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Connecting through words

by Archives October 16, 2007

Beyond the neatly lined-up papers and binders on his desk, his office is surrounded with tons of hand-crafted paraphernalia made by his children.
“Happy Late Birthday Daddy,” is written in his son Ethan’s handwriting on a piece loose-leaf paper framed by his desk. Ethan, 12, shares the same birthday with his late sister Alexis.
“That’s always a bittersweet day for us,” Michael Crelinsten says as the tone of his voice turns somber. Crelinsten also has a two and a half year old son, Liam.
“The gap between those who have lost children and those who have not is profoundly difficult to bridge.”
This is an excerpt from “The Gap,” a piece Crelinsten published in The Globe and Mail in 2002 on his and his family’s grieving after their daughter, Alexis, died of an aneurysm five years ago at the age of nine.
“I then spent some time learning how difficult it is for people who have never lost children to talk with and understand the mindset of parents who have lost children. That was a tremendous frustration for [me and my wife],” he says. “So I wound up writing an article about the gap between ourselves and others.”
Crelinsten emphasizes it was therapeutic to put into words what he was feeling. It also helped him connect with other grieving parents who responded to his article. “I started receiving emails and phone calls from all across the country from people who just wanted to say thank you.”
It was important to Crelinsten to respond to the overwhelming response he received after publishing the article, since many readers who relived similar experiences found themselves relating to his piece and understanding the source of his feelings.
Essy Crelinsten, 50, Michael’s wife, is an art and bible studies teacher at Bialik High School. She describes Michael as vocal and clear about what he wanted. After the death of Alexis, Essy also felt the need to be closer to a home base and the family returned to Montreal, and her husband left his high-paying job at the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) and began working at the YM-YWHA.
She also mentioned her husband’s troubled childhood, with his father passing away at 36-years-old from a stroke, and his mother remarried to a stepfather who Essy describes as “difficult.” As a result, he is always adamant about having his family expressing what they feel and getting things off their chest.
Having come from this background, she says the skills he has acquired help him with day-to-day issues, including his relationship with his children. “He is very open with them. He would never let things be,” she says. “He needs to make sure issues are dealt with and he talks to the kids about our daughter [Alexis].”
Myra Shuster is a friend, former neighbor and colleague of Crelinsten’s at the IRB. After the death of his daughter, she says Crelinsten buried himself in his job more than usual.
“He told me he found refuge from the pain in his work. I could see he was throwing himself at [his job], working crazy long hours, more than necessary.”
Shuster also describes Crelinsten as a visionary with ideals, which is why she finds his current managerial/administrative position at the YM-YWHA somewhat strange. She says he has other strengths that he could play up on. “An interesting thing to know is that he left [the IRB] before his mandate was over which is quite a remarkable thing,” says Shuster. “Most people keep the position as long as they can because it’s a tremendously well-paying position, but he left on principle and for a variety of reasons,” she added.
“He declined a very generous salary to take on a position that was more meaningful to him. I knew how hard he was working, that he took the position very seriously and was very invested in doing a good job, so it didn’t surprise me that the bureaucracy of the IRB system finally caught up with him.”
Crelinsten also describes himself as being invested in doing a good job while working at the IRB. “My decisions at the IRB for over four years were not only good decisions in law, and I wrote over 400 decisions being overturned only twice by the federal court. “I also feel that my decisions were literate, they were well written and articulate.”
However, after a change in political administration, it was evident to Crelinsten that he was not likely to be reappointed. He mentioned that a number of his competent colleagues who were up for reappointment had substantial reason to be.
Crelinsten’s current position isn’t the first he’s held within the Jewish community, having worked for 13 years for organizations like the Canadian Jewish Congress.
However, Crelinsten’s personal views are agnostic.”I worked at the Canadian Jewish Congress because I thought it was an opportunity to pursue things like human rights and intercultural relations. To me, being Jewish is a privilege from a cultural point of view, not religious.” Despite everything, Crelinsten doesn’t contest his own spirituality.
Crelinsten quotes, “As Einstein says, ‘The most beautiful feature in the universe is that it’s mysterious.'”

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