SIDECAR Essay: Parking Lots Make Lousy Grieving Spots
And maybe we should rethink the roadside memorials
No, no one’s died, thanks for asking. But I just drove from Alberta to Victoria and back and, peppered throughout the razzle dazzle scenery are hundreds of roadside memorials that grieving people have imposed on the landscape.
I view these memorials as equivalent to that drunken “selfie” people regretfully post on Facebook, or like a roadside version of the worst graffiti put onto a CP railcar by a kid with a can of spray paint and zero talent.
When we lose someone we care about, we are given an empty canvass. It’s important to proceed with discretion and thoughtfulness, difficult as that may be.
“At the moment when I’m crazy with grief over my friend Bob’s death I’ll add a measure of humiliation,” those people must have said. “I’ll drive over there with a flimsy cross to which I’ve stapled a teddy bear and some plastic “flowers.” For eternity my non-biodegradable Care Bear marker will remain there covered in gravel, slush, mud and rain. Yes, that’s the most dignified way to celebrate his life.”
I believe that grief is personal, and should be attended to with grace, intention and certainly in private or with only close family and friends. If one day, heaven forbid, I lose a friend in a traffic accident and you hear me announce that I will honour him with a quick visit to Toys ‘r’ Us followed by me slinking under cover of darkness to a roadside ditch to install an illegal monument, I want you to slap me—hard. Like Bogart slaps Lorre in The Maltese Falcon. Extra cred if you say, ”When you’re slapped you’ll take it and like it.”
The people who put these memorials up were wracked by unfathomable pain, I know. But while we don’t have to like death, we can choose to take it with grace. I think our preoccupation with “the healing process” is partly to blame for these memorials. These little piles of roadside plastic make us believe that we are being proactive, asserting our control over this death experience about which fate has so obviously not consulted us.
Alas, grief comes and goes when it chooses. Stephen Colbert, on the death of his mother, talked thoughtfully about “being visited by grief.” Although we have collectively retired that idiom to the attic trunk that holds our grandmother’s wedding gown, it remains instructive and, in a way, liberating. Like an unwanted relative, grief eventually shows up without warning at your door, tips its hat as it walks past you in its muddy boots and sits down on your couch. It lives with you for months, maybe years. It is there as you eat and sleep and bathe and putter around. It will leave only much later, once you have done the reflection necessary to acknowledge and accept it, incorporate it into your life, and stop resisting.
My own family is not immune to making grief-clouded judgments that we later regret. When my father died, my siblings and mom decided that his ashes should be strewn over a parking lot at the local community college. I am not making this up. Apparently, Dad once commented in passing how impressive was a tree that grew alongside the asphalt and yellow painted lines of the parking stalls. Before I could say, “Hey, we’re on Vancouver Island; there must be a more idyllic place for Dad’s remains” the dazed and confused Cosgroves drove up to the college, leapt out of the car and quickly scattered Dad’s dusty remains toward the general direction of the conifer’s lower branches, as well as on the surrounding cement. Someone mumbled, “See ya!” and we climbed back into the car and drove home in embarrassed silence. We were monumentally outmatched and unprepared for his death, and we knew it.
When (from my therapist’s couch) I recall that cringe-worthy family episode, my head always plays it in slow motion, as if my psyche is relishing my discomfort by elongating the moment of embarrassment.
Weeks later, I was determined to create a more dignified moment between me and Dad, and so I returned one Sunday afternoon to the empty parking lot to light a candle and commune privately with his memory. Alas, the only conversation I got was with a college security guard who had observed me via the CCTV and immediately hustled over to confront the guy who looked like he was trying to set a tree on fire. That was my last visit to Dad’s final resting place.
What’s the lesson I learned? With death, as with real estate, it’s all about location, location, location. And with grief, the lesson is like a roadside sign: proceed with caution.