This summer, Dr. Joe MacInnis would rise before dawn, slide into his kayak on Lake Simcoe and paddle out to greet the morning. For Dr. Joe, it’s exhilarating to watch the sun slowly emerge from a body of water and be grateful for another day as a sentient being, a thinking animal on this singular and beautiful planet.

Dr. Joe has spent most of his years on or under the water.  He was the first scientist to dive under the North Pole; among the first to dive to the wreck of the RMS Titanic; medical advisor on James Cameron’s seven-mile dive into the Mariana trench; and last year he did the same for Victor Vescovo’s seven-mile descent into the Tonga Trench in the South Pacific.

Dr. Joe’s life has been awash in family, science, adventure and the meaning of it all. Today he’s writing a new book on life’s essential truths and is headed to the Antarctic in January on a Lindblad National Geographic Expedition. But at 83, he knows his winter is in its final days.

One of his major concerns is: “How do I exit gracefully with as little emotional impact on my wife, our kids and grandkids?”

But just as many of us want to ensure our kids are financially secure after we die, Joe went a step further, diving where most of us wouldn’t dare: into the dark waters of grief that will greet his family upon his death.

So he wrote a visual essay Grief 101. It’s just five pages long, but contains a world of much-needed wisdom, especially today. He writes: “Every adult experiences many significant losses in a lifetime. The COVID pandemic is increasing those losses. Grief 101 is an introduction to loss, grief and recovery.”

For Dr. Joe, grief doesn’t just happen after death. It happens repeatedly throughout our lives. We get divorced. Go broke. Have a miscarriage. Our dog dies. Our dreams die. We fail to graduate, not because of anything we did, but because of COVID.

The pandemic has brought grief out of the shadows for all of us. I think it’s because until COVID, so many of us have been able to control big swaths of our future, especially here in Canada. After all, ever since the Second World War, billions of us have been spared death and calamity on an industrial scale. So we’re all grieving for a way of thinking about life that’s been suddenly yanked from us. As Scott Berinato wrote in the Harvard Business Review in the very early days of COVID: “That discomfort you’re feeling is grief.”

He talks about an idea central to Dr. Joe’s quick course on grief. We all know the five stages of death — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

But Elizabeth Kubler-Ross had a collaborator, David Kessler, who’s now the world’s expert on grief, and who says there’s a sixth step when it comes to grief – and that is finding meaning. In other words, all those tears do actually water a new kind of love and acceptance. Especially these days when, in Dr. Joe’s words: “COVID grief exacerbates other griefs.”

One reason he paddles his kayak to greet the dawn is his lifelong search for beauty and his belief that life is a pilgrimage.  “You are a sailor,” he writes in Grief 101, “Landless and disconnected. You must build your own ship, make your own chart, recalibrate your compass.”

Like all of us, Dr. Joe has lost family and friends to illness and accidents.

At a time when we’re meant to be having deeper, different conversations with each other, he hopes that Grief 101 may spark that rarest and most vital coming together, the one where you say: “Helping each other with death is one of the greatest gifts we can exchange.”

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6 thoughts on “The Plague-Ground – LOOKING FOR A DIFFERENT COURSE? TRY GRIEF 101.”

  1. Thank you, Bob. I am going straight to Dr. Joe’s essay now. It’s like the hand of God steering my ‘ship’, and that is a comfort in itself. Be well and stay brave. It is your path to start the pilgrimage for many.

  2. Thank you, Bob for this and all the other pieces you have written during this amazing time. Even though I don’t respond all the time I want you to know that I look forward to each “chapter”, whenever it appears in my inbox. Keep them coming!

  3. This is timely treatment of a vital subject, Bob. But I wish you hadn’t got lured into repeating the description of David Kessler — or anyone else, for that matter — as “the world’s expert” on grief. How on earth does one rate such things? Even Kübler-Ross might need to be taken with several grains of salt. As Ron Rosenbaum put it in a 2004 piece for Slate magazine , “while there is no doubt Kübler-Ross made an important contribution to the treatment of dying patients (hospice care, etc.) in an age of increasingly mechanized medicine (and medical doctors), she also contributed to a kind of cult-like reverence for the allegedly superior truth-telling wisdom of the dying (and later the dead as well).” As Stephen Jenkinson, formerly head of a palliative care program at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital, and arguably expert if somewhat acerbic in this realm, put it to me, “Receiving a terminal diagnosis does not make you into a spiritual genius.” Here, from the 2008 NFB documentary I did with him, is a taste of how the realizations that can arise from grief at the end of our lives might also apply to what we’re sensing in the present, larger crisis:

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