I’ve never been good at sadness. Because of the way I grew up, displaced, dislocated and abused, I wore sadness like a bruise.
For me the emotion brings with it tides of recollections that still tend to hurt, and it kindles the embers of the posttrauma that still lives in me from those years. And so I’m learning to live for joy.
When I see sadness on the faces of those I love or care for it disturbs me. The effect of bearing wounds across decades is a vital empathy for other people’s woes, other people’s hurts. It’s a strange grace but one I’m powerfully grateful for.
The mother of my friends was found frozen to death outside her seniors’ care home the day after Christmas. She was 84 years old and had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for the last 14 years. Her name was Juliette (Julie) Bombardier and she was a great-grandmother, grandmother, wife, friend, confidante and valued member of her community.
Somehow Julie managed to get out doors that were ostensibly locked. In the early morning hours, dressed in a nightgown, she expired in a snowdrift, a mere 10 metres from the door. She died there, alone and unprotected. Nearly three hours after the search for her was initiated, my friends were there when she was discovered.
The sadness I saw stricken on their faces was hard to face. This is a family that cares for each other deeply. Julie raised her kids to be gentle, generous, kind, loving and forgiving. Their mother’s legacy is an open-heartedness that’s missing a lot these days and they let their emotions roll openly. My heart ached for them.
But the real tragedy in Julie’s death is not the loss itself. It’s the refusal of the company that runs the Pine Grove centre to take responsibility, to be honest.
Instead of saying, ‘There was a failure in our system that resulted in a death and we’re taking immediate steps to prevent it happening again’ and honouring the loss of Juliette Bombardier, they rely on the standard ‘We’re conducting our own internal investigation.’ There doesn’t need to be an investigation. The system failed. Period.
See, my people say that there is no right or wrong in things. There is only honour or dishonour. The obfuscation and shrugging off of direct responsibility is a dishonouring of Julie’s death and a dishonouring of her family’s grief. That’s the straight truth of it. You don’t have to be a First Nation person to understand that—you just need to have loved somebody.
They tell us that all the doors were locked until staff had finished their search of the building. What they are asking all of us to believe is that an 84-year-old dementia patient, often unable to recognize her own loved ones, managed to negotiate her way through a secure facility, passed trained supervisory staff, out a locked door and then somehow managed to lock it behind herself again and froze to death.
To suggest we believe that is a dishonouring of everyone.
There are a lot of seniors in care facilities like Pine Grove all across the country. They are not just Alzheimer’s patients, stroke victims, addled, debilitated, frail, helpless or needy. They’re somebody’s grandmother, somebody’s mother and somebody’s friend. They are not numbers in a ledger, not a part of somebody’s financial bottom line—they are a part of our collective history and they are valuable.
We’re all going to be seniors some day. The truth is that the demographic of the country shows that there are soon going to be a whole lot more of us entering that territory. When we become afflicted or just plain old, we’re going to want to know that care facilities are just that—caring.
Sure, there are those who say that we warehouse our old ones and a tragic loss is somehow our fault. It’s not. The ones who think that way have never borne the incredible burden of tending to the needs of someone 24 hours a day. They’ve never felt the pain of watching a loved one decline despite all your best efforts.
So we extend trust to those who are trained to bear that trust and we give them our walking, talking, cultural and familial encyclopedias to watch over and care for. When they don’t, it’s their fault—and they need to own that.
Juliette Bombardier did not deserve to die alone. No one does. Instead, she deserved care, nurturing, comfort and security. She deserved to be honoured and when they allowed her to die in a snowdrift, without taking immediate responsibility for that tragedy they continue to dishonor her.
The weight of woe can recede like a glacier. Sometimes you bear it a long time. Honouring a loss makes it easier for everyone.
Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels and his new novel, Ragged Company, arrives in August from Doubleday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org