Toronto·HERE & NOW

Gill Deacon: What my dad's death taught me about grief and healing

"There is no order to grief," CBC Radio's Gill Deacon writes. "It is a mountaintop from which we each descend by our own means; a path with sudden twists. My path of grieving took me down a very narrow, rocky incline a few weeks ago, and I began to lose my footing."

'There is no order to grief,' the host of CBC Radio's Here & Now learned this year

CBC Radio host Gill Deacon, left, lost her father earlier this year. In the wake of his death she found 'there is no order to grief' and found herself surprised to need time away from the job. (Gill Deacon/CBC)

Gill Deacon, the host of CBC Radio's Here & Now, recently took some time away from hosting the show. This is what led to that difficult decision and how she came to make it. Deacon is back in the host's chair this week.


My father's death this spring was a shock. Having undergone countless health issues over decades that never dampened his spirits nor his bluster, we almost believed he would never die. But his heart stopped suddenly in April, in his 86th year.

Tom Deacon lived a full life, had plenty of good friends and a caring wife, and was able to watch his grandchildren grow into their curious and delightful selves. So his death was sad, but not tragic. Nothing out of the ordinary, really.

And yet. 

There is nothing ordinary about digging a hole in the earth in which to place the ashes of the man on whose bouncing knee you learned rhythm and rhyme. Nothing easy about poring over photographs whose captured moments stir forgotten memories, and beg questions that can now never be answered. It is only ever extraordinary to reckon with the finality of grievances left unresolved, and possibilities extinguished by a death. 

Perhaps my dad's parting gift was one he would never have given intentionally: the opportunity to learn what else tenacity and backbone can look like.- Gill Deacon, CBC Radio host

Death is universal, commonplace, inevitable. And still, somehow, a unique and fresh force when it strikes within your circle; one those left behind are almost always unprepared to handle.

Weep, process, walk, repeat.

There is no order to grief. It is a mountaintop from which we each descend by our own means; a path with sudden twists; a deflating ball inside a box; an ocean crossing — of all the emotions, grief must be the most analogy-ridden.

My path of grieving took me down a very narrow, rocky incline a few weeks ago, and I began to lose my footing.

Obituary, funeral and eulogy were all behind me; I thought I had completed the hard parts of the loss. But weeks later I felt exhausted; a good night's sleep was no longer enough. I didn't want to talk to people and when I did I struggled to feel fully present. I wept spontaneously and couldn't explain why.

The ground under all our feet has been pretty unstable for the past two years; a lot of us are burned out from just getting through. The loss of my father added an untenable layer onto a weight of sadness that was already hard to carry.

Gill Deacon and her father, Tom, on summer vacation on the Ottawa River in the mid-80s. (Gill Deacon/CBC)

So I put it all down. I stepped away from work.

The initial relief was huge; a thousand pound weight lifted from my shoulders. And yet I couldn't give myself permission to enjoy it. Now that I wasn't curled up in a ball weeping, maybe I was fine. Shouldn't I be back at work? My doctor had firmly recommended a few weeks off, and clearly it was necessary. Why did it feel … wrong?

Our best stories celebrate strength and hard work. We salute those who push past challenges, overcome the odds and summon the grit to muscle through. There's nothing Instagram-worthy about staring listlessly into space, ignoring phone messages. The hero's journey never includes weeping to a therapist, sitting quietly with your family or talking with a friend.

What does grieving have to do with leading?

Taking care of myself seemed … soft. Parents die all the time, why was I having such a hard time? Sad but not tragic, yadda yadda, why couldn't I move on? Where was my chutzpah in the face of hard things? I worried that stepping away from work was both an overreaction and an abdication of duty; letting down the team, not to mention loyal radio listeners.

Kindness is a lot of things. As a child I read a book with that title. Pastel drawings illustrated the simple things we could do for one another; random acts of kindness in today's parlance. And I have grown up believing in the lasting power of thoughtful gestures. It feels good to practice kindness, and to summon compassion for other people's circumstances.

Being kind to ourselves can be a much harder thing.

Somewhat sheepishly I wrote a note to my colleagues explaining my fairly sudden departure, and apologized for abandoning the ship. Each wrote back with supportive, caring remarks. And then one wise and dear work pal sent a reply that shifted everything.

"Being a leader includes knowing when to pull back," she observed. 

"This is not abandoning the ship, it is captaining the ship."

Powerful words I needed to hear. They helped quiet my father's voice in my head — the man whose death had triggered my undoing — telling me to muscle through it. I was made of strong stuff, he was always quick to say, "Atta' girl."

Perhaps my dad's parting gift was one he would never have given intentionally: the opportunity to learn what else tenacity and backbone can look like. His death forced me to give myself permission to stop trying to manage it all, and to learn that strength takes many forms. Softness is sometimes one of them. Taking care of each other must include taking care of ourselves, because you cannot give what you do not have.

I know how fortunate I am to have had the support that allowed me to do the work of processing deep and confusing loss. I'm stepping back on board the ship with gratitude, and hopefully a little more self compassion than when I left.

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