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CIVA’s post of my piece on grief

Making a Way with Grief

By Vanessa Wells

I spent the day deliberating the posting of this personal commentary; it’s not something I do. But I’ve been feeling depleted lately (physically, emotionally, spiritually), which has been complicated by feelings of grief for which I still haven’t attained closure.

The best information I’ve read on this topic tells me that it’s not linear, it’s individual in its course, it doesn’t adhere to a particular timeline…and it often doesn’t make any damn sense. I’ve come to accept that. But there are moments—they tend to strike in the early morning—when grief hits me like a Mack truck. This is both unexpected and annoying. I tend to be a morning person (to clarify, I don’t actually want to talk to anyone in the morning; that’s just when I have all my energy and optimism for the day) and then, wham, I’m suddenly crying.

To back up: I’m essentially an only child (I’ll spare you the long version of that story), and my dad died ten years ago. He’d been a private pilot in his retirement, so every time I see a small plane flying overhead (which is, fortunately, often), I say thank you and turn into a puddle. It’s dumb, but it makes me feel he’s close.

wells-3After my dad died of brain cancer, life’s next blow was for my mum to develop Alzheimer’s. She moved back to Toronto to be near me, and I spent the next four plus years interacting with, and daily caring for, her “not-self.” I’m sorry to say I was not always patient (anger=fear), but I did all that a daughter could do and kept her reasonably happy despite the insanity of that miserable disease.

Mum threw out and lost expensive items (including an engagement ring) and was difficult with me and everyone else trying to help her navigate what she would not admit was happening to her. Long story short, Mum’s plan—and her vow—was that she would “just go” {snapping of fingers} when she wanted and would not linger. Social workers and I tried to explain the drop-dead-on-demand scenario was very unlikely, but didn’t she do just that on Thursday morning in October of 2013; a massive stroke cut her down and she was gone within a day.

Fran: 1
Vanessa: 0

Anyway, as I said, I get hit with the whammies about my ten-year-gone dad and three-year-gone mum a lot. A LOT. It’s rough. I burst into tears at certain pieces of music, yet can’t bring myself to turn them off. It feels as though I must will myself through the grief yet again.

So, in an act of self-care, I resorted to the best cure-all: a purge and reorganization—ironic for someone whose total belongings fit into one room. I’d recently purged 20 years of teaching resources, but my 20 years’ worth of photography was crowding me, and I needed to unload. I planned to discard some art I had deemed unworthy but retrieved it in the end. Some was good, some purely emotional, but I decided to keep it to honor myself. Maybe my kids, in their own future mid-life crises, would be interested someday?

That was yesterday. This morning, feeling despondent, I was drawn to review a more difficult portfolio. Flipping aimlessly through the pages, I noticed some hand-written notes by visitors to an art show where I’d exhibited photographs a decade ago. I remembered a few of the notes, mostly complimentary. I even remembered one that said, “A little cold. I didn’t feel the tenderness.” (Funny then and funny today because I’ve never been much for portraying tenderness, tending more toward austerity and starkness in my work.)

wells-2As I continued flipping through, I uncovered a dear note from my daughter, and then I spotted a note that made my heart stop. It said, “I’m so proud of you. M.” (M. was my mother’s signature for “Mum” on notes.) I’d forgotten she had even been there during a visit from her home in British Columbia, let alone left me a note. Of course she would have written that, even though she never did understand my photos (which, God knows, she told me often enough!). I was on a huge purge and wouldn’t have taken the time to check each of those hundreds of papers, but I couldn’t believe I’d almost thrown those notes out!

wells-4I had been looking for a continued connection with my mum for almost three years, and here was this unexpected gift. It was exactly what I needed. I had just been reading five minutes earlier about spiritual development, and then this jumped out at me. My mum never really got “modern art” yet, with that note, she was validating me. That’s what parents do. They may not “get” their kids but they never stop loving and supporting them. No matter what.

With this bit of serendipity, I felt vindicated in reinstating my art and re-fortified for going forward without my mum and my dad. I’m not sure what this vignette might have to offer you, but I wanted to share my small story of grace. Grace is an undeserved and unexpected gift. And if this isn’t a time when we all need gifts like that, I don’t know when is.

Vanessa Wells is an editor and blogger in Toronto, Ontario. When she isn’t sweating over which camera to use, she’s watching films, reading or . . . reading. For more on Vanessa, go to Wells Read Editing or Beautiful Feet



Cosmopolitan Toronto in Photos

Cosmo portrait

Documentary photographer Colin Boyd Shafer’s book Cosmopolis Toronto: The World in One City is a collection of photo stories about 195 people who have immigrated to Canada and settled in Toronto. Their portraits are accompanied by brief commentaries. But most poignant are the smaller photos which display each subject’s most treasured object, a memento which still ties them to their past and their origins.

Boyd Shafer’s portraits are candid but accessible and certainly illustrate the diversity of our city’s people and locales. With so many people represented, the photographer chose well to keep the texts brief: while lengthy bios would likely have been fascinating, he keeps the pace of the book clicking, so that it’s an excellent coffee table book and it echoes the mood of our ever-changing city.

And I do use the term ‘coffee table book’ as a compliment. In our harried urban lifestyle, it can be rare to have a moment to even sit down on a couch in front of a coffee table with free time. When we do, isn’t it a luxurious feeling to flip languorously through a beautiful book that is enlightening but not demanding? Larger-format picture books force us to turn the pages more slowly and thus to take in the contents with more attention and time. Everything in this book, down to the type and map outlines, makes our encounter streamlined and focussed.

I’d recommend Cosmopolis Toronto as a great gift: for yourself as a Toronto resident; for the bibliophile who seems to have every book you can think of; or perhaps most thoughtfully for a newcomer to Toronto, whether they’ve moved here from Fort MacMurray or France. You can learn more about the project of “Photographing the world, one Torontonian at a time” at

Cosmo cover