The Maritimes and More

Last night I awoke from a clouded memory—it was not a dream—and I wanted to ask my wife a question to help me clarify it. When I became sufficiently conscious to realize I would never again be able to ask her a question, I felt a sensation somewhere between terror and excruciating physical pain. The memory was not especially important, but the subsequent awareness of perpetual separation tormented me; it still does, several hours later. I wonder whether that sensation will ever fade?


Yesterday afternoon, I invited a friend to come for a visit. During the time we sat and talked, we covered a variety of topics. Naturally, I suppose, many of the topics concerned my wife’s death and how I am dealing with it. I think I am dealing with it pretty well, though on occasion I feel an overwhelming sense of loss and grief.

I heard an interview on the radio a few days ago in which the person being interviewed spoke of grief having only, I think, two stages (not the five stages copied from Elisabeth Kübler Ross’s seven stages of dying). If I recall correctly, she said grief consists of the intense sadness and pain of loss (stage 1) and the never-ending evolution of recovery from that sadness and pain (stage 2).  I guess that answers my question.

The visit was cathartic. I think I needed, or at least wanted, to talk about the emotional turmoil that seems to surge through me in waves. Although I do not think I know any more now than before, I feel a little less compressed; as if a relief valve was turned, emptying a bit of pressure.


I spent some time last night reading about Newfoundland; its climate, its cultural and social environments, and how one approaches becoming a resident. Having never been there, I suspect my interest is more of a fantasy than an actionable curiosity, but one never knows. It is most definitely an active fantasy, though. Before I would do anything rash, I would force myself to peel away the romantic images that dwell in my mind, requiring me to look at the place and its people with ample skepticism. I would insist on understanding more about it than the magical sketches I have allowed myself to paint in my mind’s eye.

My dreams of Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and various other places in the Canadian Maritimes are just that: dreams. They are not new. I guess Newfoundland is not part of the Maritimes. It doesn’t matter. My dreams of the Maritimes and environs have been resting comfortably in the back of my mind for decades, along with fantasies about other places in which I imagine living a contradictory life, one of isolation in the midst of the powerful embrace of loving community. It’s a fantasy. A dream. An imaginary place that quite possibly does not exist. Somewhere in my fantasy world there exists a co-housing community that offers privacy, intimacy, community, and a passionate connection with nature. A place with rugged, rocky beaches and magnificent cliffs under constant attack by fierce waves. I envision a place where only pleasant memories are allowed; where painful recollections are kept at bay. It’s all make-believe, of course, but it’s a place I fervently seek, nonetheless.

But would I be satisfied to be alone in Newfoundland? Or anywhere else, for that matter? It’s far too early to even think about such things, but I cannot help it. Even though I’ve spent more than five months living alone in my house, while my wife was in hospital and rehab facilities, I’m not entirely used to it. And I am not sure I am suited for it for the long term, even though I love my isolation and my solitude. It’s hard for me to understand myself; how can I be so private and so comfortable with my own company, yet so susceptible to loneliness? I should not allow myself to even think this way.


As I am wont to do from time to time, this morning I explored what I wrote a few years in the past. Among the words I recorded on December 29, 2017 (I did not post the day before) were these involving a character I created, Kolbjørn Landvik:

He and I share many attributes, which is natural inasmuch as we are the same person, just in different times and in different places. He and I absolutely love the taste of pickled herring. And we love feeling the salt spray on our face as we sail into the cold wind in search of good fishing spots and ourselves.

Kolbjørn Landvik and I share another attribute. We’re both enamored of the French phrase, “le jeu n’en vaut pas la chandelle,” and its English translation, “the game is not worth the candle.” Something about the phrase causes tears to well up in our eyes. Hearing or reading the phrase causes the deep sadness sleeping in our chests to rise from its slumber and overtake our consciousness. We weep, Kolbjørn and I, and we struggle to understand why it seems at times that we, alone, grieve for the world we wish for, the world that never was but should have been.

I’ve written and plagiarized myself enough to call it a morning, for now. The clock is racing toward 6:45 and my coffee cup is empty except for the gritty wash at the bottom. Time for more.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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6 Responses to The Maritimes and More

  1. Good advice, Liz. And I think you’re right. There’s no real way to “handle” it. You just face it and push through or around it.

  2. lizardek says:

    Talking definitely helps but I don’t know that the pain of separation ever goes away. I suspect you just learn to deal with it in whatever way works best for you (or not, which is a whole separate thing). Maybe there’s no way to “handle” grief. You just get through it, each time it hits. You try to keep your head above the surface.

    I dream of Prince Edward Island too, but Anne of Green Gables is entirely to blame.

  3. Robin, Bev, and Tara: Reading your words is reassuring and comforting, regardless of whether you are not convinced your words are wise or useful or steeped in facts or certainty. I am so grateful to you three and to everyone else who has taken the time to comment on my recent posts. You three, though, have made extra efforts to delve into matters you know–from knowing me–make a difference to me. I really appreciate your perspectives and your willingness to share them. I am so glad that people from such diverse geographies and such different experiences can be so closely aligned in offering solace to a “virtual” stranger. We’re not strangers, not after so many years of communicating and, in the cases of Robin and Tara, meeting just once (I’m still looking forward to meeting Bev); but we are. Then again, though, we’re not. The world is a mysterious place.

  4. robin andrea says:

    I have no words of wisdom about death, but I do so deeply understand your desire for both community and your alone time. I believe utterly in the human evolution of living in tribes and community, but there are those of us who would have been the quiet ones even ten thousand years ago. Take your time, John, and breathe deeply. Wonder about the world and where you’d like to be. You will always hold Janine in your heart, you and will take her there with you wherever you go.

  5. Bev says:

    Ditch the Elisabeth Kübler Ross. Most widowed people get driven nuts by people telling them which stage of grief they are or should be in. It changes day by day and it’s a very personal thing. I would describe it as more a case of triggers that set off different thoughts. Over 12 years later and I sometimes have very sad days — in fact, I had one just recently. A fellow widowed friend wrote a good book which I’ve recommended to several people and they have found it quite helpful – a friend is reading it right now in fact – by Megan Devine. “It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand.” I got to know Megan through a small circle of grieving bloggers who somehow met each other a year or two after Don died. Megan nails a lot of what various people experienced. She very much encourages writing about your grief. I think writing helped me when I was traveling and blogging about it after Don died. Anyhow, all I can say is that everyone experiences grief in different ways, but most people find their emotions all over the board for at least one or two years. And, yes, probably best not to make any major decisions for awhile. I did sell my house within a year of Don’s death and I had done a lot of wandering around camping and also living down in Bisbee during that year. I came back “home” knowing that I didn’t want to be there anymore, but a lot of people find it comforting to stay put, at least for awhile. Again, a very personal thing. Newfoundland is considered one of the Maritime provinces, although these days, usually gets lumped in with Labrador which is part of the province but on the north shore of Quebec. Nice to visit. Cold in winter. Subject to very extreme weather events. Nice friendly people toward visitors but also very insular, especially the more remote towns. A lot of incredible landscape and nature. Somehow, I can’t really imagine you there — well, I can imagine you having a nice visit. 🙂 It actually sounds like you’re in a pretty good place right now. Fortunately, you don’t have to make any decisions about what to do. Some people don’t have that choice and have to make major decisions very quickly. Take time to get used to the new reality. That’s enough advice from me for awhile. I’m quite the outlier, so maybe the wrong person to be giving out advice. 🙂

  6. Tara says:

    I’m glad you had a visitor and were able to talk and grieve with them. It does help, I can say from experience. Also, from experience, it has been almost a year since my husband died and I think of him every day. Sometimes I shed tears. I play the “what if” and “if only” game in my head, which does me no good and I’m trying to stop it. I like your dreams of Newfoundland, whether or not they come true. “They” say not to make any major decisions for a year after a profound death is experienced, but I don’t know if “they” are correct.

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