Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Reality of Finality



When grief comes, the world changes forever.

Commonalities of Grief

All grief is the same, and each grief is different.

If you haven’t experienced the death of someone close, you don’t know how devastating and pervasive grief is. It affects everything. It changes everything.

There is little that anyone can say or do that will take away the pain of grief, but they can be present and help us bear the weight of sorrow.

There are five general stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) but not everyone goes through them in the same order or at the same speed. Some people do not go through all five. Some go through some stages several times. So much depends on how the loved one died, the state of your relationship with them, and what you believe about the afterlife. Having great faith does not prevent you from feeling great sorrow.

Nuances of Grief

Grief is a traumatic journey and while there are many commonalities, how death comes creates differences in the grief experience. Most people die before we think they should, and before we are ready to let them go.

The first death we experienced of someone close was probably our grandparents who died when we were young. Seeing them dead and unmoving brought the reality of finality into our vocabulary. Because the cause of death for grandparents is often old age, their deaths were not unexpected and not due to outside trauma. When we’re young, we think everyone is eternal. When our parents died, we can feel like orphans.

If people die in old age after a lingering illness, there is an added sense of relief, because they don’t have to suffer any longer.

When people die at any other age, whether they die suddenly or because of illness, we regard it as wrong and a tragedy. We’ve come to expect that people will reach their eighties before they die. This wasn’t the understanding of my grandparents a century ago, and if we read the obituaries in the local newspaper, we discover that people of all ages are dying around us every week. We just haven’t been paying attention.

With a sudden death, you have no chance to say goodbye, no opportunity to summarize your life together, to say everything that you have put off saying for a more convenient time. There is no closure. This is the grief I know the best, as my wife Evelyn died suddenly in her forties of a heart condition we didn’t know she had. Here the added heartache is that you don’t get to enjoy the golden years together after working so hard to get to this point. After Ev’s death, I compiled a personal litany of my dead. It was longer than expected. I didn’t think I would start losing people for another twenty years, when I would be in my sixties.

When a loved one dies of an illness, you have probably cared for them for months or years as they struggled to recover, riding the emotional roller coaster of holding on to hope that the next surgery, the next chemotherapy, would take care of the problem, only to plunge into despair when it didn’t. And then you had to watch them die. Suffering is involved for both of you. My friends Molly and John died from brain tumors. Giff died of AIDS.

When teenagers and people in their twenties die, the particular twist of the knife is that they were about to set off in the world and finally show what they could do. Their skills were on the cusp of being put into action and their dreams about to become real. At this age my friends Cathy, Tom, and Stuart died.

There are also violent deaths caused by accidents, war, suicide, or the actions by others, as when a car went out of control on the streets of Oakland and killed a young mother walking with her children. Dan was murdered for his passport in Greece. Now feelings of revenge and retribution are stirred into the mix.

When children die, one of the sharp edges that cuts is that they didn’t get to enjoy even a happy childhood.

Recently I learned of a new category. Emily Rapp’s son Ronan was born with the fatal genetic disease Tay-Sachs. There is no treatment or cure. As soon as you are born, you begin to die, and everyone who has it dies by the age of four. Before they are a year old, infants begin to lose their ability to see, hear, move, swallow, think, and breathe. One of the things Emily said about her journey was that she had to let go of her dreams for Ronan and just love him for who he was.

Years ago I worked with severely and profoundly mentally challenged children. Their IQs were estimated to be between thirty and fifty, and often they had several additional physical problems like blindness, cerebral palsy, or epilepsy. They would never leave the institution to go into the world and do something productive. My challenge was to teach them how to feed and dress themselves. With enough training they might reach a place where they could take care of themselves some years down the road. Coming from a task-oriented background, this was hard. I had to reset my thinking to realize that the value of human life was not in how much people contributed to society, but in being who they were. This was a hard lesson to learn.

In Ronan’s case, knowing that there was nothing she could do to improve the situation, Emily was freed of doing endless research desperately trying to find a treatment somewhere in the world that would save her child. She could spend all her time loving Ronan the best that she could.


The lesson that death teaches all of us is to love people as honestly and deeply as we can today, because tomorrow the tragic may happen.

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