creating beauty in the wake of tragedy: what the tree of life means to the ramdeyall family

in the lead up to mother’s day, we want to acknowledge that the day holds complex feelings for many different people. while many celebrate, the day can amplify or stir up complex and nuanced feelings of loss or grief.  we are holding space for the full spectrum of emotion that can come up for people around this time of year, and we are humbled to shine a light on the story of a family for whom this day has taken on new meaning in the wake of tragedy.

the ramdeyall family are close to our hearts as friends of bluboho. in september of 2020, their lives were changed forever when their 16 year old son nicholas was tragically lost in a biking accident. by all accounts, nick was the kind of young man every parent hopes their child will become: a compassionate and empathetic old soul, the natural connector between disparate friendship groups, a supportive caregiver amongst his peers.

in the days and weeks following the tragedy, his parents sought comfort in the symbol of the tree of life, placing it on nick’s gravestone. 

in conversation with gail, nick’s mother, we had the honour of hearing their story: what the tree of life means to them, nick’s legacy of community care and supporting youth, and witnessing the beauty gail has created in the wake of tragedy with the creation of the nicholas ramdeyall foundation, founded in nick’s memory.

gail explained that to the family, the tree of life represents individuality (the tree stands tall and alone, yet deeply rooted), immortality, everlasting growth, and connection: a summation of who nick was, and who he continues to be in the lives of all he touched.

to start off, we’d love to hear a bit about what the tree of life means to you.

gail: The tree of life, to me, is about individuality. nick was an individual who walked to the beat of his own drum… he was that person that just helped everyone. 

i didn’t realize just how much he had touched people’s lives until he passed. i got letters from his friends saying how much he helped them, and we’d go to his grave and see his friends there in groups, or just sitting on the bench.

there was even one instance when there was a mother there: i didn’t know her, and she was at the grave putting flowers down. she said ‘i just appreciate your son so much, because he treated my son who has special needs with such grace’… and i was like oh my god, people i don’t even know were affected by it— he affected them. i’m just so proud, we both are. he was such an individual, he helped people without ever bragging about it.

the tree of life signifies immortality also, because it keeps growing: its light, its essence keeps growing. and through the foundation, that’s exactly what i’m doing, trying to bring out his essence, his light, how he lived in light… and push that forward. 

 and it’s immortal because whoever he touched, he’s stayed with them. i didn’t even really realize this, but we would go to his grave and his friends will still be there— and these are teenagers. as a teenager, I wouldn’t expect them to go, there’s nothing wrong with going on with life, i mean— they’re teenagers… but they even got tattoos! “nicholas ramdeyall lives forever” — he really impacted these kids. he’s immortal through them.  

there’s a powerful reminder there about the interconnectivity of us all— the ways in which we change the world through small and meaningful connections.

gail: yes! you know that saying about how you don’t know how much you affect people? you could say one thing to a stranger and it could change their whole day… and you would never know it. that’s kind of what nicholas was: he just did things, and he wasn’t boastful, he just did them.

his friends still feel a connection with him, we still see them visiting the grave. they were from all walks of life— i think without him, they really wouldn’t have met each other, because he didn't care about where you came from or what your means were. he cared about the person, their character, and that’s how chris and I are too— we don’t care about that, the character of the person is what matters. i don’t care what you have, i care about who you are; you’re a human being. 

he was very compassionate and empathetic, but he was even like that as a child. put it this way— it was like he was an adult…

an old soul. 

gail: yes! an old soul, exactly.

the tree of life also comes with connection to family and ancestry. nick was all about family— he loved family. he loved hanging out with my mom, he was just ‘that kid’. and we learned a lot through him, too, it was reciprocal— when you get older, you can forget that part of your life sometimes, how tumultuous it can be— but he always kept it together. 

there was one girl who sent us a letter, and she basically said “your son helped me through the toughest time that i've gone through, and i want you to know that he was everything to us”.

his friends say, “‘what would nick do?’ we ask ourselves that all the time” 

we’d love to hear some more about how the nicholas ramdeyall came to be.

when he passed, the only thing i kept thinking about was “i have to find a way for him to live on” — because he was all about helping. i thought about having a scholarship each year, but really i just wanted to help youth, because that’s what he was all about. so i said okay, let’s help youth, youth in need from 13-25. kids who don’t have the means to have dance lessons, or get a bike— whatever they need. 

i grew up with dance lessons, swimming lessons— i had the means, and so did nicholas. he was like me, all-in, and there’s a lot of kids who don’t have that opportunity. and that’s how i want him to live on— by helping. giving them empowerment, giving them engagement, opportunity— even therapy— whatever they need. 

mental health is still stigmatized in my opinion, and especially for youth needing coping mechanisms for how to deal with these times… I mean, come on— what were you doing when you were 15? It certainly wasn’t being isolated!

so how does the foundation work?

it’s peer to peer— so if they ask for something, they don’t just get money, they actually get what they want. so, it’s like “what’s your wishlist?”. they apply online, they can write a letter, or make a video, really anything, and tell us their story. 

“asking for help and having someone support you— that gives you courage, that gives you self esteem, that gives you confidence” 

i want youth to be seen and heard. when you are seen and heard you feel validated. it helps to know that someone’s listening— especially when you’re that age.

motherhood seems to us to already be such a nuanced and complex part of life, and we can only imagine how that must change after such a tragic loss. how does that show up in life for you these days? 

gail: the nurturing… that’s what I missed, the purpose. it’s all you are consumed with as a parent. from the time they were born, your only objective is them— and then suddenly it’s gone. so I have to put that nurturing towards something else. that’s why we got two dogs— that’s exactly why we got two dogs.

i imagine it must change the way you engage with the world.

oh, you see things completely differently. you know, feel lucky with what you have, appreciate it. just looking at kids is hard sometimes… 

and it’s changed my perspective: i don’t care about things that i used to care so much about. like, whatever. that will never be the toughest thing i've ever been through, so anything is nothing to me now, but not flippantly— it’s such a power, because god, i look at before, and my brain was just filled with stress and… that’s nothing. so it’s changed me in a healthier way, i’m just not giving meaning to things that really do not ever deserve that meaning. 

it can be isolating too, because of the experience. like having a normal conversation, “so, how many children do you have?” — and then in your head you’re like [sighs]… i say it, but i hope they don’t ask anything more about it, because they’ll feel awful. i just put myself in their shoes and i know they’ll feel awful that they said that. it’s a normal conversation, but it’s really not something i want to talk about, and they have no idea…

we have no idea what people are going through, that’s what this experience has taught me. there’s so much we don’t know— someone could be going through so much, but they put that mask on, and we’ll never know unless they reveal it to you. everyone’s going through something, so just be kind and compassionate.

there’s a saying that says something along the lines of “grief is just love with nowhere to go”. it seems like through the foundation, you’ve created a place to channel all your love for nick, and nurture so many young people along the way. 

it’s turning such a traumatic experience into a positive experience, and that’s the only way i can move forward. 

what’s next for the future of the foundation?

well, actually it’s starting to ramp up now. i’m in talks with the canadian child services because they have yoga for youth… so they’re going to partner with us, and the foundation will be paying for the yoga for children and teenagers. we’re just starting off— i had to build revenue first and now go into all of this. 

honestly, i'm not in any rush, there’s no timeline. i want it to be organic, it’s about building upon it and making connections with people and going from there. 

i do karma classes at pyc city centre and all the proceeds go to the foundation, so i do that monthly. so, it’s happening, it’s coming… oh, I just love it. 

that’s so exciting— the amount of people you’ll be able to help on that scale will be so exciting to see. I’m so excited to follow your progress as the foundation grows!

like i said, the way i feel is just ‘trust the process’. my husband always says ‘don’t rush the brush’, so just go with the process! you can’t rush anything that has meaning, it’s going to unfold on its own. 

was there anything else you’d like to share as we wrap up?

the tree of life is also about peace. i think there needs to be more peace in the world. 

that’s so true. i imagine in the early days of grieving, peace must have felt like an impossibility. 

it did. 

i hope that day-by-day, it becomes more attainable in small ways… i hope the peace that is possible will come easily. 

yes, i hope so too— and the foundation’s helping me find peace as well.

after a long and beautiful conversation, we’d like to leave you with some final words from gail, who struck us as an incredibly empathetic and kind-hearted person, who has found a way to create beauty in the wake of pain. this mother’s day, we honour her, and all mothers who are facing this holiday in a light that is seldom acknowledged.

nick had a voice. he always stood up for people— he was like me, an advocate for people… going forward I just want to bring that out. every teenager needs to be heard. they are the future, so why not invest in that future and make them feel valued and give them opportunities to experience things?  

support the nicholas ramdeyall foundation here: