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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Thursday, March 12, 2015

The First Death

In his poem, “ A Refusal to Mourn,” Dylan Thomas said, “After the first death, there is no other.”

He was writing about a child who burned to death in the bombing of London during World War II. If he didn’t know the child, then what also died might have been Dylan’s belief in life’s innocence, his childhood illusion that life was completely happy and everyone lived to old age. Once this belief is shattered, it is shattered forever.

I don’t know Dylan’s exact meaning. What matters what his phrase means for everyone who has lost a loved one. It speaks of the reality that after the first death of someone close to us, no other death impacts us as hard. This first death destroys our illusions, shakes the foundations of everything that holds us up, and makes us so angry that we want to hammer everything around us into fine particle dust.

With our first loss, Death becomes a permanent fixture in our world, a shadow whose movement we often catch in the corner of our eye. Every new death we suffer will still hit us hard, sometimes brutally, but it will fit into familiar territory.

Our first death erases the hard boundary with death. We understand that death can come at any time for no discernable reason and rip our hearts away. We know that people just die from unknown health problems, simple accidents like slipping on a rug, and because of someone’s careless inattention.

Our first encounter with death can also remove our fear of dying. It can also unsettle us so deeply that we live in constant dread that someone else we love is about to die. When I stood on the boundary, I realized that my fear of encountering death’s abyss was gone, because I had walked through its canyons and survived. The worst that could happen had happened – the one I loved more than myself had died. Nothing else would batter and pummel me as much. Perhaps you feel the same way.

This is one reason why I began taking more risks when hiking by myself in the mountains of Yosemite where bears and mountain lions lived. I used to be more prudent. We can feel its closeness over the ridge, moving like a mountain ion on a trail that moves closer and then further away.

But hiking alone through the undisturbed wilderness taught me how much I still loved this world, how amazing nature was, and the possibility of encountering wild animals with large teeth wasn’t going to stop me from experiencing those transcendent views and moments. Some things are worth putting your life on the line.

Grief breaks us, deepens us, or sets us free. If we’re lucky, it does all three.


  1. "The worst that could happen to me had happened" How true does it sound to me! Even before my wife died, I always "thought" that there is no order in this world. My wife's death was like a final nail on the coffin, an ultimate confirmation about futility of living. I try to live day by day but now I know that the innocence of living has been taken away forever from me.

    1. Day to day, moment to moment. Nothing leads to anything. It might, but often it doesn't. I think that all we can do is endeavor to live this moment as fully as we can.

  2. I can't find the truth in that article about other deaths being more bearable once you've made it through the First Death.
    That death was my 38 year old husband...and I survived only because of my vow to him that I'd get our children raised. My life as I knew it,ended.
    Then came the catastrophic death...our son by suicide. The survival of the first death did not prepare me for all I lost when Evan died...the two events are not comparable except for the unreal tragedy of unbearable loss. When Evan died, I lost me, my home, my friends...became as a leper...shunned...live now in solitude ....near complete devastation. No rebuilding. No going back...only discovering a flickering ember here or there and always alone. Excluded because I loved. I died but still breathe. I have a lot to learn. Thank you for sharing.

    1. You've had two horrible losses, Merikay. I'm so sorry. I don't think they are comparable, either. I want to understand more about suicides. To help me, I'm reading Jill Bialosky's History of a Suicide.