I am gradually realizing that one of the areas of ongoing challenge related to my ABI is the struggle to manage sensory loading in situations that elicit strong emotions. The emotions invariably deal with loss of ability, loss of life, loss or breakdown of relationships, or loss of opportunities.
The emotional loading that comes from experiencing loss is not limited to people I know. The sense of loss frequently extends to reading or hearing about other people who have suffered significant loss, extreme hardship, death or hearing about people who have overcome serious setbacks through the kindness of others.
What I find interesting is that novels that recreate situations of loss have a minimal emotional impact on me. I absorb the experience as an academic exercise. Despite extensive and realistic character development the characters in novels remain fictitious.
Visiting the Canadian Maritimes
Recently I visited the Maritime museum in Halifax. Being a maritime museum there is no shortage of stories recounting shipwrecks – stories of real people who lost their lives in maritime disasters. The shipwrecks invariably left wives and children mourning which often left them in destitute circumstances. The stories were repeated in several places we visited; other locations in Halifax, in Lunenburg, in North Rustico. Visiting this part of Canada there is no shortage of communities willing to share a heartbreak story with visitors.
The Maritime Museum also housed the story and artifacts of the Halifax explosion. At the beginning of the twentieth century this was the largest man-made explosion to date. While the loss associated with shipwrecks is a calculated risk, the Halifax explosion was a result of a series of unfortunate errors between personnel on two ships in the harbour. One of the ships had a full load of ammunition. The human interest stories that form part of this tragic error are even more heart rending.
Another significant story of loss while visiting the Maritimes is the Acadian experience. We viewed a couple of sites with extensive displays and stories of the experience in Grand Pre, NS and in Miscouche, PEI. The Acadian experience was one of significant loss of life in the process of being expelled by the British, separation of family members, and the trauma of being uprooted from a peaceful way of life. The use of print, audio-visual presentations and life-sized models of the experience creates a vivid depiction of the events.
While I managed to pace myself when viewing these historical displays, there was one that proved to be most challenging. The most impressionable experience was our visit to Pier 21. In walking up to the museum of European emigration to Canada I braced myself to keep some emotional distance during the visit. This was the port where my parents landed in 1950. This coincidentally was 25 years to the day that Jane and I got married.
My first impression was the dull green CNR railroad coach orphaned on a section of track to the left of the museum entrance, identical to the one in which my parents travelled. I could picture my parents boarding this coach, newlywed less than a week, minimal command of the English language, less than a hundred dollars in their pocket, riding for two days through December countryside of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario, having said good-bye to friends and relatives with the realization they might never see them again. They had chosen Canada over Australia just weeks before emigrating because the next ship leaving for Australia was scheduled much later than they were willing to wait.
I took a few minutes to compose myself before walking to the Pier 21 ticket booth. I realized I needed to keep some emotional distance if I hoped to complete a tour of the museum. On purchasing my admission pass, the first question almost unhinged me. I was asked whether I had any connection to Pier 21. When I mentioned that my parents had landed here in 1950 she welcomed me as a Pier 21 Alumnus as she placed a gold alumnus sticker on my shirt. How to keep a self-imposed emotional distance with that welcome? I was in tears. This put the experience front and centre. Being labelled as an alumnus meant I lost some of my anonymity.
I couldn’t escape the reality. Being an alumnus of Pier 21 has a direct bearing on many aspects of who I am. This place symbolized growing up in an immigrant household, many years of meager means, a bi-lingual upbringing, English technically being my second language, far from grandparents and a stranger to most of my 45 cousins.
Being a Pier 21 alumnus meant I was raised by parents who had big dreams, who had the will and perseverance to pursue those dreams. Growing up I gradually began to understand that the immigrant ethnic group in which I was raised was not a demographic cross section of those who stayed behind in the ‘old country’. I was raised by parents who made this bold move, much of it for the prospects and wellbeing of their children not yet born.
Taking the guided tour of the building we were shown where my parents and many other emigrants took their first step in this foreign country, the room with wooden benches where they waited for their immigration interview, and had their papers scrutinized before their Canadian status was pronounced legal.
Completing the tour was emotionally tought. Each phase of the tour was a reminder of the magnitude of the decision my parents had made. In the 1950’s emigrating was considered a final goodbye, a goodbye to parents and all other family members.
Having experienced unexpected loss following my acquired brain injury, I’ve come to realize how stories of loss are inevitable. I can’t avoid stories of loss. These are stories of real people whether its museum displays, personal stories retold, radio documentaries aired or biographies published. Most of them stories of loss more significant than mine; refugees displaced, indigenous rights violated, corporate interests trouncing traditional ways of life, flood victims displaced, health care denied and the list goes on.
Loss is a significant part of life. It has also highlighted for me that we don’t control our destiny. We have dreams. We make plans. We pursue our goals. How often have I failed to plan with the humble caveat, DV (Deo Volente) “God willing.” There’s something healthy about bringing a level of humility, to downplay the arrogance of planning.
I have begun to accept the reality of experiencing emotions more deeply. In one sense I welcome it. It compels me reflect more deeply on the twists and turns people experience in their life journey. In turn I hope this deepens my sense of empathy as I see challenges unfold around me.
Loss as a partner of Hope
Experiencing loss is a reminder of how small we are. Many of the stories of loss show the flip side of the story, stories of communities rallying, communities unwilling to give up, communities that continue to have hope. This trip was once again an opportunity to take in the stories that gives a particular region or village their identity. In hearing the stories of loss and heart break one can’t help but notice the resilience and fortitude in the telling.
How can stories be shared if hope is absent?