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A Lifer in the Ugly Shoes Club --- Grief Seeking Gratitude

July is Bereaved Parents Awareness Month. Until Adam’s drowning admitted me into this

Adam's wood casket that family made. Mourners wrote him messages and drew with crayons

Ugly Shoes Club on January 24, 2016, I didn’t know that such a month even existed. I never asked for or wanted membership. Now, I am a lifer.

This blog on my grieving that has discovered a gratitude too may surprise readers as much as the inspiring love story that I wrote in Soar, Adam, Soar (Dundurn Press, 2019,

The Ugly Shoes Club. 55,000 followers on one Facebook Page group, inspired by this poem.

“I am wearing a pair of shoes.

They are ugly shoes.

Uncomfortable shoes.

I hate my shoes.

Each day I wear them, and each day I wish I had another pair.

Some days my shoes hurt so bad that I do not think I can take another step.

Yet, I continue to wear them.

I get funny looks wearing these shoes.

They are looks of sympathy.

I can tell in other's eyes that they are glad they are my shoes and not theirs.

They never talk about my shoes.

To learn how awful my shoes are might make them uncomfortable.

To truly understand these shoes you must walk in them.

But, once you put them on, you can never take them off.

I now realize that I am not the only one who wears these shoes.

There are many pairs in this world.

Some women are like me and ache daily as they try to walk in them.

Some have learned how to walk in them so that they don't hurt quite so much.

Some have worn the shoes so long that days will go by before they think about how much they hurt.

No woman deserves to wear these shoes.

Yet, because of these shoes I am a stronger woman.

These shoes have given me the strength to face anything.

They have made me who I am.

I will forever walk in the shoes of a woman who has lost a child.” Author Unknown

This club admits men too, indeed all parents who grieve their dead daughters and dead sons no matter their age. Forgot what people say, best intentions and all. We won’t get over it. Time does not heal (completely). The grief is permanent, forever, like the love for the lost ones.

As I sit signing my book on my book tour, I swear that there are moments when I am back hearing confessions as a Catholic priest.

“My son died about 20 years ago, your son’s age, after a gunshot wound,” a woman whispered. “He had the most beautiful blue eyes.”

I blinked. I notice those beautiful blue eyes as I also see Adam’s face smiling at me, Batman ball cap on backwards, phone in his hand, tattoos and all.

“My son was stillborn,” another book buyer said, leaning over the signing table. “People don’t understand my sadness.”

There’s the unique, irreplaceable loved one gone. A few in every book reading audience will find me afterwards to say thank you for telling the world that grief is forever.

Did you know that there is not even a word in the English language to define a parent who loses a child? We know whom orphans miss and whom a widow or widower mourns. There are no similar words to identify a parent who mourns a child! So, I wrote 75,000 words.

Of course, Soar, Adam, Soar covers way more than the grieving, mostly his inspiring, courageous transgender journey home to the “boy in the mirror”, the epilepsy journey too through the healthcare system, the hundreds of seizures, two brain surgeries and, just when we were nicely through a second surgery and an apparent seizure-free prognosis, the final cruel seizure in a hot tub, the paramedics resuscitating him, a 36-hour vigil and a final pronouncement of death that robbed us of the miracle we wanted but would lead to other miracles as Adam’s organs saved four lives. The remarkable postscript too of a grateful heart recipient, a clever fellow with a golden attitude; John Dickhout sleuthed our identity. My family are good friends now with John and his wife, Lynn.

Adam and I skating in search of Beaver Tails on the Rideau Canal, Ottawa

It’s all in Soar, Adam, Soar, with a heaping side dish of my co-author Adam’s 100-plus social media posts, his humour and own golden attitude redeeming the grieving too.

Grief was never supposed to be in my book but that sister of mine, Jude, the Vermont healing artist, shoved my writing through those doors when she heard that I had wanted to end the memoir right after Adam’s Celebration of Life and the first news from Trillium Gift of Life that his organs had saved four lives.

She reminded me that Adam did not live or die in isolation

“You cannot remove yourself from the story. Remember, many struggle with these same painful, heart-wrenching circumstances. Your story is their story.”

In fact, the book and book tour’s grief-sharing has birthed the gratitude! Seeds for this were sown unknowingly at a Canada Council for the Arts celebration of six winners of the 2018 Governor General’s Literary Awards. After listening to readings and comments from the authors, I knew that I would be buying Darrel McLeod’s Mamaskatch, his coming of age memoir as a Cree surviving physical and sexual abuse growing up. Despite his bald words on unspeakable horrors, it was McLeod’s goodness, generosity, humour and enduring love for his family, flaws and all, that hooked me, first in listening to him and then in reading his book.

Mamaskatch opens with a quote from Jean-Paul Sartre.

“Freedom is what we do to what happens to us.”

Over and over again, I read those words. From time to time, I still say them to myself. Indeed! Thank you, Darrel, for sharing Sartre’s words and your story.

In my book, I cited the viral Facebook post of the old man who had experienced the deaths of so many and had compared the loss to a shipwreck that leaves you in the stormy seas trying to survive the 90-foot waves crashing as you cling to a plank. Can I hold on? Do I want to hold on? Crying in the shower. Nights of convulsive sobbing, holding on to the bed. For the first time ever, a bedroom window closed that first summer. The madness of grief, as poet Eve Joseph calls it.

I am three years into this new world order, befriending the grief as it teaches me how to wear those uncomfortable shoes well. There is gratitude in my new transgender human rights and organ donor advocacy, gratitude in knowing John and Lynn, gratitude in Adam’s post-death messages to me, gratitude especially for how the book and tour birthed Adam a second time.

From time to time, I rub the jewelry urn with Adam’s ashes that hang around my neck. Adam, come out and play, wherever you are.

No, we Ugly Shoes members don’t always get a say on life’s plan, what happened to us.

Freedom is what we do to what happens to us.

My Dad never made it past Grade 9 with his own childhood story of being dropped off at an orphanage as his parents barnstormed North America in a vaudeville theatre troupe. He lived Sartre’s line. In the pre-email days, when I or other siblings wrote him letters that included the inevitable complaining about life, he would write back a simple message. Choose life. Be not afraid. He had. He invited us to do likewise.

I admired my Dad and now my Adam for choices they made in their suffering. Darrel McLeod too. And thousands in the Ugly Shoes clubs. I try to choose that path. I hope others in their grief might too but I won’t prescribe that glibly. Life is tough. May those doors to gratitude open.

Last year, like many, I followed intensely in the news the story of J35, that mama whale who was spotted carrying her dead baby calf, bobbing it to the surface on her nose or on a fin. CBC News reported J35 pushed the corpse of her dead calf in a funeral-like procession through 1,600 kilometres of Pacific Ocean for 17 days of mourning. I loved J35 as a sister. She knew what having your heart ripped out feels like.

Scars leading to love, circling the grief. May Parents Bereavement Awareness Month somehow help us spot the beauty in those ugly shoes.

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