When You Die Project
Podcast with Jill Chandler
Kelley Edwards: This is the When You Die podcast. If it has to do with death and dying, we’re talking about it. I’m your host today, Kelley Edwards, and I’m speaking with Jill Chandler. Jill has had many roles in her lifetime: musician, performer, wife, mother, and in 2013, Jill Chandler became a widow when her husband, Donald, died from a brain tumour.
Jill talks to us today from her home in Prince Edward Island which is on the East Coast of Canada. Hi, Jill.
Jill Chandler: Hi, Kelley. How are you?
KE: I’m good. And you are something else, which I’m just going to just put out there right now for full disclosure: you are also a friend of mine. This is not an impartial interview. [JC laughs] Just so that we let listeners know that this could be an emotional journey for both of us, so we’re just going to see what happens.
So, Jill, I want to talk about your life as Jill Chandler before Donald. Let’s talk about the things that you did that you loved.
JC: I loved music and it was a big part of my identity. I was very social. [Chuckles] Perhaps too social. I performed in the dinner theatre. I lived in Halifax and was just trying to make a go of things. I was starting to write songs and perform them locally, and starting to believe that I, perhaps, could have a path in that industry.
KE: And then you met Donald.
JC: And then I met Donald. [Laughs]
KE: What was it about Donald that made you think, “This is the guy.”?
JC: Well, he was incredibly handsome. He had a kind of, I won’t say aloofness, but there was something about him that just… he just seemed unique. Oddly enough, I met him when he was a doorman, or a bouncer, at The Marquee, a local bar in Hell’s Kitchen. I would be there as a patron, and we would interact. He had this shyness and sweetness about him. We just instantly became the very best of friends.
KE: And then… husband and wife!
JC: And then, yes! Eventually husband and wife, but the friendship, the best friend part, was the biggest connector. There were moments, times, throughout our relationship when we took little pauses, but we could never stay away from one another, because it was those best friend qualities. I just couldn’t be without my best friend, and he felt the same.
His mom reminds me of a time when we broke up. He was sad and just said, “Mom, I can’t. I can’t be without her. She’s my best friend.”
KE: Awww. Then you started to grow a family! So, you had three children.
JC: Yes, three children: Rowan and Cooper and Darcy.
KE: And then everything changed because you had a vision of your life and where your family was headed, and then it completely got dismantled in a second.
JC: It completely got dismantled. In a matter of, well, I remember the very second that it got dismantled. Looking back, there were probably warning signs that it was about to be dismantled, but I was a mother to three young children and didn’t necessarily see those signs from the get-go.
Donald was a photographer for the Department of Natural Defence. As such, he travelled to remote areas on ships and whatnot to document scientific research. He had been away for four weeks, and he was somewhere on a boat off the coast of Florida. I was at home with the three kids.
Conversations and communication were limited, so that it wasn’t just texting, and I didn’t have continual communication with him. We had a couple of conversations that were somewhat alarming. I didn’t go to any place where I thought he had health concerns or anything. They were just weird exchanges.
When he came home from his trip with work, he was so sick and tired that he could hardly keep his eyes open. I thought, initially, “This trip has done him in. He’s been on a boat for four weeks, he’s a mess.”
A day or two passed and I thought okay, something’s wrong. We went to the ER, and they did some tests. They didn’t really see any issues, so they sent us back home. The doctor at the ER had said, “If anything changes, just bring him back in.” It was only a matter of a couple of days later when he fell in the shower. I was alarmed and went to try to assist him. He said something to me that didn’t make any sense. My instant thought was, is he having a stroke? Is something like that happening?
We drove back to the ER and he was instantly sick to his stomach and not making sense. They took us in. It was probably around 11 o’clock at night. I don’t… my memory is foggy from those days.
They took him for a CT scan, and a doctor came back and motioned to me to follow him, and basically sat me down in a room and said that Donald’s CT scan had found multiple, like, 40, tumours in his brain.
JC: And he didn’t even call it cancer. He said, “White spots.” I remember staring at him, and I felt the bottom, the ground, drop away from me. I was just there by myself. There was a doctor and a nurse in the room. It was just like I felt the life draining from me.
KE: What was Donald’s reaction?
JC: He was so ill at that time that he wasn’t even awake. He was in his own room in the ER, and they were administering some kind of steroid to reduce swelling in his brain. He pretty much slept for the whole night. They had told me the news. I was there in the hospital room with him by myself. I remember feeling so cold and not being able to sleep and knowing that I had to tell him the next morning and not knowing if he would be able to understand what is happening.
KE: I know that when things change that quickly, everything becomes muddy.
KE: It’s wading through mud; it’s seeing through mud. Is that the experience that you had?
JC: Yes. It was very muddy because of the nature of his diagnosis and the fact that he had left weeks ago as a seemingly healthy man. And now I didn’t even know if he was comprehending things that we were speaking about. I think I mentioned to you the other day, I felt it was so cruel because it was muddy, and I was quickly forced to become his advocate and his caregiver. And I also felt very, very uncertain about the future, what the diagnosis meant, my identity, everything.
KE: Did you know then that it was going to be a terminal illness?
JC: I absolutely knew it would be a terminal illness, but I had no idea at how rapid the deterioration would be.
He got his diagnosis on May 22nd, and he died on July 9th. It was about a six-week span, and that span included a surgery on his brain. In actuality, Kelley, his tumours were a result of metastasized melanoma. He had melanoma that went undiagnosed that had moved to his brain.
They did surgery to biopsy, and that sort of thing, on his brain. He spent days in the hospital. We went through two weeks of whole-head radiation during that period. About three weeks of those six weeks were in the hospital, and then, yeah, time at home and watching him kind of …. It impacted everything from his memory to his…. He had nerve pain in his arms, in his legs. He lost his taste buds. Just… yeah.
I didn’t know. I mean, I was young. I had no idea. I didn’t know. I was in disbelief or denial or whatever. It was a first for me. So, I didn’t know what to expect.
KE: It’s such a fast …. That’s a fast time to get your head around everything.
JC: It’s a fast time. I know, I’m pretty certain, that that whole time I would have been in, I wasn’t diagnosed, I’d have to say I was in shock, and that shock continued to stay with me for quite a period after he died.
KE: On top of everything else you were the caregiver to your best friend, but then you couldn’t just collapse into that because you have three small kids.
JC: I have three small kids and they need me, too. So, I was torn between time spent with them, or whether to have my family come, or to take the kids back over to P.E.I. I wanted the flexibility to spend time at the hospital and to know what time I had to be back, all that sort of thing. The kindness of others, which was fantastic, but there were multiple people coming into our home or dropping off meals. There were layers and layers of management. Calls coming from oncology doctors that I’d never spoken to, nurses telling me how to talk to the kids about grief. It was just… it was very, very overwhelming.
KE: That’s a lot coming at you.
JC: It was a lot!
KE: Yeah. I mean, the kids were, the boys were five and four.
JC: Yup. Five. Well, Cooper turned four just a month or two after Donald died. They would have been five, three (almost four), and one (almost two) at the time.
KE: How did they process it?
JC: They’re still processing it. I had some fantastic friends and support and family at the time. I think that through all of it, they knew how loved they were. Of course, adults provided them with distractions and outings and suckers and everything that people could do to try to take some of the painful memories away. I think, initially, it would seem like they did okay because they were kept moving and kept busy, but a very wise counselor told me, “Jill, they’re going to experience grief as they reach different developmental milestones.”
Here it is, eight years after Donald died, and my daughter, Darcy, this past Sunday was Father’s Day, and she had a huge meltdown. It was very unexpected, but she cried, “Because it’s Father’s Day and I don’t have a dad and I never will!” It was just, like, “Oh my God!” We enter into these moments that are sometimes predictable. That one on that day, for whatever reason, wasn’t, because we’ve gone through Father’s Days year after year. But yeah. We never quite know what’s coming. I’d say we continue to process grief.
KE: That’s interesting with Darcy because she really wouldn’t have a memory of him.
JC: She would not have a memory of him. Nope. I try my best to keep memories alive. It’s not just memories, I try to explain to them who their dad was and what he was about or what he liked or what he didn’t. Even things about his humour. I feel like it’s my job to continue to help them have that connection to him.
KE: What do you see in the kids of Donald, when you look at them?
JC: Physically, I see his face. I see his mannerisms, his facial expressions, all the time, which, initially, was very painful to me. I didn’t see it as a gift, initially. It was just that there are certain things that catch me in my stomach. I can feel …. I don’t know if it’s anxiety or, I don’t know. Initially, it was off-putting, but now I see that it’s a gift.
They have his humour; they have his stubbornness. My oldest son, Rowan, I would say has his, well, sometimes he thinks the rules don’t apply to him which was also another Donald-ism, his love of pickles, sports, the Montreal Canadiens. There are lots of things, and lots of times, as I’ve said to you before there’re things that they do that they didn’t learn that are so like Donald, that are EXACTLY like Donald, that it’s almost amazing to see that it’s in their genes, that it wasn’t a learned behaviour.
KE: It might be a little bit learned if you see it in the older kids, but with your youngest, so crazy.
Can you tell me the story about when you were taking Darcy out of the bathtub?
JC: I can.
KE: I find that a wonderful story.
JC: Well, this was after Donald died. Sometimes time periods are a little bit grey for me. Years can kind of flow into one, so I don’t know exactly how old Darcy was. I’m gonna guess she was about three, so maybe it was within a year after Donald died. We were in our house here on the Island, and she was in the tub, and I had taken her out of the bathtub and wrapped her in a towel.
I was down on my knees and I kind of hugged her into me, drying her off, and she whispered in my ear, “Daddy’s here.” It was… I can’t explain the feeling I first felt. It was almost terrifying for a second because this was, like, what? What? I kind of held her back away from me and looked in her face again, and then she just said it so peacefully and calmly again. “Daddy’s here.” And I said, “He is.” It was incredible to just experience that with her.
I called my best friend Denise who’s a very spiritual person and she kind of talked me down. Not that I was on a ledge, but I’ve gone through a lot of unique moments with my kids on my own. I reach out to my support circle often, so she just allowed me to see the beauty that was that moment.
KE: But what a shock for it to come from that source.
JC: I know!
KE: Let’s go back to Donald in his final days. You were a young couple. You were in your 30’s, so when I say the word “widow,” it sounds strange to me to apply it to a young person. I know it happens all the time, but it seems that should be a woman who’s been married for 40 or 50 years and had a lifetime of marriage and a partnership.
When you look at this timeframe and you think about all that you’ve gone through, is it hard for you to, even now, think of Before Donald and After Donald? Is it hard for you to even imagine your life at that time now that you’ve moved away from it?
JC: Oh, absolutely. I still have moments now, eight years later, where a memory or a thought, an experience, comes back to me that I’ve never acknowledged since then. Such as, “Oh my God, how did I get through that?” Or moments or interactions with people. And then there are other things that are deeply ingrained in my brain that I wish I didn’t have there, that I could somehow dump and get rid of.
I don’t know how we did it in certain times. It was just, here we go. When I look back and I think about it, I don’t have any real insight into this. But the way the information came out from the doctors, I almost felt like they were just giving me what I could handle in little bits: “Here it comes, here’s a little bit more, here’s a little bit more.” Or else, I might have just exploded. Maybe.
KE: Yeah, it’s a lot. In Donald’s final days, you were with him? When he died?
JC: Actually, I wasn’t with Donald when he died which is a big… well, if I’m gonna be totally forthcoming, it’s something I went to counseling over.
KE: I didn’t realize this all this time. I always thought that you were with him.
JC: No, I wasn’t with him. I was with him in all the moments, but I wasn’t with him in that very moment. I guess when I look back, I was … there were many moments I just didn’t see what was coming. I didn’t know it was the end. Even when he had a seizure at home. I didn’t even know; do I call 911? Is everything going to be okay in a sec? I didn’t know how to respond. Even in that ambulance to the hospital, I still wasn’t thinking, “Donald’s gonna die.” I was thinking, “This is a blip. This is a medicine.” I still didn’t see that coming.
Then we spent a couple days in the hospital. I still didn’t know it was coming. Then they came and talked to me and said, “We’re going to move Donald to a palliative unit,” or whatever. I think, probably, it was within a day of that. In my mind, palliative was a place that people went not for hours, you know? I still wasn’t there. He had had a day where he was very alert and funny and up and out of his bed, and then he had settled that evening and I was with him. I gave him a kiss on the cheek, and it was emotional just because I was leaving him.
I compare it to maybe like a mothering feeling, like you don’t want to leave. Yeah. That was the moment. I knew I didn’t want to leave him, but I never wanted to leave him. It wasn’t until my phone rang at about two or three in the morning and it was Donald’s brother, Alan, who had spent the night there, to call and tell me what had happened.
KE: And how angry were you?
JC: Initially, anger was the feeling I had just because I felt like it took away some of my peace. I just would have wanted to have been there. I supported Donald in all the moments, and I felt that I had let him down in not knowing that I was even letting him down. I lived with that for a while. I think as I look back now, I love Alan. He was trying to protect me and trying to take care of me. His intentions were good. I let go of the feelings but, yeah. I had a wide range of emotions at that time.
KE: Of course. And then we hear about those stages of grief, but it’s not necessarily in any particular order.
JC: No. No, it’s all muddy. I mean, I read the stuff and whatever, but I don’t know that it’s like that. I don’t know that people really move through things like that. I think, maybe, there’s an advancement and then there are two steps back. Maybe it doesn’t take them quite as long to get back to where they were, but then there’s another, like, it’s back, forth, back, forth. To this day, if somebody just met me now, I think they might not even know what I had gone through. They might not know how significant that was to me. That being said, I can still experience something that can be pulling a trigger and make me feel like I’m dead in the centre of that again.
KE: So, everything changes. The rug is pulled out. Suddenly you’re looking to relocate, I guess is the only way I can put it. You had a life in Halifax, Nova Scotia. You had friends and some relatives, but that’s not where you could stay.
JC: No, it wasn’t where I could stay. I needed my parents. [Laughter] I needed the familiarity of home. I needed… I just… I don’t even know if I knew what I needed, I just knew I couldn’t be there. It had been my home. I had lived there for 17 or 18 years, but it no longer felt like my home. Donald was my home.
KE: So, Jill, one of the important things in dealing with loss is knowing when, and that, you have to ask for help. So many people don’t realize that.
JC: Yes. [Laughs] I would have been one of those people. I wasn’t comfortable ever in my life asking for help or accepting help. When I think back, I don’t know if I was able to clearly ask for help or if my close circle just knew I needed help and were helping me put one foot in front of another. I did get a lot of help. I got a lot of support. That kept me going.
I think, also, I got help that maybe sometimes overwhelmed me. As that process went on, maybe I needed, or, I learned, more specifically, how to ask for the help I needed, but it wasn’t instant. It wasn’t learned behaviour. It was realizing, “Oh, that actually caused me more stress than the help it provided. Maybe next time I’ll ask if they can do this,” sort of thing. So, yeah. It was a big eye opener.
KE: Is there anything within that that you have learned now? That if someone was newly going into this, that you could say to the person, “This is going to be important to you.” Or is it just that everything is so different and random?
JC: I think that there are commonalities, but I think we all process things differently. I think somebody who may be a mom to small children would have different needs and appreciate different supports than somebody who’s 80-years-old might. The needs are varied, but I think that we could assume that people’s basic needs may need taking care of: ensuring they have food when they perhaps are not in a state of mind to do that, that their fridge has some options in it. That basic things around their house or yard might be taken care of, that they’re able to have some down time or just some moments of relaxation. I think it is an individual thing.
I remember speaking with a lady. It was after Donald died and she said to me, and I’m not even religious, but she said, “Can I pray for you?” And I said, “Yeah, okay. Yeah, you can pray for me and the kids.” Then she looked me right in the eyes and she said, “What would you like me to pray on?” I was just staring at her because no one had ever asked me that before, but I thought, what a unique question and how powerful it was that she was gonna spend time thinking about us and asking me specifically, what is it that I can pray on? So, yeah. Just things like that.
There’re these moments that pop in my head. Like, that was profound that that person did that, or this person helped. I remember this friend sending pizza from the Cayman Islands to me and my kids on Canada Day. Another woman sent me a huge basketful of school snacks for the kids. There are just these things that were, like, “Oh my God!” It was just the stuff, the details, and the people’s kindness and care were just moving forward to take the decisions away from me, or whatever it might be. The mindless stuff. It was so appreciated.
KE: What did people not do? You probably added a few things.
JC: [Sighs] Oh my goodness. I think we have to take the cues from the person or the people who are grieving. Somebody might be a really social person and maybe not want to spend any time on their own. They really value the company of someone, where someone else might just need to sleep and get showered and be by themselves. I think there is that stuff.
One thing that is a big eye opener for me is that I struggled for a long time after Donald died. I think that we often make the mistake of assuming that someone is okay, that the grief and service and few weeks have passed or whatever, and they seem to be doing alright. I think that we should not make those assumptions. I would be forced to do certain routines like go to the grocery store and get food, and people would look at me. I think even if I was just standing upright and had taken time to put lipstick on, people would just assume that I was okay.
Or “I don’t know how you do it, I don’t know how you’re doing it!” That’s another thing. Don’t say that to people! They don’t know how they’re doing it either! They don’t have any explanation, and most of the time they say they’re doing it because they must, or maybe they’re doing it and not even remembering they’re doing it. Those sorts of things.
KE: That’s a good point to make. We’ve talked about this before where people say a lot because we don’t know what else to say. Such as “Oh my God, you are so brave!” Did you feel brave?
JC: No, I didn’t feel brave. Brave would have been like this: you have two scenarios. One, you can go through this way, or, two, you can go through this way. I picked the hardest one and thought, put me on that! I’m gonna face that! I didn’t have any choice. There was no choice. I never looked back and thought I had a lot of anger or anything, and I still don’t think I did, but I definitely had a feeling like I didn’t get to choose. That life became about reacting.
In moments, still to this day, where I feel like I’m in those situations, it makes me uncomfortable because I feel no, no I’m not doing this. I want to choose. So, no, I wasn’t brave. Maybe I put on a brave face. For my kids I wanted to be perceived as maybe brave or knowing what I was doing for them, but no. I wasn’t brave. I didn’t do anything heroic or anything that I think most people wouldn’t do.
And people would say, “Oh my God, if I was you, I wouldn’t have even been able to get out of bed.” Finally, I had the courage to say to somebody, “I wake up in my bed, and for 30 seconds I look out the window and feel peaceful. And then I remember what the reality of my life actually is, and I can feel the heaviness from the top of my head to my toes as it comes over me. But then I hear a kid crying and I have no choice but to get up.” So, it was never an option. I didn’t feel it was an option.
KE: Yeah, because you don’t have that choice. You can’t stay and put the covers over your head when you have to feed children.
JC: No. I’m grateful for them for a million reasons, but the forced routine and caring for them was a big part of my healing, or just functioning. I’ll say functioning. Healing took a long time.
KE: When you look back, and it’s been eight years, and, as you said, it’s still a process and will always be so, when you look back at that road behind you, did you ever think you would be here right now?
JC: No. I did not think I would be here. In the early days I had a hard time. Kelley, I couldn’t even make a plan for three days out. I didn’t know. I mean, I wasn’t thinking my life was going to be over, but I couldn’t dream. I couldn’t think, I’m gonna do that. I couldn’t commit to, “Oh, do you want to do a trip?” Everything made me anxious. I never thought that I’d be here.
I think I had mentioned this to you when we moved into our house on Greensview Dr. The boys were getting on the bus the first day of school. I was holding Darcy in my arms, and one of my new neighbours, she was very kind and sweet, but she basically said, “You know, won’t be long before she’s getting on the bus.” Normally, for a person that wasn’t grieving, there would have been a response that just meant, “I know.” But that statement just hung on my shoulders. In that moment, I couldn’t have possibly imagined that we would ever make it to the day that Darcy was old enough to start school. I could hardly focus on what was coming at the end of the week. I had no vision that you’re gonna go on to do this and you’ll do this, and your kids are going to be in Jr. High. I had no vision of that at all.
KE: Is it a gradual thing, or do you ever have a pinpointed moment where you can say, “Wow, I’m coming through this,”?
JC: I think that I had those moments throughout the journey because I think it is a huge process. I think I showed, or I was aware of, advancements I had made throughout the process. At first, it’s ugly and it’s messy. I remember crying on the phone with the power company when they asked, “Is there anybody else’s name on the bill?” That day it hit me that the answer was, “No.” In the early days, I was a disaster. Then I started to feel like, “Okay, okay,” and maybe I started to take better care of myself. Or I realized the benefits of a walk, whatever it might be. There were stages along the way, but every stage that I got to made me reflect, “I thought I’d come so far then, but now I’m here,” and so on and so forth. I still do that.
KE: When we go through grief, there comes the step of reclaiming joy.
KE: I think there’re so many things associated that come with that, too. There’s the guilt for feeling joy. Perhaps that’s what they call survivor’s guilt. Did you have any of that?
JC: I don’t know if I had survivor’s guilt. It took me a long time to experience joy, but at a point I felt very certain in the fact that Donald would not want me to live a life this way because this is my only life. If anything, I should learn, we should all learn, he died too young. It was so unfair. There was no stopping that. Not knowing when my end is coming, how could I continue to live in the grey, in the dark? I had to find it for me and for my kids.
KE: Is it safe for me to say that before Donald, your first love was music?
JC: [Laughs] I would say music was a big love. There was one other before Donald. He was actually a musician. [JC and KE laugh] Oh, those musicians. [Laughter continues] I’m teasing, I’m teasing. It was a guy that I fell in love with during dinner theatre days, way, way, way back, but Donald was my real, true love.
KE: Did you ever think you’d go back to singing?
JC: No, I did not really think I’d go back to singing. Once I started to become a mother, mothering and parenting and all that sort-of stuff, and the responsibilities of home ownership, I just started to chart a different path, way back. But I will tell you this: on a drive, we were almost coming to the McKay Bridge, and I was taking Donald to one of his radiation sessions. We had stopped at Tim Horton’s, and he was super confused because they didn’t have pancakes at Tim Horton’s. I just said, “Donald, they don’t have pancakes here. You can get a muffin or whatever.” Most of our drive didn’t make sense.
As we were about to get on the bridge, I said, “I really am missing singing. Maybe I’ll get back to it.” In this moment of total clarity, he looked at me and just said, “It’s never too late.” Those words stayed with me because when I finally decided to pick my guitar up again and start singing, I knew that he was right, and I knew that I would do it for him.
KE: You’ve been writing songs and that’s been very therapeutic.
JC: Yes. I wrote. I started to enjoy the company of my guitar again after a lot of years, probably because in those early times after he died, I was at home with the kids by myself. They’d go to bed and the guitar was a great outlet for me. At a point, I started to be able to sing or speak or write the words that I, perhaps, wasn’t brave enough to say in my everyday life. The more I wrote, the more I healed, I think. The more I was willing to share my music with people, the more I felt genuine connections with others, because perhaps they could relate. I think that music is a great language, a connector for people.
When I started to post videos on Facebook, I had people reach out. Strangers reach out from different parts of the world just to say they experienced this, or their husband went through something similar, whatever it might be. Grief, as painful as it can be, if we are willing to be raw and honest about what we’re going through, I just wish more people would do it. I think grief can be so isolating.
There are so many different things that people endure through life, and we don’t talk about it, we don’t share what’s really going on, and we do become more and more isolated. I don’t think grief needs to be that way. I don’t think anything should be that way. I think that we should just know that this is not your fault, or this is not unique to you, and take those connections and those joys. Maybe we’d become healthier people faster.
KE: I guess, then, you’re a very good advocate for finding, for reclaiming, joy, finding something that you love to do.
JC: Absolutely. Life, I mean, we hear it all the time, life’s too short. I go through it, especially after this pandemic. Oh, my goodness. So many joyless days for so many of us, I think, and that feeling of isolation. Life is not meant for that stuff. I fall victim to it, too, still, knowing and living what I’ve gone through. It becomes mundane or kind of blah, or there are grumpy days or angry days or whatever. We must find the joy. We owe it to ourselves.
KE: Would you be up for sharing a song with us?
JC: Yes. I will share a song with you. I will do my best! [Laughter]
JC: I’m gonna grab my guitar.
JC: And I don’t want to be too close to you.
I wrote a bunch of songs after Donald died, and this one that I’m going to play is called “Make These Memories.” When I think back to my life with Donald, I was just perfectly content with him in the simplest of things. It was joyful being around home or making a meal or having a bonfire, or whatever. He loved his feet in the grass or at the beach. We had so many positive experiences in just regular life.
I think that we can often go around looking for the big things: the celebrations, the things we anticipate or look forward to. For me, missing him, it was the moments, the simplest of things. Sadly, they’re not always the things that you can recall as easily, because they’re just, that was just your normal life, right? How did he look when we did…. So, yeah, I wrote this song, and it’s called “Make These Memories.” [Jill starts to play, laughing] You’re thinking, “Enough rambling, Jill.” [Kelley laughs]
[Jill sings her song, “Make These Memories,” and accompanies herself on an acoustic guitar.]
KE: [Clears throat] Hoo, boy.
JC: How was that?
KE: Well, I think you got me. [Chuckles]
JC: Oh, Kelley.
KE: Ah, that is such a beautiful song. Knowing the story behind it makes it even more so, I think. How’s it feel for you when you perform that?
JC: I think the further I get away from writing it, all the music was really raw when I first started performing it. A grieving woman was who I was for a long time. It was who I was. I think, as the years go by, and I have more distance and more clarity, the songs are still extremely meaningful, as is my love for Donald, but they’re not as raw for me anymore. I can sing them with a little bit of detachment. But sometimes I might find myself on a stage and it just hits me, or there might be other situations, or watching a friend, yeah. It just depends on the day, Kelley. [Chuckles]
KE: [Chuckles] Yeah, really.
JC: Like everything with me. [laughs]
Here’s the thing: life goes on.
KE: You can attest to that. How it does and how it unfolds and how it happens and how you get through it is kind of the mystery, but there’s kind of this little second chance here in your story. That is in the form of Kevin.
JC: Yes, yes.
KE: And so, Jill Chandler has found love again in this lifetime, and you’re engaged.
KE: And I know you never thought you’d be there.
JC: No! No. I think when I look back, when I was a kid, I don’t know that I ever thought I’d be there. I had friends that were planning weddings when they were teenagers. They pictured that stuff. I never pictured that stuff for myself, once. Imagining it twice is unexpected, for sure, but Kevin did come into my life at a time when I was ready again to give and receive love.
I wasn’t in that place for the longest of times, even though friends suggested, “Go on a date.” I knew that I wasn’t ready. Probably if you asked Kevin, he would maybe say that I still wasn’t ready when we met, but I felt I had come so far, and I had come so far. That being said, there’re gonna be some steps back in life, too. I would say that I’m very grateful for the chance to love again. I would also say that going through the pain that I did, and my family did, I thought, for a time, we’ve gotten through it! Life is gonna be easy from here on out! That is a joke. Life is not easy. Just because we made it through that, doesn’t mean that there’re not gonna be other challenges that come our way. Yeah. I would say that.
I still maneuver through life with things that come on my plate that may be overwhelming or moments when I think, really? Yeah. I’m happy that I’ve had the chance to love again, but I think that life is hard for all of us. Kevin has brought a lot of joy, but maneuvering through a relationship with somebody who had a previous marriage and previous kids, it’s not textbook. I don’t know if that’s how you’d describe it. It’s a continual work in progress.
KE: Of course. But that’s also a big thing on his part, to be able to take that on, because Donald is very much present. Obviously, you have children, and this is very important. But you have said to me before, “When Donald died, I was still madly in love with him.”
JC: Absolutely, I was.
KE: So, to get to that other place where you still hold a space for Donald, you still celebrate Donald, and Kevin has to be there for that and handle that.
JC: Yes, he does, and he does do that. I think when I said I was madly in love with Donald when he died, I stayed that way for a long time. It was painful for me when I got to the place where I removed my wedding band and that sort of thing. There are these steps that, I think, that people go through. You know when you have exciting news? You’ve got to call someone? Donald was my person. It took a very long time for me to not be in the habit that he was the person I needed to talk to. It’s kind of an evolution.
I never fell out of love with Donald, but I, I can’t explain it, Kelley. I’m not doing a very good job. It’s just … time passes, and it becomes less and less raw. Also, your brain and logic kick in that this is not, nope, that’s not who you call. So, maybe instead I call my mom, or I text a friend, or whatever. Your habits change and you are adapting. Through those adaptations you try to bring yourself to a healthier level, then maybe your heart opens to what might come.
KE: Right. It’s a big thing, you know, in that you’re introducing this person into your life, into your heart, into your children’s lives.
JC: Yeah, it’s huge.
KE: How are the kids with everything?
JC: I think that continues to be a work in progress. They love Kevin. They love him, and he loves them, but there is a piece, you know?
KE: Yeah. That’s just part of your puzzle.
JC: So many puzzles, Kelley.
KE: Boy, oh boy. [Laughs] I’ll tell you.
And you’ve also been back on stage and you’re performing. Really the thing that always just tugs at my heart is that Darcy has been coming up and singing with you.
JC: Yes, I’m biased, but she’s a very natural singer and musician. She’s had no training. Santa brought her a ukulele the Christmas before last, and she just picked it up. The fact that she can accompany herself, and she decides she wants to learn a tune and she does it. She’ll come out and sing and I’m just like, “Oh my God!”
It started because she learned one of the songs that I do. It’s “Hallelujah”, and she started to learn that on the ukulele. One night, I just heard her wailing on this. It was mind-blowing how good it was, so I decided, yup, next gig you’re going to come up and sing with me. It doesn’t even phase her! She’s nine, she’s on a stage, people watching her – strangers – and she just gives it. It’s been a real joy for me to have her come up on stage.
KE: Absolutely. How much would Donald love this?
JC: He’d be over the moon. He’d be so over the moon. Donald was proud of my singing. I remember something just to show you Donald’s humour. I shouldn’t even say this on the podcast, but I will. I don’t even know who’s listening, but I’ll just tell you.
KE: [Laughing] Do it.
JC: We were at a family wedding and the wedding ceremony and dinner had happened. It was at this lovely, lovely place in P.E.I. and there was access to a beach. After the initial wedding night ended, we all went down to the beach and had a bonfire and continued to have drinks and all that sort of stuff. And I brought my guitar down. I played several songs, but one of the songs I played was “Me and Bobby McGee.” Like Janis Joplin’s Bobby McGee, and you have to give your whole heart and soul. I finished playing and people clapped and cheered, and Donald in his silly humour way yelled, “AND I SLEEP WITH THAT GIRL!” [JC and KE laugh]
He loved the music and the stage, and he always encouraged me in my songs. He was a music lover as well. I don’t know if people would know that about him, but he had a very broad appreciation. He could listen to classical music or The Band, whatever. He loved music. I still have this satchel, this big bag that has all his mix tapes and tapes that he made. I’ll always have them. I don’t have a way to play them right now, but we’ll keep those forever. So, yeah. To see Darcy’s love of music would have made him very proud.
KE: Now in the journey, where you are right now?
JC: I feel that in some ways, living through the pandemic has been a reminder of grief for me at different points. In some ways, it was (this will maybe put people off) but in some ways, initially, it was almost comforting because I felt like the rest of the world knew what it was like to wake up and have this sense of dread come over them. In those initial days when you couldn’t leave your house, I felt like everyone was grieving. That for me felt like now we were all on even footing here.
Now, I’m watching a friend go through a very painful time as her husband is terminally ill. I am relieved. I’m inspired by her and her strength, and I am proud of myself, I guess, and the journey that I’ve gone through, so that I can now be a support person for her and instinctively know what she may need or want or have the comfort to talk about things that are not so nice and just be at ease.
I’m all over the map most days, Kelley. For the most part, I feel like I’m through the grieving process, but like I said, Father’s Day…. There are things. There are things that come up. I’ll always do my very best to honour Donald and have his kids know who he was, and hopefully instill pride in them, in who they are, and where they’ve come from.
KE: Is there anything in closing that you would want to say to anyone who is coming through this process now, who’s just gone through that shock of loss?
JC: Oh, there’s so much that I’d want to say to them. I’d want to say that they should be kind to themselves. I would want to say that they may carry guilt or questions, that the quicker they come to a place of acceptance as to what has happened, the better suited they will be to move forward. I would want them to know that – like, for me, I had a lot of different symptoms. In the initial weeks after Donald died, I couldn’t even sit and read a book. I had trouble comprehending things. I had trouble with memory, sleep, and I was overwhelmed by decision making. It changed a lot of who I was and a lot of my identity.
I would think that it’s typical that people go through the loss of their loved one and potentially the loss of themselves for a period, and I think part of the recovery is deciding who you are going to be again and how you want to perceive the world. What you’re going to tolerate and what you’re going to stand for. All those things.
As painful and ugly as it is, there’re gonna be gifts that come to you in the form of friendships, or the things you might be willing to say yes to again, or whatever it is. Sadly, we’re all going to face these things. Loss is a human experience, and the more open we are to talking about it – and what a great job you are doing to draw attention to different peoples’ experiences. I’m proud of you.
KE: And I’m proud of you, my friend. I know that it’s a raw subject, but I think, as you say, it’s really important, and it’s important that we have these conversations so that we can be helpful but also not so alone.
KE: Right. And so, I will say thank you. I’m very grateful for you to be able to talk about this today and to share it and to talk about Donald.
JC: I’m grateful that you gave me this opportunity. I didn’t think I’d be emotional, but at times I was. I am – well, it’s a safe environment to do that with you, and I appreciate all your kindness and support. Again, thank you for shedding light and giving a platform to people like me to talk about these things. I think the world of you.
KE: Aw, now we’re gonna get mushy. [Laughter]
JC: So, let’s cut this off right now.
KE: Let’s cut it off! [Both laugh]
We’re speaking with Jill Chandler from Prince Edward Island. Jill, thank you again, and good luck with everything, and keep making music.
JC: Thank you.
The When You Die team is committed to bringing death back into our everyday conversations as an integral part of our human journey.