Mourning from Afar


March 12, 2015 by Katia

My birthday is on March 16th, a day before St. Patrick’s Day. This year for the first time I will be missing some of the people who celebrated it with me most of my life.

(This post is dedicated to loss. Please use your discretion)


When babushka* died at the hospital in the evening I was attending a colleague’s birthday lunch, oceans away in a parallel reality represented by different time zones. My phone showed two missed calls from my mom, hospitalized herself at the time, so I held my breath and dialed from a narrow restaurant corridor flanked by heavy wooden white doors and received epoch-ending news for the second time in three weeks. I didn’t cry this time nor did I shake. I don’t remember my heart racing. I didn’t feel misplaced, or at least not in the same way I did three weeks earlier when Babushka’s sister, Ninulya, died. Experiencing what I can now define as acute disconnect, I floated back to the lunch table and assumed my seat.

When a person that’s a part of your identity dies, you’re supposed to react.

I was leaving early that day to attend my five-year-old’s school holiday concert. I knew exactly at what time I had to excuse myself and ask for the bill and which streetcar I was going to take to get to the subway. I was the embodiment of going through the motions. Flooded with thoughts instead of feelings, I was aching to react.

They wanted to be together. Couldn’t stand to be apart.

Why am I not crying?

The next station is Osgoode. Osgoode station.

I talk to her in my mind then out loud when I’m alone, but while Ninulya flooded me with her presence — I could speak to her, into her, through her, she was everywhere — the  words I have for Babushka all bounce back.

I go on a memory scavenger hunt and come back with an eclectic array designed to awaken those dormant emotions, to seriously rattle them. Instead their fragmented nature just enhances the disconnect. family

Kids on the stage, singing songs, gesticulating, waving to parents, cell phone cameras. Two Year Old running toward me wanting to be held. His grandma holds him instead, she understands. Greetings, more greetings, there’s my neighbour, there’s my mommy friend, smiles, “hi! How are you?”

Which reality is more real right now?

Remember how Tali said that when you get married and have a big wedding and see all your friends and so many other people you know in one place it is just too much for the psyche to process, so you block out certain parts of your wedding and are only reminded of them afterwards, when you look at the pictures? Did my soul go into one of those self-defence modes having to cope with two deaths and a major health scare in a short period of time or is it because Babushka was “more not here than here”, as Katya put it, in the last few years? Is it because during those years she had reached that state of “at peace” whereas her little sister, in a total role reversal to all of life before, was anything but? Were we more prepared for Babushka? Does that make her death less tragic and why can I not hear her voice?

Two weeks later when it’s time for mama to be released from the hospital I travel to Israel. I still can’t cry. I want to immerse myself in them so I could feel what needs to be felt. So I could return the love, a morsel of the endless giving. I didn’t know how to mourn from far away besides lighting candles and trying to talk to her, but I didn’t hear her voice and my own words bounced back. Was she able to see how sad I was? Once back home, I provoke myself. I go to Ninulya’s apartment expecting the emotional flood. Instead I’m greeted by a different kind of sadness, the sadness of an apartment which used to be an extension of the person occupying it, and is now stripped of its defining quality and when I tell this to Tali she says “it’s so sad” and I say “yes. It is”. I take a scarf from Ninulya’s familiar outdated wooden closet and I don’t cry.

In memoriam Mama has piles and piles of documents and personal belongings of theirs to go through and while she’s still recovering she can’t do any physical labour, so I help. One evening we find a folder characteristically tucked away somewhere you would never expect to find a folder. Hiding in plain sight probably placed there a few years ago and never moved since. Uncharacteristically, to those women who spent most of their time contemplating dramaturgy, poetry, words and events that took place decades ago its purpose is anticlimactic and mundane. This folder is for organizing bills and is divided into categories. My mom and I take a moment to marvel at the endearing discovery . When we open the folder we stumble upon a treasure trove and we are flooded: letters from the 1920s, with correspondence between the girls and their parents revealing defining, common knowledge, personality traits in the bud, ancestral telegrams unearthing the origins of certain learned behaviours, and family photographs from the 1890s and onwards filed under “electricity”. We laugh a laugh of shared knowledge, recognition, joy and comfort.

When people are no longer there, they sometimes leave things behind to play their parts.

This is what I was looking for. I look at the photograph and tears flood my eyes.

babushka ninulya   *** * Babushka – Grandma in Russian.

This was a Finish the Sentence Friday post on the topic “When it comes to St. Patrick’s Day”. Please visit the lovely hosts: Kristi at Finding Ninee Kelly at Just Typikel and Lisa Listwa at The Meaning of Me


40 thoughts on “Mourning from Afar

  1. What beautiful little girls were were your Ninulya and Babushka! I have some family photographs from the olden times, and it is truly special to be able to look into the lives of our loved ones when they were little, and as old as our kids. I’m sending some hugs, and warm wishes as you travel through your memories and feelings.

  2. Kristi Campbell - findingninee says:

    Oh, Katia, this has so many layers and meanings and so much beauty and sorrow. Your “(and why am I not crying)” is a layer to so many things in my life. I read this tonight and I’m leaving it open to read again tomorrow when I can more fully absorb its beauty and your words which are powerful and amazing. So much love to you.

    • Katia says:

      I love you, friend. I’m sorry that “and why am I not crying resonates with you”. This makes me sad. I hope you find your opportunity for a good cathartic cry. So much love back! xoxo

  3. Ah this touches me in so many ways Katia. I’m so sorry for your loss. A good pal of mine passed away this Monday after just a three month battle with pancreatic cancer. That numbness you mention is how I feel. I suspect I’ll have my file folder discovery memory as well. And what a splendidly lovely photo you shared. Sending you a jumbo hug.

    • Katia says:

      A jumbo hug to you to my friend. Losing a friend is a whole different kind of pain. I’m so so sorry, Kelly! Yes, it’s exactly that – numbness – a terrible sense of guilt for experiencing it. I’m sure you’ll have a file folder moment. Just gotta let the file folder happen 🙂 xoxo

  4. Nicki says:

    Beautiful beautiful beautiful. That photograph is everything.
    While reading this I felt my husband’s grandmother with me. She died the day after her sister… one in South Africa, one in Israel.
    May the memories of your beautiful Babushka and her sister be for a blessing. So much love to you.

    • Katia says:

      What an incredible story about your husband’s grandma and her sister! I truly feel like there was a reason these two (very) old ladies passed away together basically (before Ninulya’s Shloshim was even over). Thank you for your wonderful and comforting words.

  5. lrconsiderer says:

    My sweet, grief happens in entirely its own way. There is no point in questioning it – it is a peculiar, ungainly beast.

    I’m glad you found such a beautiful photograph, and I’m glad that you and your mum were able to attend to their apartment together.

    • Katia says:

      That’s a perfect way of putting it, yet I felt so bothered, since it almost felt like a blatant lack of grief until I was confronted with the familiar, the personalities that emerged from the words in the letters, the photos and choices conveyed through objects. This is when the connect and grief happened for me. Thank you so much for reading, dear friend.

      • lrconsiderer says:

        No, it happens how it happens. Don’t worry too much about what it looks like. That makes it worse, somehow.

        I’m glad the connect happened in the end, and still so sorry for such a horrendous double-loss, dear heart *HUGS*

  6. I can’t even…this is beautiful and captures the complex, intricate thing that Grief is. This is beautiful writing and, I hope, cathartic for you in some ways.

    • Katia says:

      Thank you, Allison! It was definitely cathartic. This was brewing in me for two months now, ever since I came back from Israel, and I was waiting for the right time to let it all out 🙂

  7. thelatchkeymom says:

    This was beautiful Katia. And I agree with Allison, that grief can be so intricate – and always personal. The picrure is stunning and haunting. This I love: “When people are no longer there, they sometimes leave things behind to play their parts.”

    • Katia says:

      Thank you so much, Allie. The picture is beautiful and in some ways reflective of their personalities (and contradicting in others) and it just penetrates my soul 🙂

  8. I think we all experience grief differently, and our bodies and minds process it in a way that protects us. Same with shock (for me anyway). I’m sorry for your loss and appreciate that you could write your feelings and share them with us. How amazing to find all those treasures filed under electricity!

    • Katia says:

      Thank you for saying that. I agree it’s probably a shock, even though you feel prepared. Those were indeed some amazing treasures to find! 🙂

  9. Katia, I’m so, so sorry for your loss. I know from experience that loss doesn’t even begin to describe it. You write about grief so beautifully here. I found comfort in photographs after my grandpa and sister died. I still do. I have a picture of me and my grandpa on my wedding day 20 years ago and when I look at it, I can smell his aftershave. I’m sending you love and prayers!

    • Katia says:

      Their pictures, their words, a piece of or family history which was unknown to me were everything I needed at that time. I love reading your comments. Thank you for always brightening up my day, friend!

  10. I feel so welled up inside from the treasure trove you found. I completely understood when you wrote you didn’t know how to grieve from far away. My far away has been no more than a ten hours drive and a couple hours for a flight but in some cases I haven’t always been able to go back. And it’s when I have gone back, it’s the realization that the loved one is really no longer there that the sadness really does come. This was beautifully written, very expressive.

    • Katia says:

      Thank you so much, my friend! I know we’ve talked about the whole relocation thing before, but I actually agree with the parallel you’re drawing. I don’t think it matters when close people are far, whether they’re within a couple of hours of flight far or 14 hours of flight far, they just are and it feels the same and it definitely makes mourning harder. Thank you so much for your kindness, xo!

  11. Beautiful post. I lost my own grandmother when I was living overseas, it was very hard not being there at the end. I was able to fly back for her funeral but I always wish I could have been there. I also experienced loss last year when we unexpectedly lost my brother tragically young, It has been very hard to get over the shock, but luckily this time I was at home and only an hour or so away from my parents when it happened. It really made me think of how much harder it is to be far away when something like this happens. I love the photo of your two grandmothers by the way 🙂

    • Katia says:

      I am so terribly sorry for your losses. I can only imagine the overwhelming pain of grieving over a sibling. I’ve lost a close friend to cancer and watched his sister going through this process. I am sure there was tremendous comfort, as well – as strange as it feels to say it, in being closer to where it happened. I wish there was something I could say to make it better, but I know that there probably isn’t anything. I know, as well, that sometimes we just need to talk about it, so I thank you so much for feeling comfortable enough to do so here. Please feel free to come back and chat any time. Hugs to you and thank you for your words of support.

      • Thank you for your kind words. It was definitely “easier” being close to home, I am so glad I wasn’t living overseas when it happened. The logistics of getting home would have been impossible – and you don’t know whether to come immediately or wait until the funeral. I feel terrible for everyone in this situation.

  12. Lisa @ The Golden Spoons says:

    This is beautiful, Katia! I’m so glad you found that treasure and that you were finally able to let those tears flow.

  13. says:

    Oh Katia… this was so beautiful. SO powerful. I think sometimes grief is so overwhelming it takes time to process itself within before it comes out…

    And sometimes it takes its own course… and we just have to honor its lead.

    That picture is breathtaking.

    I’m so glad you wrote this out- I can only imagine how cathartic it was for you!

    • Katia says:

      Precisely. Honouring its lead is beautifully put. And yes, it was truly cathartic. Thank you so much, friend, for your insightful, as always, comment. xo

  14. Natalie DeYoung says:

    When my grandmother died, I didn’t cry immediately, either. It was as if I had done all my crying earlier, when she’d been diagnosed with cancer. And I felt like I needed to be strong for everyone around me.
    I found myself crying later, at odd times, when I noticed something I thought she’d like, or when I was doing something she taught me. Grief is such an uncontrollable beast, and you describe it very well.
    PS–That photo is priceless! What a sweet find.

    • Katia says:

      Yes, I know the feeling you describe of being hit with it later at seemingly random times, except they’re anything but random. Thank you so much, my dear.

  15. Dana says:

    Happy almost birthday, Katia. I’m so sorry that it is tinged with sadness as you continue to miss two very special women. I hope your memories and that precious photo bring you some comfort.

  16. Power of Mum says:

    Happy birthday hun. Deeply sorry for your loss. You have to remember that they are in a good place now and they would like you to live your life and be happy x

    • Katia says:

      I read this on my birthday (but was dealing with a sick toddler and then a sick me…) and was so moved. Thank you so much! Hearing those words on my birthday meant the world to me. xox

  17. I know how hard it can be to celebrate without those who you love the most. The juxtaposition of the celebrating and the missing is ridiculous and it’s hard to explain to everyone what you’re feeling. I hope the writing helps. Please know that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to navigate through this. I hope for you some light and love and maybe a good cry.

    • Katia says:

      Than you so much for these encouraging words. I did struggle quite a bit with the inadequacy of how I mourned. I did get some closure after traveling to Israel and I’m ever so grateful for that and for the gift of others reading my posts and lending their ears and hearts 🙂

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