Deep Reads: Grief and moving forward after loss

Reality

After Clarence Pettersen died, the medical assistance in dying (MAID) team joined his family in the kitchen, crying and consoling each other.

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He had received his final wish - ending his life on his own terms. Now, it was time for his family to sort through what comes next.

“We were happy for him, that he was having such an exit where you could say goodbye. Usually, there’s that period where people are unconscious and you’re pacing in the hallway and it goes on for days and some family members don’t make it, some people have to go back to work,” said Judy, Clarence’s wife.

“With this, our whole extended family was in town.”

Part of what came next was a detailed list of conditions for Clarence’s funeral, which was held three weeks after his death. The conditions were so specific that, now years after the fact, Judy referred to Clarence half-jokingly as a “funeral diva.”

“For the last probably two months of his life, he'd have friends over and say, ‘Okay. I want you to be a pallbearer and I want you to sing and I want you to do this.’ I said, ‘Honey, you do realize that you're not going to be around, right?’ He said, ‘But I want to have it all planned out.’ And you know, we followed his wishes.”

Clarence’s funeral went almost exactly according to plan. The mass included a canoe on the altar, filled with piles of items important to Clarence and things he collected during his life. Friends sang folk songs in his honour, including a rendition of “The Wild Rover” and the entire church singing the hymn “Morning Has Broken”, adapted by Clarence’s beloved Cat Stevens.

Only one of Clarence’s last wishes was left unfulfilled. Before he died, Clarence wanted Judy to speak at his funeral. She couldn’t do it. Other family members spoke on her behalf, but everything was still too raw.

When Judy talks about Clarence’s final months, between his terminal cancer diagnosis, his decision to pursue MAID, his death and all the events small and large that came in between, her voice hushes. Some signs of grief are still present. Often, when talking about Clarence, Judy still speaks of him in the present tense. He may be physically gone, but he’s far from forgotten.

“I was married to him. I still feel married to him,” she said.

The weeks after Clarence died went by fast, but while grief set in, there was never any doubt about the end he chose. Judy saw the MAID team as shepherds in a sense, helping guide Clarence through to whatever comes next.

“It was all kind of a blur,” she said, thinking back to that time.

“Right after you lose that person was very hard. Overall, I think one of the things you find out is how strong you are. That was interesting to find out - that I was much stronger than I thought I would be.”

Judy learned some things from the situation, including how to value the present instead allowing the future to overshadow everything.

“I think the way it changed me is that I became someone who learned to live in the moment. As soon as you’re living with someone who’s diagnosed, you’ve just started to engage in a different way with life,” she said.

In some sense, the grieving process is not complete - nor may it ever be. Like anyone experiencing loss, Judy found her own way.

 

Acceptance

The Pettersens are long-time members of the United Church and found comfort in faith.

“I think in some ways, faith makes it easier to make this decision because we both really believed that you move on and your consciousness moves on. That was part of Clarence’s journey, that we talked a lot about what the world would look like on the other side of death,” Judy said.

“We had some interesting conversations about that and that really helped him.”

Some segments of Christianity have spoken out about MAID. Some longstanding common Christian beliefs, particularly about the sanctity of human life, casuistry and ethics have kept some churches from endorsing programs like MAID. The Catholic Church, for instance, has been explicitly against MAID since the 1980s.

The United Church holds no such barriers. Judy said she saw medical assistance in dying in a similar way to medical assistance in life. In his younger years, Clarence had heart problems corrected through medical intervention that may have dramatically shortened his life.

“Clarence had high blood pressure in his 40s. He had medical assistance in life. If he had not had that in his 40s, he would have died in his 40s,” Judy said.

“I’m a Christian, but from a religious point of view, I don’t get how people think it’s wrong to help someone end their life when they’re suffering when it’s not wrong to extend their life. Where do we parse God’s will in this?”

The stance on accepting choice in death is an easy conclusion for Judy.

“I think that we need to be humane. We need to be as humane with people as we are to dogs,”

“We didn’t feel for one moment that this was something that was ungodly or a sin. I think people have their own feelings about this.”

Judy left the experience with an appreciation of the MAID program and their work, specifically how the team responsible for conducting Clarence’s death responded with the Pettersen family and the conscience with which they handled matters with him.

“After Clarence had died, I spoke with [the MAID team] and said, ‘I’m going to tell people about you guys, I’ll recommend you.’ They said to me, ‘Judy - we’re not recruiting,’ and we had a very good laugh,” she said.

Judy said working with a MAID team meant a series of options. Opting out of the program would have been as easy as saying “no.”

“When you talk to MAID, when you do the interviews, it is not a contract,” she said.

“A lot of people who sign up for it don’t end up going through with it. Maybe they die first or maybe they change their mind. That’s the thing - they’re there, but they’re not in touch with you - you’re in touch with them. You just live your life and they’re there when you want them and if you want them.”

Following Clarence’s death, a friend of Judy’s living in the U.K. also chose MAID. The U.K. does not have laws like Canada regarding MAID - the friend had to travel to Switzerland in secrecy to die and had little assistance once there.

“There was no medical people with them. You’re given a drink and you have to be able to take it yourself. He had to die before he wanted to because he had to be able to hold the cup. His family was just there by themselves with him. There was nobody to shepherd him through that experience,” she said.

“They were glad that he got to go like that, but they had to keep it secret in Britain. They couldn’t tell anyone. It was all very clandestine.”

 

Today

Judy, a writer, found solace in Clarence’s death by writing about it. She wrote a piece about her final days with him, finding an ability to discuss her own inner feelings and help deal with grief, then shoved it away for months.

“You’re kind of introspective and you’re constantly reading your own head, your own thoughts. I’m very comfortable talking about it now,” she said.

“It wasn’t that I was going for a feeling. It’s because I wrote it a number of months after my husband had passed. I was thinking about that day and I realized that I would probably start forgetting the details of it. I wrote it when it was still fairly fresh. I think it just unfolded as I relived the experience, as I wrote it.”

When Judy first wrote about her experiences, she had no intention of publishing them. This was therapy writing.

“I was writing it because when you’re a writer, I find that writing is therapy a lot of times. When I’m having trouble dealing with something, I’ll sit down and write,” she said.

“I was giving a very personal take on the last day of my husband’s life. I don’t know how you could write it any other way.”

Months after writing, around Christmas 2019, Judy was deleting old files when she found her piece about Clarence. She opened it up and the memories rushed back.

“All of a sudden, I felt the weight of it. I was really feeling very heavy about it and I thought, ‘I’ve got to get this out of here. This is just weighing on me. I’ve got to share this.’ I don’t even think at that point I shared it with my children,” she said.

At that point, Judy decided to submit the piece to Broadview, a Canadian magazine which centres around themes of religion, spirituality and social issues. Judy didn’t have a plan - she just knew she needed to share her thoughts.

“I just said, ‘You don’t have to write me back. I just have to send this. I'm just trusting that one of your editors will read it.’ I sent it off and I felt lighter,” she said.

Not long afterward, an editor from the magazine wrote back to Judy to tell her the magazine was planning a segment on MAID and would print her article. The piece, called “How my husband and I spent our final hours together,” was published by the magazine in May.

Since Clarence died, Judy has spent time helping other people deal with their grief after they lose loved ones, the same kind of shepherd she came to appreciate after his death.

“I know that everybody's grief journey is different, but there are some similarities. I think the thing is that you get to a stage where you're comfortable in the world again and you can talk to people about it,” she said.

“It’s like the person has been cut off your body. You have a wound and you heal, but you kind of always feel it. There’s just this constant reminder of the loss, but you deal with it and you get on with life. The puzzle piece of that person has been removed and no other puzzle piece will fill that spot. It’s just going to have to stay empty and you’re going to feel that void.”

When speaking with others who are grieving, Judy says they’ve now become part of a group and share some things in common.

“We’ve become part of a team we never wanted to join. Once you’re on that team, you feel like ‘oh, here’s a new team member coming, let me see what I can do. We don’t want to be here either, but here we are - let’s start healing.’”

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