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Calgary Writer Amy Lin Deconstructs Grief in a New Memoir

In a Q&A about 'Here After,' a very young widow talks about the shock of losing her husband at 31, how she coped and the science of grief / BY Rosemary Counter / February 29th, 2024


On Aug. 15, 2020, Amy Lin’s life changed in an instant: Her new 32-year-old husband, Kurtis, collapsed mid-marathon and died instantly of (still unexplained) heart failure. At 31, Lin was left to make sense of what had happened and what was next. She turned to writing, chronicling his death, her grief, their love story and her future in Here After: A Memoir.  

Prepare yourself for a gut-punch of a read. Mostly memoir but part poetry, Here After darts from the pragmatics of hospitals and wills to the philosophy of death and back again. “When the doctor joins us, I am struck by the blue of her surgical mask, which matches her eyes perfectly,” Lin writes. “She tells my father and me everything that has been done: CPR, defibrillation, other actions I lose because the words are rising in my throat, coming out of my mouth, interrupting her. My husband is dead, I say. She nods.” 

As if this wasn’t enough, 10 days later, Lin was diagnosed with a life-threatening blood clot. In short chapters, Here After captures her oscillating emotions in all directions: She’s despondent, defiant, numb, angry, sarcastic, nostalgic, resentful, grateful. But most importantly, she’s honest, simultaneously documenting meeting and marrying Kurtis alongside her new life as a young widow in a world ill-equipped to deal with her situation. 

 

Amy Lin

 

“I find the more I learn of the commonly held beliefs about grief, the more I cannot understand how such grossly reductive and inaccurate ideas about bereavement can exist,” she writes. “How can grief be so universal and yet still so widely misunderstood?”

If you’ve lost someone and feel nobody understands, or if you’re struggling with what to say to someone who’s grieving, Here After is for you. Lin tackles these tough topics in a Zoom call from her home in Calgary.

Rosemary Counter: I’m sorry in advance for saying or asking the wrong things. There’s a lot of that in your book, like when someone comments on your Facebook photo, “Great to see you’re happy again!” 

Amy Lin: People mean well, I know that. There’s a universal impulse to not want to cause more pain, and to help or “fix” the grief. But there isn’t a way to make someone feel better about the fact that their husband is dead, so the most human thing you can do is just validate their grief and hear their experience. People often ask me what is the “right” thing to say, because they don’t know what to say. I usually suggest just stating things that are true. “I can see you’re in a lot of pain” is a fact. 

RC: With that in mind, would you tell me what happened and how it became this book?

AL: Here After is the memoir I wrote in the years following my husband’s sudden death in 2020. He was running a half-marathon when his heart stopped very suddenly. Like most “out of time” deaths – that’s the phrase they use – it remains unexplained. There’s just no reason; it just is. I was plunged into acute grief. I stopped eating and sleeping. I’d fallen off a scooter two weeks before he died and injured my knee. Now the doctors think I had a trauma-induced blood clot, a super-clot episode compounded by an underlying clotting condition that I didn’t know I had. And all of this is happening during the pandemic. So all of a sudden, I was immersed in mortality – societally, personally, medically. My only option was therapy and writing, which is where the book came from. 

RC: How did the pandemic happening at the same time change your experience?

AL: We were in lockdown when Kurtis died – and [in lockdown] for a long time afterward – so I was in this intensive grief experience.  Even though it was isolating, I appreciate that I had this space to grieve. The pandemic was like that for a lot of people, and even if it wasn’t discussed, I think there was some understanding of grief all around. We were all physically separated, we were all mourning things that were lost.

RC: You write about your grandmother, who was also a young widow, but you never discussed it while she was alive. Do you think grief has changed in those two generations?

AL: That was my dad’s mother, who was widowed in her late 40s. They consider “young widows” in their 40s and 50s; there’s no word for what I am. We discussed my grandfather, obviously, but never her experience of grief. There was a “pick up, move on, raise the kids” mentality. I don’t know how much progress we’ve made, to be honest.

 RC: Here After has such an interesting format, and is certainly not a straightforward chronological memoir. 

AL: I’d describe it as condensed, interwoven vignettes. The book came out of my Substack, “At The Bottom of Everything,” where I write in fragments and memories. This reflects grief itself, which biologically affects the brain. Grief physically takes blood away from the processing centre of the brain and moves it to the back of the brain, which deals with survival. The parts of the mind that control planning, judgment, communication and memory literally go dark on a brain scan because the blood’s moved. Your ability to talk, read, pay attention and make decisions is all affected. 

It’s only now, three and a half years after Kurtis died, that I’ve been able to follow a thread in a book again. I wrote the book for people like me. I knew it had to be a book they could pick up and put down and still follow. 

RC: You clearly did a lot of research into the science of grief. 

AL: I learned so much because I had the privilege of being in specialized grief therapy at the Bob Glasgow Grief Centre in Calgary – the only one of its kind in North America. There are 16 provincially funded grief sessions and three months of group therapy. I was taught the science of grief. It was so helpful to know what’s happening with blood flow, processing centres, the physical impact of what you’re experiencing. When you mix up times, for example, that’s not you being flaky or too sad to function, it’s that the processing part of your brain isn’t equipped. Grief is a brain trauma that manifests physically. 

RC: Is there anything else you want readers to know?

AL: We know statistically that most grievers will lose their support base at about a year, if not before, because their enduring state of sadness causes people to disconnect. They can’t handle how sad you are, you exhaust them, you’re not getting any better. People report that year two is so much worse than year one because the support you had from friends and family goes away. Life goes on for those people but not for the griever.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.

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