Appreciating Life When Overwhelmed by Death10 min read

Being surrounded by death at a time when social rules are disrupted is overwhelming. I mourn through immersion in nature and mindful appreciation of life.

Editor’s note: this article contains reflections on death following a mass shooting. Reader discretion advised.

I feel constantly surrounded by death. People have been killed by the Nova Scotia shooting, from Coronavirus, and I lost my pet degu to what I believe was a stroke.

I try to avoid checking the news whenever I can. I do not even want to check social media because it, too, is a constant reminder.

The Nova Scotia shooting

I grew up in Nova Scotia, and so I am deeply saddened by the loss of life and security for my home.

On the weekend of April 18th, a mass shooter took 22 lives. All the places the gunman went, I know like the back of my hand. They are not far from where I grew up and where my parents still live.

I am still in a paralyzed state of shock.

I knew one of the victims.

I found out that I used to babysit one of the victims as a teenager.

She lived just down the road from my parents. In small rural communities such as this, the bonds between neighbors are stronger, and so I feel as if I’ve lost a family member.

Shared sadness

Shortly after the shooting, the details are clouded as officials continue to investigate. As new information is discovered, my mother attempts to relay what she’s learned over the phone but communicates only tears.

“We just don’t know what to do,” she says trying to find the words through sobs.

I cannot shed any more tears. My eyes have been rubbed raw by many Kleenexes. I stay silent, listening to her.

I feel like a void, a black hole that threatens to consume all joy. My very existence feels surreal, a nihilistic imitation of myself.

Coronavirus nightmares

Heart monitor measuring vital signs. heart rate monitor in hospital theater

I have a recurring nightmare where I’m in the hospital on a ventilator. My parents are trying to convince my doctor not to confiscate it.

The doctor insists. A small child needs this ventilator.

I cannot breathe on my own. Removing it will kill me.

The dream ends with my dad breaking into hysterical tears, exclaiming desperately, “but she’s my little girl!”

I wake up in a haze, wondering if I’m really dead.

Catastrophizing

This dream reflects my real life fears.

I’m haunted by the news of death panels and people with underlying conditions and disabled people having to sign ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ letters.

I worry what would happen if I got sick.

My therapist says this is “catastrophizing” and is not a healthy way to think. She has tried to teach me to look at such thoughts logically, but I’m still in the habit of thinking this way.

I fear catching this “death cough” and having to go to the hospital for treatment.

Prioritization of life

This leads me to wonder about the value of life.

In a capitalist economy, “value” translates to “productivity.”

It is widely believed that people with disabilities and chronic illnesses are less productive than people without these conditions. This is grossly incorrect.

If we are given the correct environments and supports, we are as productive or even more productive than our co-workers.

Hospitals, however, do not consider this.

When a ventilator makes the difference between preserving one life or another, physicians reason that a 17-year-old without any underlying health conditions will have a greater chance of survival than myself, the 43-year-old autistic female with asthma, Crohn’s, Interstitial Cystitis, and endometriosis.

Grace (right) and Ada (left), my pet degus

Grace died.

Grace, my pet degu, passed yesterday afternoon. Her passing was quiet in her nest. I think she must have had a stroke as there was blood in her ear.

I cried as I was burying her in my backyard, in the small garden that I had been using for “rewilding” with wildflowers.

There among the flowers, Grace lays for her final rest. Her soul has made its way to the Summerlands.

Change and anxiety

The degree of change from COVID-19’s impact on basic social rules would be overwhelming enough on its own.

Being constantly reminded of the frailty of life and fearing my own death amplifies this anxiety to new heights.

I also don’t know if I’ll have a job in a month.

My anxiety is unbearable. I’m having more meltdowns and panic attacks than usual, and the hypervigilance from my PTSD is high.

I know I’m not the only one feeling like this.

My anxiety makes it hard to run errands.

Before the pandemic, I had to stay two feet away from other people. Today, it is six feet.

This is impossible to do, though, when you are in Wal-Mart pushing your cart down the aisle. You can socially distance lengthwise but not widthwise.

I think I spent more time apologizing to people for bumping their carts than actually shopping.

My postal station panic attack

Last week, I had a panic attack at the postal station.

I was next in line. I stood very quietly on the footprints until the postal clerk called me.

There is a security guard watching everyone like a tiger casing out the savannah for his next meal. This causes me great anxiety, as I do not want to get in trouble.

I must stay six feet away from the Plexiglass-encased counter to protect the clerk. I stretch out my arms to hand the postal clerk my package, but I lose my balance and fall over.

I sneeze as I try to get up because of how much dust covers the floor.

Everyone in line scatters like I’m about to combust. Everyone is afraid to touch other people now as they could be unknown silent carriers.

No one helps me up.

As I place my package on the counter adjacent to the Plexiglass, the security guard reminds me to stay on the red footprints.

I know that I’m building up to a panic attack. My hands are shaking, and I can feel the horrid helplessness wash over me. Too much anxiety!

I needed to pick up cleaning supplies, but I cannot now.

I need to get out NOW.

I speed walk out the door and then lean against the wall outside.

I try to calm down by watching the chickadees make nests like frat boys, sticking any material they can find into the small cracks in the concrete.

Despite my anxieties, Corona-life hasn’t been all bad.

I am choosing to view being stuck at home as an opportunity to slow down and to appreciate things I am usually too rushed to notice. I don’t want to waste this gift.

I enjoy mindful walks.

Photo by Valeria Ushakova

I take my walks in the ravine every second or third day even though I am allergic to everything outdoors.

I am able to slow down and walk mindfully and notice the sensory stimuli that used to wear me out elsewhere.

I also feel connected to the non-human life around me–living beings that are respectful of your space if you are respectful of theirs, trees that are as old as I am, and plants that are older than the trees.

New life flourishes all around me as spring blossoms.

The Canada Geese — terribly awful honks — have come back to the ravine to terrify all the other waterfowl and songbirds with their brashness.

The ducks are quickly pairing up, and sometimes they walk up to my condo, prowling lazily like people wanting to buy a house.

A female duck is looking for a house of sorts so that she can lay her eggs.

Whenever I walk by a paired-up couple, the male lets out a long, drawn out quack. He is trying to scare me away, but he sounds like he’s been smoking too much weed. I collapse into laughter.

If I get too close to the stream’s edge, I sneeze uncontrollably, and I can barely breathe. It is worth it though to watch the tiny passerines hover glide during dawn to catch their dinner.

Sometimes I take meals outdoors.

If I am eating my breakfast of granola or Shredded Wheat outside, I’ll dump the stuff at the bottom of the bowl on the ground, a silent offering to Ratatoskr, the Norse Squirrel God.

It is important to pay your Squirrel Tax this season so that the Squirrel Tax Auditors do not pay you a visit to demand arrears.

Appreciating nature is how I mourn.

Because I cannot travel due to the pandemic, I mourn the dead along with the rest of the country in lockdown.

As I take my walks, I mourn the now young adult I used to babysit and my other lost Nova Scotian neighbors, and I mourn my beloved Grace.

I know my family and neighbors are mourning back home alongside me.

My mother told me today that grief is harder to process when you are so far removed from other people.

She is right. There is so much involved in processing what happened; I don’t even know where to start.

The beautiful province of my birth is now going to be known for the biggest mass shooting in Canadian history.

This will eclipse it being known for its strong Scottish Gaelic-speaking population, its universities, its wonderful beaches, how close it is to the ocean, and its wine and blueberries. People will likely also forget how many Syrian refugees were settled there during the diaspora of the Syrian Revolution.

I choose to remember Nova Scotia as these former things, and not for the mass shooting. And I will always remember the person I used to babysit — a literal ray of sunshine, a kind and compassionate soul.

I can appreciate death as a part of the cycle of life.

I know that the anxiety I face now is worth it because it is the price I pay to preserve others’ lives.

And I know that the lives already lost serve their place in the cycle of life too.

Interred in my garden, Grace’s body will nourish the soil and allow the wildflowers I plant there to grow.

I continue to feed the squirrels who are convinced I am holding out on them.

I go downstairs to feed my remaining degus, Ada and Martha, before I must go to bed.

Love perseveres

Time is always paused when I am downstairs with the girls, but then I remember Ada has been with me for seven years. She would be ninety as a human.

I pick her up and she cuddles into my chest. This is not because she wants affection but because her body is winding down and she cannot produce enough body heat herself.

“Not long now, Ada,” I say. “Your journey is nearing its end; you will join Grace in the Summerlands soon.”

Ada summons all her remaining strength to lift her head and groom my nose as she warbles. I do not understand what she said, but the more important thing is that I was there to listen.

I put her back carefully into the nest and place more Kleenex around her.

She looks like a frail, old woman.

I sniffle loudly and use my shirt to wipe my nose and eyes.

Laying my mind at ease before I sleep

I go upstairs and try to go to sleep, which never comes easily to me. I usually must listen to a few podcasts before I drop off.

I think about where to inter Ada, right next to Grace. This is perfect.

I think about the care package I am sending my best friend for a combination Easter/Mother’s Day gift — all the items carefully curated and complete with gifts to entertain her two little girls as well.

I hope that Nova Scotians do not have to bear anymore grief, that the world has suffered enough.

My dad always says to “keep on truckin” when I think that things are going horribly bad. I do not know what else to do in this pandemic, so that’s what I’ll do. Keep on truckin’.

3 Comments


  1. Oh Kim,
    So difficult. Burying your tiny little pet where it will feed wildflowers is a good choice.
    Those Nova Scotians killed by a mass murderer, so horrible, so difficult, so unfair, so unnecessary. And you’ll never forget.
    May sleep come easier as the daze pass.
    Time can help you heal these wounds if you let it. Yet it takes time.


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