Beyond sobs and scares

Students take winding paths to visit lost loved ones

Stephen Gill, Managing Editor - December 5th, 2018

Days prior to returning to Montreal this August, I visited my father’s grave for the first time in nearly a decade, 17 years after he died. As a child in visits past, I had trudged along with my mother and sister, longing to return to the car. This time, though, I looked forward to going on my own. I had reached year three of flying back and forth from Kansas to Quebec—back and forth from two starkly different lifestyles and friend groups—in four-month intervals. With graduation quietly approaching, my life was moving more quickly than ever. Crossing into Missouri on my way to Mount Moriah Cemetery, I was looking to take a step back and reset.

Whatever expectations I had about the visit quickly dissipated once I actually got there. For nearly half an hour, I sat on the grass next to my dad’s grave. I’d made a point to go on a weekday afternoon, so the only human I encountered was a straw hatted-man who rolled by on a Gator tractor from time to time. Birds chattered distractingly in the distance. I stared at the undisturbed ponds skirting the corner of the grounds and wondered what I was supposed to do. Nearly 10 years removed from my last visit, I realized I had a very limited concept of how other people behaved in cemeteries.

In search of answers, I spoke with other students who have spent their young lives visiting cemeteries. Melissa Langley and Marlee Nisenboim, both U3 Arts, lost their mothers in their pre-teen years; Nicholas Raffoul, U2 Arts, lost his grandmother at a young age and has taken trips to see her grave accompanied by his mother and aunts for most of his life. Certain students have taken it upon themselves to better integrate the topic of death into campus consciousness. Amanda Brown, MSc Human Genetics, and Daniel Almeida, PhD Neuroscience, work in the McGill Group for Suicide Studies at the Douglas Hospital Research Centre. They are also the co-creators of Death Cafe at McGill. True to its name, the group organizes ‘death cafes’: coffeehouse discussions that allow participants to discuss and develop comfortability with mortality.

Sitting on the freshly-mowed grass beside my father’s grave, I eventually began to silently reflect on all that had happened to me in my 17-and-a-half years since last seeing him—catching him up on my life, as best I could. Based on my upbringing, watching shows and movies like How I Met Your Mother and Beetlejuice, I figured that most people only visited cemeteries to either be aggressively sad, overtly lame, or scared out of their pants. In a surprise twist, pop culture had led me astray.

"Based on my upbringing, watching shows and movies like How I Met Your Mother and Beetlejuice, I figured that most people only visited cemeteries to either be aggressively sad, overtly lame, or scared out of their pants. In a surprise twist, pop culture had led me astray. "

Cemetery visits span a much broader, multi-dimensional spectrum. When they have an occasion to see their family members’ plots, Langley and Raffoul prefer to silently consider their loved ones’ relationships with other people in their lives in addition to their own. Similarly, Nisenboim will meditate, but will also express herself more outwardly depending on her mood.

“Sometimes, I sit in silence with my thoughts and feelings, [and] other times, I talk to my mom and [imagine] her response to me,” Nisenboim wrote in a message to The McGill Tribune. “Sometimes, I bring my guitar and play her a song [...], and sometimes I just sit and cry,” .

As I recounted the twisting path that took me from suburban middle America to French Canada, a stream of emotions began to collect into a pool of confusion. I felt contemplative, disappointed, and begrudgingly content, and I could not help but hypothesize about what my relationship with my dad would have been had it not been interrupted.

I wanted to know if these feelings resonated with others still coping with family tragedy. The response was varied: Almeida, who has been to countless funerals for his tight-knit extended family, and Raffoul find themselves more thoughtful and less emotional. Meanwhile, Nisenboim typically feels overwhelmingly sad, followed by a relative calmness during and after her visits. Langley, on the contrary, mostly feels pain in the cemetery.

“Usually, it’s mostly just like, go be upset for 20 minutes, and then be like ‘Alright, why am I doing this to myself?’ and then I’ll leave,” Langley said.

There is no list of emotions you’re supposed to feel at the foot of a loved one’s grave.

Stewart Leibovitch has been the cemetery manager for the Shaar Hashomayim congregation cemetery in Westmount for 14 years. Nearly every day, he speaks with visitors, sightseers, and Leonard Cohen fans alike in the century-and-a-half-old cemetery. Leibovitch, whose father passed away just as he finished his master’s degree nearly 30 years ago, no longer feels much at all. Instead, he points to a ‘balanced’ state of mind in which his emotions are at ease, and he focuses entirely on conjuring memories of and related to his father.

Brown, prior to her involvement with Death Cafe at McGill, volunteered at a hospital for World War II veterans. Following shifts at the hospital, she would frequent its neighbouring cemetery. Brown enjoys the cemetery experience and feels a sense of serenity and connectedness to those buried underground.

"Sometimes, I just like the ambiance of being in a cemetery," Brown said. "I find it peaceful. I have good thoughts there, and its for the point of feeling connected to the idea of our shared humanity and just reckoning with it and being at peace with it."

“Sometimes, I just like the ambiance of being in a cemetery,” Brown said. “I find it peaceful. I have good thoughts there, and it’s for the point of feeling connected to the idea of our shared humanity and just reckoning with it and being at peace with it.”

An hour or two after I had arrived, I stood up and continued my Thursday. As I drove home, it was harder to identify individual emotions. As an emotionally-muted individual, I had never gone from a smile, to tears, and back to a smile so quickly. I was glad to have gone. Nothing had tangibly changed, but at a time when I was so obsessively caught up in the tumultuous present, going to the cemetery put things into perspective. It reminded me to appreciate all that I had growing up, and, particularly, the superhuman effort my mother made to provide that gratifying childhood to me.

Leaving the cemetery, this sensation of raised spirits—no matter how high—was consistent across each of my interviews, underscoring the emotional power of these stays. Langley, not the most vocal proponent of graveside visits, still feels some level of emotional release, even if it’s not to an entirely-satisfying degree. After Almeida gets past his nostalgia, he observes that he is generally positive about the experience. Raffoul finds himself feeling better connected to his family upon exiting the cemetery gates, and notices an urge to seek more more fulfillment from his familial relationships.

“[After visiting the cemetery], I feel the need to get more connected to my mom and other people in my life and my family because I do feel like I take them for granted,” Raffoul said.

While seeing her mother’s grave doesn’t oust her negative feelings, Nisenboim gains a sense of clarity after her trips.

“Although visiting her doesn’t take away my painful [...] emotions, it often helps me identify exactly what I’m feeling and why, and this awareness helps me respond appropriately and eventually let go,” Nisenboim wrote.

Like Nisenboim, Brown enjoys a similar clarity, coupled with an understated calm and joy. Having spent years cultivating a relationship to death and, more specifically, to cemeteries, Leibovitch’s takeaways are almost philosophical. Among the tombstones, he feels an attachment to history and an affirmation of his present.

“I’ve done something to try and reconnect with my past,” Leibovitch said. “It’s a feeling of recognition of your past [....] It’s sort of a justification of your existence.”

The night before I visited my dad, I told my mom about my plans. She insisted that, at the very least, I would let her take me to Mount Moriah and show me where to find Joseph P. Gill’s grave. I wasn’t sure why I felt so strongly about it, but I refused to get out of the car when we got there; I wanted this trip to be mine. I hadn’t thought about that much until I noticed a trend midway through my discussions: The distinction between individual and group visits.

Langley and I strongly prefer to go by ourselves, now that we have the choice. Nisenboim will go either by herself or with her brother and father, but only because they can understand her feelings. She finds it more of a burden to go with anyone else. But individual visits aren’t preferable to the group experience for everyone.

Raffoul has only ever been as part of a group and strongly values the bonding opportunity that comes from these communal visits. Almeida also sees the merits of group visits. He stressed that the difference between group and individual trips can simply be a matter of personal preference.

“The memories you share with the person are often more collective as opposed to [singular], so [there are] more inter-group memories [remembered] as opposed to interpersonal memories,” Almeida said. “That doesn’t reduce the quality of going to the cemetery [one way or the other]. It’s just a different type of interaction.”

That some people strongly prefer individual trips and others gravitate toward group visits speaks to the greater idea that people choose to commemorate their loved ones in fundamentally different ways. After all, one’s memorial process is, necessarily, a deeply-individual experience.

“Cemeteries offer people a place to remember their loved ones in whatever way people want to [or] need to,” Nisenboim wrote. “I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to feel or think about death [...], nor is there a right [or] wrong thing to do in [a] cemetery. Grief is an extremely personal experience, and I think everyone has to go through it at their own pace [and] in their own ways.”

Leibovitch, who manages the cemetery for a Jewish congregation, notes that, even in the presence of tradition and religion, individual experiences of grief are unique for everyone.

"Youre going to do what you feel is right for you, ultimately, even if tradition says you do this, Leibovitch said. If youre going and visiting, I think that [...] you have to do it for whatever is driving you or encouraging you to go there and visit [....] It has to be your way."

“You’re going to do what you feel is right for you, ultimately, even if tradition says ‘you do this,’” Leibovitch said. “If you’re going and visiting, I think that [...] you have to do it for whatever is driving you or encouraging you to go there and visit [....] It has to be your way.”

That Thursday, no one—not even the man wearing the hat that disappointingly resembled, but was not, a cowboy hat—was there to show or tell me how to behave. Nobody could tell me how to pay respects to a man from whom I inherited so much—personality, appearance, family—with a single fuzzy mental image to remember him by. Nobody could tell me how to consider hypotheticals when I had already enjoyed such a fortunate childhood. Like everyone else, I had to find my own way, and I did.