‘Live for the moment’ is a familiar mantra for Whistlerites, but it holds deeper meaning for participants in a unique study looking at how young men process the unexpected death of a friend.
Building on a similar study conducted in Vancouver, researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) interviewed a group of Whistler men who have experienced the unexpected, accidental death of a male friend to see how they’ve dealt with the loss in a culture with deeply-entrenched gender roles.
Researcher Dr. Genevieve Creighton said the local findings were “quite unique” compared to the Vancouver subjects, which she attributes to the prevailing attitude among most young people who come to Whistler looking for adventure.
“The atmosphere in Whistler is all about living the life, it’s all about taking risks and following your desires, so when a friend dies over the course of taking risks, there’s a reflex among some men to minimize the tragedy by saying ‘he died doing what he loved, so it’s OK,’ … and this didn’t match their feelings of grief and sadness,” said Creighton, who wrote her 2011 dissertation examining gender identity and male risk-taking following the death of her friend.
Fifteen subjects between the ages of 19 and 25 were interviewed and asked to complete a tribute to their friends using photography. The resulting photos will make up the Live for the Moment exhibit, opening at Millennium Place Thursday (Jan. 10) and running until the end of the month.
One participant, Matt Gore, saw the UBC study as an opportunity to help others dealing with the same feelings he was. Following the loss of his friend in early 2012, Gore said he quit drinking and started to approach his job as a house advisor for Whistler Blackcomb a little differently.
“I see people getting really drunk or high all the time, and they don’t even know where they live, so that pisses me off. I just don’t want it to happen again,” he said. “If I go out and see some good friends and they’re drunk when I leave the bar, I’m thinking ‘Well, is he going to get home alright?’ So it gets me thinking that way.”
Ten of the study’s subjects were aged 26 to 35 and had experienced the death of a friend less recently than their younger counterparts. They did not participate in the photography exhibit but provided researchers with a sense of how young men process tragedy over a longer period.
“Some of the older guys talked about their journey through addiction, finding that they were numbing their pain with alcohol,” said Creighton. “Other guys kind of got stuck when the death happened. They didn’t feel like they’d ever grown up; they’re still in Whistler doing the same things that they were 10 years ago. There were other guys for whom the death was this awakening, saying ‘You know what? I really want to live a different life, I know that you can die in an instant and so I really want to take care and appreciate my life, my friends and my relationships.’”
While there’s plenty of formal support services available for young people locally — whether through Whistler Community Services Society, Whistler Blackcomb staff housing and more — many young men choose to rely on less formal support systems to process their grief, a trend that is not exclusive to Whistler, said Creighton.
She recommends health care providers in Whistler start looking at ways to “equip restaurant and bar managers, coaches, ski instructors and all those people who have contact with the community of young people to deal with death.”
“It’s difficult for a resort town like Whistler to know how to deal with death because people might see it as putting a negative light on the mountain, but I think that they do a disservice by not putting out where things could have been done differently,” she added.
Another issue unique to Whistler, said Creighton, is that the sudden deaths that occur while skiing or snowboarding are treated differently than those that happen off the mountain and are typically alcohol or drug-related.
“When a guy died on the mountain it was kind of an honourable, heroic death so friends were able to talk about him dying as a legend … It was much harder for guys to reconcile, ‘Well he was this amazing athlete but he died because he took too many drugs and wandered outside and froze to death,’” said Creighton.
One result that UBC researchers found with both the Vancouver and Whistler studies was that men are more likely to process their grief through an activity.
“Guys tend to get over those negative experiences through doing something. The ones who were really successful were the ones who were, say, on sports teams where their coaches really had them talking about the death or going and playing basketball or going skiing together and honouring the person that way,” said Creighton.
The UBC team will release its full findings in a community report in March. They’re looking at potentially conducting a similar study in the future to see how young women deal with the unexpected loss of a friend.
The Live for the Moment exhibit runs until Jan. 31. There will be an opening reception on Tuesday (Jan. 15) at 5 p.m. at Millennium Place and attendees are invited to speak with researchers and sign a memorial board in honour of any friends they may have lost.