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John White: Grief status — It’s complicated

Holidays like Easter and Christmas are very challenging for me since both of my parents passed.

Holidays like Easter and Christmas are very challenging for me since both of my parents passed.

There are times that I wonder if I’ll ever be able to smile and enjoy them again.

My mom passed away in April 2012 and my dad in August 2014. They were relatively young, she 67 and he 71.

She had liver disease and then liver cancer. Her last few years were, frankly, terrible. Continuous pain made worse by secondary issues that exacerbated her primary fight and drained her positivity. Yet she still managed to be there for others, putting their needs and happiness ahead of her own, including mine.

She and my dad would come to my competitive curling games back in the day, even when my mom was not feeling well. She’d always felt it important to support us in our pursuits of excellence. Like most moms, she didn’t let the fact that I was average at best as a curler stop her from believing. We won a few minor events over the years, but fell one game short of qualifying for the provincials in Manitoba, twice.

They grew up in the ’50s and got together in the early ’60s, at a time when they considered the woman’s place to be at home. She really did run the house from top to bottom. She also waited on dad, and the kids, all of those years. So when the tables turned, and my dad had to be my mom’s everything when she got sick, he was all in. They say the only thing harder than fighting a terrible fight is watching your partner fight one.

Dad was always the stoic presence, only getting loud when the Habs were screwed by the refs. To see him broken, helpless and searching for answers was deeply upsetting. “Wait, so someone as strong as my dad can be lost? That does not compute.”

When my mom left us, there was a bit of relief as her suffering had finally ended. But for my dad, it was like he fell off of a cliff.

A few days after the funeral, he asked us how everyone out there can just go on about their day. “Don’t they know Bev is gone?”

My wife and I were living in Winnipeg at the time and we were able to support my dad in his grieving. He and I went for weekly coffee chats where we would lay everything out there for discussion. He was a great listener — no judging, just heartfelt advice and understanding.

As life goes in the news business, we ended up moving to Edmonton a short while later. I was worried about leaving my dad behind, but he assured us that we should go, because there were fewer and fewer opportunities in the industry.

Our weekly coffees were replaced by weekly Skype calls. I couldn’t give him the goodbye hug, but it was so great being able to see facial expression. In almost every call, he remarked at how great it was that we could do our chats this way.

Then one day, he was just gone.

Complications from his blood thinner medication led to a heart stoppage. It happened quickly, they suggested, as if that would somehow make things easier to accept.

He died alone.

I was miles and miles away, although being in the same city would not have made a difference, I carry the guilt with me still. He was there for me, always. From hockey team cuts, to layoffs, to health issues, he was there — the firm, supportive power. I am so thankful that my sister was in the same city, and she and her husband were always doing things for him, and maintaining their weekly casino brunch date. This knowledge brought me great comfort as I tried to lift my guilt.

The dark irony that his support would have made grieving his death easier was an extra bag of nickels to the groin. My rock was gone, my guilt was strong, and I developed an irrational fear of sudden death. Anxiety spirals are common in this so-called “complicated grief.”

It took time, counselling and support from my wife and friends to move through the worst days. I still can’t watch that scene from Field of Dreams where Kevin Costner’s character gets to “have a catch” with his dad.

Despite the depth of grief, people would tell me I was very lucky to have this kind of relationship with my father, and I should focus on the lessons he imprinted on my character.

“Be there for your family, your coworkers, your teammates, have a good laugh, and don’t take anyone’s sh*t.” Typing that made me smile.

Well, would you look at that.