Monday 15 April 2024

 Photo by Larry Tayler, Melbourne, Australia, March, 2018

Transforming Grief

A Memoir about the Presence of Absence

By Larry Tayler



St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church,

Picton, Ontario

14 April 2024


It is late Autumn, 1951. The scene is the east side of Wellington Cemetery, near the winter vault. It’s a mild, cloudy day, but an earlier cold spell has left the ground frozen. I am five-years old. Three older boys and I are carrying a small white coffin into the vault. I’m holding the back left corner of the coffin, terrified that I will drop it. The coffin contains the body of my cousin, John Paul Shannon, who died three days earlier from cancer. John Paul and I are the same age. I am wearing my Sunday School clothes – black shoes, grey trousers, over-sized blue blazer with gold buttons, white shirt, my favourite red bowtie, and a bulky winter coat, all hand-me-downs, except for the bowtie. I also have a dark blue cap, but I am carrying it in my free hand because my mother told me I should take it off out of respect for the dead, one of the many things I do not understand that day. When we reach the vault, two men in black suits gently take the coffin from our hands and lift it onto a shelf along the side wall. There are no other coffins in the vault. Reverend Poulter, our minister, is also there, but after we hand over the coffin, everything becomes a blur for me. I do recall putting my hat back on, relieved that I hadn’t dropped John Paul’s little body.


I don’t remember when or how my parents told me about John Paul’s death, but I do remember knowing something was up when my mother put out my Sunday School clothes on a weekday and told me to put them on. In the car driving to the Wellington United Church for the funeral, my mother said I would be one of the four boys carrying John Paul’s coffin and that I had to be a very brave little man. I asked her what a coffin was, and she told me. I asked her why I had to be a very brave little man, and she started crying. I stopped asking questions.


The church was filled with adults, many standing. The women were weeping; the men were silent. At that moment, I realized what being a brave little man meant – it meant not crying. So I didn’t. 


I sat at the front of the church with the other three boys. The service seemed long, but finally finished. A man in a black suit slowly pushed the coffin down the aisle while another black-suited man asked the other boys and me to stand and follow the coffin, which we did. Outside, the two men pushed the little coffin into the back of a black station wagon with big windows. You could see the coffin sitting there from the outside. Reverend Poulter then told us to come with him in another black car. I looked over to see if my parents wanted me to go with the minister and my mother waved me along to join him. I had no idea what was happening. It felt like we were in a parade, but there was no marching band, and no one spoke in the car. There was a long row of cars behind us, each with its headlights on. Other cars pulled over while we drove by. After a short drive, we arrived at the cemetery. The black suits opened the doors for us and told us where to stand at the back of the hearse so we could pick up the coffin. When they handed it to us, I was surprised at how light it was. 


John Paul was my good friend. He lived just up the road from us and had a lot of great toys – dump trucks, tin planes and such. I loved playing with them and with him. We rarely played outdoors, however. He was sick a lot and kept getting thinner, but he seemed like a nice little boy, something I remember adults saying about me as well.


Except he died, and I didn’t. 


Throughout that day, I was curiously neutral – I was more observer than participant. Once John Paul’s body was placed on the shelf in the winter vault, I knew that I was expected to simply get back to living my life. But we had not actually buried John Paul. In my five-year-old mind, the ambiguity of John Paul’s being dead but not buried retreated to the recesses of my subconscious, only to resurface in 2022 when I read The Long Field/Wales and The Presence of Absence, Pamela Petro’s outstanding book about Wales and Welsh spirituality. Ms Petro’s use of the phrase “the presence of absence” left me breathless. It still does. It felt like I had been given a key that would unlock ambiguities that had troubled me for decades. Memories of past pains and emotional wounds began surfacing – unbidden. And reading The Long Field began a remarkable journey that led me to Wales last September and to this sacred space today. In all the decades since that funeral in 1951, never once did I cry for my cousin...until I read Ms Petro’s book. For the first time in over seventy years, I wept for my cousin, John Paul Shannon.


I have never written about John Paul’s death before. I cannot claim every detail is exactly as I have stated. The family members and neighbours who shared the experience with me are now dead. I hope my retelling of the story honours the integrity of John Paul and the other people who were at the Wellington Cemetery that day. In retrospect, I realize that this was my first experience of grief. It established a template for how I would deal with grief, which is what I’m exploring in this presentation.


The title of this piece is Transforming Grief: A Memoir about the Presence of Absence. The word “memoir” is important. I am not offering a tool kit for dealing with grief. Instead, I’ll tell stories about my own journeys with grief and some of the things I’ve learned, which is where the word “transforming” comes into play. Transforming grief is an ongoing process that doesn’t lend itself to tidy categories or sequence. I make no claims about the uniqueness of my experience or that my grief is somehow worse than others’. I have lived – and continue to live – a life full of blessings and privilege. I am not trying to ‘outgrieve’ anyone – I’m just trying to understand what has happened in my life. Sorry, but I’m using the “I” word a lot.


I’ll start with that word “grief”. The academic definitions of grief feel dry and impersonal. I prefer going back to grief’s Latin root, “gravis”, meaning heavy and sad. Grief is not the same as mourning. Mourning covers that initial shocked response to death or sudden loss. Grief is the longer-term response, the feeling that can endure for years or decades, that by its very nature is never truly “resolved”, although it can morph, cloak itself, and resurface without apparent logic. And grief isn’t solely the response to death. It covers the spectrum of loss, both actual and anticipated. It has the potential to be a source of renewal and – that word again – transformation.


Unlike my previous presentations at St. Andrew’s, this time I have avoided academic texts and books of theory. Instead, I am grateful for two literary mentors who have guided my thinking. The first is the American author and teacher Pamela Petro, whose book I mentioned earlier. The second is the extraordinary Canadian novelist and poet Anne Michaels. 


I’ll start with Pamela Petro and her book The Long Field: Wales, and the Presence of Absence. I first encountered this book on the CBC Radio program Tapestry in February, 2022. Tapestry’s host, Mary Hynes, interviewed Ms Petro on the release of her book. (Ms Hynes has since retired and the CBC has chosen not to replace her. Tapestry, alas, is no more.) That interview was life-changing for me. The interview and the book detail Ms Petro’s decades-long love affair with Wales, its language, its people, and its spirituality. Even though her home is in the United States, she considers Wales to be her spiritual home, the place where she thrives. And she spoke directly to my heart. I knew that my father’s people had come from Wales 500 years ago. What I hadn’t anticipated was the sudden sense of recognition and understanding that Ms Petro’s words gave to me. She taught me two Welsh words that resonated with me strongly. The first word is cynefin. It originally meant the genetic knowledge that a ewe passes along to her lambs as to where they belong – what part of the Welsh mountainside is theirs, to which they can return when lost. It has also taken on the meaning of that instant feeling of belonging you have for a place where you have never been before. The first time you arrive, you know you’ve come home. Ever since I started exploring Wales and my ancestral connections to that land, I have felt at home, including my explorations of grief. The second Welsh word is hiraeth, a word that is difficult to translate into English. One translation that Ms Petro offers is “the emotion of separation”[1]. It is the source of that most Welsh of concepts, the sense that something is missing. And that absence has a presence. In other words, the presence of absence. 


These two words – cynefin and hiraeth – have been constant companions during my exploration of grief. I will be eternally grateful to Pamela Petro for bringing them – and Wales – into my life.


Next, and far too briefly to do her justice, is Anne Michaels, about whom I could speak for hours. Ms Michaels has written several books of poetry and was Toronto’s poet laureate from 2016 to 2019. However, it is her three novels, Fugitive PiecesThe Winter Vault, and Held, that stick most tenaciously to my soul. If you are a fan of linear plots that move from point A to point Z, with no diversions or elegant time shifts, Ms Michaels’ books likely won’t appeal to you. She plots with exquisite precision, but her trail of crumbs is not always clear on first reading, at least in my experience. Which is why re-reading her novels always rewards me with new gifts and insights. My annual re-reading of Fugitive Pieces still leaves me in tears. Her evocations of grief, loss, joy, and transformation never fail to move me. And reading these novels in the context of “the presence of absence” further deepens their impact for me.


So...with Pamela Petro and Anne Michaels sitting firmly on my shoulder, I’ll continue. 


Once I learned that being silent was the way I was expected to deal with grief in 1951, I spent the next 28 years letting grief accumulate in my body, unexpressed. Both sets of my grandparents died – no tears. John Paul’s father was killed in a plane crash – no tears. Being beaten at school by a group of boys who called me a faggot – no tears. My father lost his business – no tears. My mother began her descent into dementia – no tears. A relationship in Australia never happened because I ran away – no tears. Another relationship ended here in Canada – no tears. Being a closeted gay man who was afraid to lead an open life – no tears. It was only in the autumn of 1979, when I was 33 years old, 28 years after carrying John Paul’s coffin to the winter vault at the Wellington Cemetery, that the walls of my own grief vault were breached. And it happened when my mentor, my department head, my former teacher, and – most importantly - my friend, George Elson, died. Unexpectedly and decades too soon. And I could hold back the tears no longer.


Let me tell you about George Elson. He was a good, honest, decent man who was one of the finest teachers I have ever had. He taught me Grade 12 English at Prince Edward Collegiate Institute (PECI) in Picton in the mid-1960s, introducing me to a wide range of sophisticated books ranging from J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (just before it was banned in the County) to Alan Paton’s Cry The Beloved Country. Mr. Elson took my peers and me seriously as emerging adults and trusted us with challenging literature that shook our world. And I adored him. In the mid-1970s, I returned to PECI as a Drama teacher, with George Elson as my department head. This time, he took me seriously as an emerging teacher and he became my friend. His death absolutely gutted me. And I could not stop crying. It took time to realize that the grief I felt wasn’t just about George Elson – it was also grief for the narrow, closeted version of my life that beckoned when I looked ahead. And my life suddenly started feeling very claustrophobic. I needed to escape. And escape I did. Staying at PECI might have been safer and less risky for me, but the cost was too high. I quit teaching at Christmas, 1979, and embarked on a new life for myself, vowing never to teach again. That decision curled my toes – it still does. It was filled with doubts and apprehensions, but it was absolutely the right decision to make. Because over the next decade, I grew up. Bless George Elson – even in death, even in his absence, his presence mentored me to seek more and to widen my world. I think of that man every day of my life. I said earlier that I had Pamela Petro and Anne Michaels sitting on my shoulder guiding me. Actually, they joined George Elson, who had already been sitting there. For me, this is the transformative power of grief. I like to think the fact that I returned to teaching a decade later as an openly gay man who knew how to cry would have pleased him. So to George Elson, I say, “Thank you, my friend. You changed my life.”


The 1980s were a time of immense growth and change for me. I secured a succession of jobs in the arts, each of which opened up my world in new and challenging ways. More important than the jobs, however, was meeting the man with whom I would share my life for the next 29 years. It was at a Quaker Gathering in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania, just north of Pittsburgh, where I met Spencer. To find the first passionate love of my life in rural Pennsylvania was unexpected enough, but then to discover that he was not only Canadian but that he also lived in Toronto, just two and a half hours away from me in Picton...well, my fate was sealed. Off I moved to the big city – for 30 years. As I got to know Spencer, I realized what a difficult life he had lived. He grew up in an emotionally abusive home in the macho, homophobic mining towns of northern Ontario. A tough combination for a little Queer kid who loved books. He was also the most emotionally literate human being I have ever met. Among the many things he taught me was how to access emotions and to channel tears for healing. With my encouragement and support, Spencer returned to school and graduated as an addictions therapist with degrees in adult education and volunteer management. With Spencer’s encouragement and support, I returned to teaching after a decade away from the classroom. This led to a position teaching Drama and English at a beloved Toronto school, from which I retired 24 years later. At every step of our relationship, emotional honesty, vulnerability, and healing tears were essential parts of how we related to each other, including how we dealt with grief. And there was considerable grief, including the deaths of many friends who died in the AIDS epidemic, many abandoned by their families. It was at this time that I learned the importance of ‘chosen family’.


But our greatest challenge started on May 25, 2011, when Spencer was diagnosed with ALS, aka Lou Gehrig’s disease, a truly awful disease for which there is no cure or effective treatment. I was four years older than Spencer, so we always assumed that I would die first. Suddenly, I had to deal with the reality that he would die first. Four months after his diagnosis, Spencer decided he wanted to die at a time of his own choosing, before ALS destroyed his body. Medical assistance in dying was not yet legal in Canada, but it was legal in Switzerland. He asked me if I would make the arrangements for his death in Switzerland, to which I agreed. Which is why eleven months later, on August 23, 2012, Spencer died in my arms at a clinic near Zurich. It was during the time between Spencer’s decision to end his life and his actual death that I learned about the reality of anticipatory grief – the process you go through when you know a loved one is going to die – and in Spencer’s case, it was knowing the exact date and time that he was going to die. Grieving for someone who has not yet died thoroughly screws up your mind. Only a precious few of our relatives and friends knew about Spencer’s appointment in Zurich, but a much larger number of people knew about his diagnosis. Which is why Spencer made one of the wisest decisions of his life: he wanted a celebration of his life – with him in attendance. As he said, “If people are going to say nice things about me, I want to be there to hear them!” And he asked me to plan it. So there I was, arranging his death and his celebration of life simultaneously. That celebration was truly wonderful and gave people a chance to say good-bye. It was an act of grace on Spencer’s part to provide everyone, including me, with a way to channel their grief.


So, on August 24, 2012, I woke up for the first time as a widower. I didn’t care about transforming my grief, I just wanted my husband back. I keenly felt the absence of his presence...and the presence of his absence, hiraeth in all its messy reality. The next four months were a numbing blur – I still find it hard to recall exactly what happened at that time. But I do recall exactly what happened on Christmas Day, 2012, a day I deliberately spent by myself, much to the dismay of people who were worried about me and who had invited me to join them for Christmas. But I knew I had to face that day on my own. And at the end of that day, I looked in my bathroom mirror and saw a puffy, reddish, tear-stained face and remembered the second-last thing that Spencer said to me in Zurich: “This f’ing disease is killing me, not you. Get on with life!” I looked back into the mirror and said, “All right, Larry, enough. You’re going to start living again.” 


And three months later, the incredible Bill Stearman came bouncing into my life. His arrival was a bestowal, a word the Cambridge Dictionary defines as “the act of giving something as an honour or a gift”[2]. And Bill’s arrival in my life was surely a bestowal. It was Anne Michaels who gave me that word bestowal. She writes in her novel Held that the character Lia, who had suffered grief and sadness, considers her situation. In Michaels’ words, “...unsought, unmistakable – inexplicable – [Lia] was lit from within by a feeling of bestowal: leave her loneliness behind.”[3] When Bill Stearman came into my life, I left my loneliness behind. Pamela Petro’s word cynefin describes it perfectly. I’d never met Bill before, but I surely felt like I had come home.


Initially, we met online. He lived in Prince Edward County. I was in Toronto, but I was born in Prince Edward County. We knew some of the same people. He had almost bought a Picton house I once lived in. We were both teachers – he was retired and I was close to it. His son and family lived around the corner from my little East York bungalow. He actually knew my housebefore he knew me because he had walked by it several times when he was soothing his colicky grandson and noticed the big Canadian flag on my porch. The most significant parallel in our lives, however, was that we had both lost partners to wretched diseases. We both knew that were it not for those diseases, we would still be with our loved ones. By falling in love with each other, we were not turning our backs on those two amazing men who had died too soon. As Bill eloquently said, “Larry, there will always be four of us in the room.” I soon learned what a gift to humanity that Bill Stearman was. And is. To have earned the love of two good men in my life is an incredible blessing.


We moved rather quickly after meeting in person, much to the discomfort of some family members and friends. Within two months, in April, we were engaged. Soon after, we started planning our Thanksgiving wedding, complete with a wedding party featuring Bill’s four grandchildren and my grandnephew, at my school’s chapel. Soon after that, we started planning my retirement after one more year of teaching, plus moving back to the Quinte area to be close to our families. And there’s one more thing: Bill told me that life with him would not be boring. He spoke his truth, as he always does.


But this is where life gets in the way. The following spring, as I was preparing to sell my house and swan into retirement, fate had other ideas. Bill was diagnosed with a serious case of cellulitis in his left leg. It was a nasty infection and he was soon hospitalized. Initially, the specialists thought it was necrotizing fasciitis – flesh-eating disease – and that he might lose part of his leg. With immense relief, we learned it was cellulitis instead. After many rounds of antibiotics, Bill recovered. When discharged from hospital two weeks later, he was still dealing with enormous pain. Unfortunately, his pain killers also numbed that magnificent mind of his. For Bill, that was worse than the pain. And that’s when he discovered quilting. Quilting made his pain bearable. And thus began Bill Stearman’s career as a quilt-maker. And what a career it has become. It is not my place to name as grief what Bill went through with cellulitis. However, what I witnessed in his response to it was certainly transformation. 


What experienced through this episode, however, was grief. I had two simultaneous reactions to Bill’s ordeal. One was shock and sadness that my husband was suffering. The other was less noble. It was, ‘Oh my God, here I go again. Do I have the strength to go through another health crisis with another husband?” I did feel grief – and this grief was for myself because I didn’t know if I had the strength to be there for him. But bless Bill, and bless his healthcare team, and bless his quilts – they conspired together to turn the narrative around. Bill recovered and, in doing so, transformed us both.


But life had another surprise up its sleeve for Bill. 


Christmas, 2020. Bill and I had just moved to Picton with two dogs and a cat. Once COVID restrictions were lifted, we were looking forward to travelling again, especially back to our beloved Tasmania. But on Christmas Eve, Bill had his gall bladder removed. His sharp-eyed surgeon spotted something on Bill’s liver. Further tests revealed that Bill had liver cancer. 


Initial prognosis: Bill had two years to live. My world imploded. The same conflicted responses that tumbled over me during Bill’s cellulitis came tumbling back again: sadness and pain that my husband was suffering, plus the inevitable: ‘Do I have the strength to go through this?’ But once again, the fabulous Bill Stearman bounced back, with the assistance of a new liver donated by his remarkable daughter, Kate, and a gifted transplant team at Toronto General. Bill’s surgeon told him after his transplant that he had at least another 20 years ahead of him, which Bill took very much to heart. The gift of another 20 years plus to live after facing the prospect of less than 2 years re-invigorated Bill and unleashed an enormous wave of creativity, quilt-making, and social activism. Once again, I cannot claim the word ‘grief’ to describe what Bill experienced, but he certainly transformed what was happening to him in spectacular fashion. And because Bill so tenaciously and effectively took charge of his health journey, I wasn’t as directly involved as I had been during his earlier bout with cellulitis or, indeed, with Spencer’s ALS. I realized that during those earlier experiences, part of working through my grief had been hands-on involvement with logistics and treatments. I now needed another way to deal with grief, especially during the ambiguous months before Bill was accepted into the transplant program and Kate’s liver had been declared a perfect match. That’s where Prince Edward County’s Millennium Trail became so essential for me. Our new home is adjacent to the Trail, so I spent hours by myself walking it and weeping it, having decided that Bill had enough going on without also dealing with my tears. Whatever the merits of that decision – and I remain conflicted about it – the plodding, step-at-a-time walking and weeping helped transform my grief and allowed me to be more present and useful for my husband. I was also aware of another transformation: my transformation from the brave, little confused man who didn’t cry in 1951 to the full-sized frightened man who did cry in 2021. I kept re-learning the wisdom of the last line of Anne Michaels’ book, Fugitive Pieces, when the character Ben looks back at his turbulent life and concludes, “I see that I must give what I most need.”[4] That included giving myself what I needed most, which was honest, grieving tears. 


And so, here we are in 2024. Since COVID, several of my family members and friends have died. By last count, three dear friends, three cousins, one fabulous aunt, and my cherished sister all died. There aren’t many leaves left on my family tree. In response to these deaths, I sometimes cried and I sometimes didn’t. Sometimes there were rituals for grieving, and sometimes there weren’t. The complexities of grief and my responses to it still perplex me. I now firmly believe that when people prepare for their deaths, they should also consider the needs of those who wish to gather and remember them afterwards. I fear we are losing collective rituals for public grieving in our society.


Meanwhile, I come back to the wisdom of placing one foot in front of the other – both literal and metaphoric – in transforming grief and transforming myself from a brave little man into a not-so-brave but resilient old man. In the words of the Canadian poet Joy Kogawa in her poem “For David”,


Not as we dreamed or planned

did life fling us

nor by thought’s search

did we find our way

but by walking

were limbs discovered

and the pathway formed.[5]


Thank you.






[1] Pamela Petro, The Long Field, p. 23 (original hardcover edition)

[2] Cambridge Online Dictionary

[3] Michaels, Anne. Held. Penguin Random House McLelland & Stewart (2023), p. 162.

[4] Michaels, Anne. Fugitive Pieces. McLelland & Stewart (1996), p. 294.


[5] Kogawa, Joy. “For David” in From the Lost and Found Department/New and Selected Poems. (McClelland & Stewart), p. .286.