Musings from a grieving vegan

One of Omi's notepad sketches, from November 1975.

Elizabeth Usher explores new loss, cherished memories and vegan hope in the time of Covid.

My partner’s grandmother died suddenly early this month. We hadn’t been able to visit her since before the pandemic, when we were able to head north for a post-Christmas extended family gathering in December 2019.  The news was simultaneously out of the blue yet also not entirely unexpected – three years ago she was a recipient of a ‘letter from the Queen’ to mark her 100th birthday. She had lived a very full life, maintaining her independence and good health for the vast majority of it. 

Her passing marks the last link for us to our parents’ parents, and for me has stirred up grief for my own grandmother, who died over two decades ago but whom I still miss dearly. At that time, my partner and I had been going out for just three months and his support helped me through those final days, the funeral, and beyond.

Omi’s passport photos, circa 1950.

She had outlived my other three grandparents by 15 to 20 years and we were incredibly close – a relationship that was no doubt helped from the very start in that I was even named after her, although my brother and I always addressed her with great affection as Omi.

It was Omi who most strongly encouraged my written creativity, giving me books of poetry to study and journals in which to write my own. She would have been so proud to see me become the vegan editor of this very publication, although I do suspect I would have had to print my articles out for her to read! 

Grief has a sneaky way of catching me, even after so much time has passed. I’m sobbing right now at my keyboard typing these words. At the same time, I know how lucky I was to have been so loved and indeed so cherished – one of Omi’s favourite words!

I’m lucky to have several of Omi’s notepads and journals. Photo: Elizabeth Usher.

Being vegan, there is a sense of living daily with grief: the heartache when faced with the scale of how much suffering is taking place every hour, every minute, all around the world, in farms (‘factory’ or otherwise) and slaughterhouses. And there is also the anguish that comes from seeing so many in society wilfully ignore this reality.

On top of that of course are all the layers of human suffering, both global and local. Here in Sydney, we are in week five of a lockdown that I suspect will not be over for at least as long again, in the hopes that we will be spared the Covid death toll that other countries have faced and continue to face – with the current pandemic mortality rate reportedly seven people per minute. However, according to Oxfam’s new report The hunger virus multiplies released just over a fortnight ago, this is outpaced by the number of deaths from acute hunger, with the shocking figure being 11 people per minute. (As an aside, my international hunger relief charity of choice is A Well-Fed World.)

“Together, we are working toward a world that is healthy, well-fed, and kind – all at the same time.” Photo: A Well-Fed World/Facebook.

There is a constant struggle to avoid despair, in order to be able to keep doing as much as possible and on as many fronts as possible – personal, political, activism, contribution, volunteering, donations, raising awareness, agitating for change – so I seek out grieving and coping processes as both necessary and healthy.

I am inspired by the attitude of Jo-Anne McArthur, who said on a recent We Animals Zoom chat: “I choose to be hopeful every day and I channel a lot of energy to creating change in the world.” (You can read more about her approach in this article.)

“Hope in a Burned Plantation” by Jo-Anne McArthur – grand prize winner in the BigPicture: Natural World Photography Competition 2021. Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur, We Animals Media/Facebook.

And so, even in this well of grief, I am consciously trying to choose to focus on the years of happy memories, the shared moments, the joy-filled gatherings, the meals and birthdays and weddings and other celebrations that we were fortunate to experience together. 

Right now, some days are slower or harder than others, and I am gentle with my expectations for what I can achieve during the grieving process – but ultimately each day offers a new chance to choose to be hopeful and strive for positive change.

Some resources for anyone struggling with grief or other issues:
Lifeline 13 11 14
Kids Helpline 1800 551 800
Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467
Beyond Blue 1300 224 636
Headspace 1800 650 890

Elizabeth Usher is the vegan editor of the Sydney Sentinel.