I lost my beloved wife, Linda Gilligan, at age thirty-eight on December 31, 2013.
It seems strange to say, given that she had terminal cancer, but I was in shock when she passed.
While at first we were convinced she would beat it, I was still convinced—even when in hospice care—that she had a few more months to live. Linda was the center of my universe, and I worshipped her and adored her in equal measure.
She was a brilliant computer scientist, one of Canada’s best cross-country skiers and cyclists, and an incredible friend and mother. She loved life passionately, and she was broken-hearted at knowing she was dying, even though she found peace near the end of her journey. She held my hand and asked me why I was crying. I asked her why she wasn’t, and she simply replied: “Because I know this is all much bigger than me.”
That is the kind of woman Linda was, and I remain awestruck by her.
Linda left behind me and our two children, Bryce who was aged four and is now seven, and Rhiannon who was aged two and is now five. The children are happy and energetic, and I will also note they are redheads—and so full of passion.
They are also growing up without their mother.
I make it clear that they have a beautiful, kind, brilliant, and loving mother. And her death will never change that.
Bryce’s memories of her are scarce, and for Rhiannon they are non-existent. That sucks. But it does not mean that I don’t speak about their mother nearly every day, and that they don’t know her through me—through the videos I show them, the stories I tell, and the tears I shed. I know that the children will grieve their mother’s loss throughout their lives, at different stages of their journey on earth. I am there to remind them that it is always good to cry, and that they are free to feel and express in whatever way they want. I know very well that I don’t take kindly to anyone telling me how I should feel about Linda’s loss. But it is not okay to say that they don’t have a mother—I make it clear that they have a beautiful, kind, brilliant, and loving mother. And her death will never change that.
I have decided that the best act of service to myself, the children, and Linda, is to choose a life of meaning and happiness. That the best way to teach my children resilience is to act as a model of resilience myself. And to choose things that feel important to me.
I left investment banking last year to join the Trudeau government and found the Canada Infrastructure Bank—a role that actually required me to commute from Houston for a year. In some ways it was crazy: a single dad commuting to work, and leaving the kids behind with their nanny. But in other ways it was inspirational.
I think the question is not just how to teach kids to be resilient. I think it’s learning how to be resilient ourselves.
Despite the sacrifice involved, I felt so alive taking on this new responsibility, and the kids were old enough to understand some parts of it. My son Bryce walked into his kindergarten class the first day I left for Ottawa and told his teacher I was going to work for the Prime Minister, and that it was important work. To be clear, I did not tell Bryce that level of detail, but somehow he picked up on these facts.
So I think the question is not just how to teach kids to be resilient. I think it’s learning how to be resilient ourselves. I did not understand how life could have turned so dramatically for us. I had learned that if you worked hard in life, good things will happen. And that if you take care of your body, your body will take care of you. The idea of terminal illness to an elite athlete who cared for her body so well is a statistical anomaly that her doctors could not explain. It is just a reminder that we are not in complete control of our lives or our fates. I’m trying my best to live life and be happy—and I wish that for all others as well.
If we can figure it out, our kids will have a far better chance at understanding that even when really bad things happen, we can bounce back and continue to lead happy lives.
If we can figure it out, our kids will have a far better chance at understanding that even when really bad things happen, we can bounce back and continue to lead happy lives. In this way, we honour those we have lost, and honour the fact that we have the right to be happy, too. Sometimes I succeed in this, and sometimes I fail. But if we are lucky, the tragedy of losing a parent at a young age will be an inspiration for a life well-lived—full of compassion, empathy, and understanding.