hand," said Unger, "a caring friend makes a difference. Knowing that someone will ask how you are doing and then let you cry over and over again without judgment or advice can be very healing."
This feeling that (visible) grief is unacceptable affects many people who experience a death, and the feeling is emphasized when one experiences a death that is not easily memorialized or understood through our cultural lexicon. As the young woman in my teen support group evidenced, it is much easier to gain societal support during your grief as the familial survivor of a heart attack victim, rather than one of a suicide victim.
Yet it takes only a small thread of similarity to connect; three years ago, I was careening through the Himalayas on a local bus, squished besidetwo 24-year-old women from Canada when we began to discuss our families. It is easy to detect children who’ve experienced the death of a parent: we never use the term “my parents.”
The pair spoke of their mothers, both of whom had died within the last two years, and I of my father.
Referencing my significantly younger age, one of the women said, “This is something you really shouldn’t have had to go through.”
To which our other companion replied, “None of us should have had to go through it.”
Membership to my imaginary club, Young Bereavers (as I like to call it), sometimes feels as though it requires an A at the end of it: Young Bereavers Anonymous. Yet grief need not be silent, simple, understated, or hidden. Nor does it need to be branded, specific, pretty, and a sunny shade of yellow, as Daffodil Month tends to encourage.
I believe that openly acknowledging death and its consequences will serve our generation much better than our current coping strategy: denying mortality in an attempt to gain some emotional distance.
As the daffodils begin to bloom this month, let’s work to make grief—and the multitude of forms in which can incarnate—a little less anonymous.