I was reading an excellent blog on grief called Dealing with My Grief where the writer described herself as an “experienced griever.” It is a phrase that resonates with me.
It’s been six years since we lost Oliver, so I guess both Mary Ann and I can wear the “experienced griever” label. But it is not the years that give you the experience as much as allowing yourself to grieve. And being allowed by others to grieve. I don’t know when you become “experienced,” but it might happen when you can begin to see your own grief instead of being consumed by it.
There are no prizes for becoming an experienced griever. Grief causes you to grow older faster than you should and in more ways than one. For the younger people that experience grief, like Oliver’s siblings, it gives them wisdom beyond their years. When Dov helped raise money for DeVos Children’s Hospital last year, he did that knowing better than most how important the care at the hospital is for the entire family. This was not an abstract fundraiser — this was about his brother. He is an “experienced griever” at the age of 19.
“Experienced grievers” also lose friends because we test the limits of patience. Must we talk about Oliver so much? (Yes). Can’t we just move on? (No). So some friends leave you because they are tired. And other friends leave you because they are uncomfortable with the whole idea of a child’s death.
But the “experienced griever” can also use that experience to address life. I’ve never really feared death, but now I see it as my chance to reconnect with Oliver. No, I’m not rushing to it and I want to spend time with my family and friends here. But when the time comes, I’ll go anxious to experience an Oliver hug. There is no rational or theological reason to think this will happen, but it is what I hope for.
My experience also makes me look for similar experiences from others. Where I used to avoid books and films which involved the death of a child, now I seek them out because I want to see the experience of others. That may sound grisly, but it is not the death that interests me so much but seeing how people survive the loss of that child.
Which leads to the most powerful part of being an “experienced griever,” which is reaching out to others. Not long after Oliver died, a colleague spoke with me about the loss of their child more than 20 years ago. The grief was still there, but so was their ability to share in my grief. I used to be the person who would avoid someone who experienced such a loss because: “I don’t know what to say.” Well, now I do and I seek others in grief to be of whatever support I can. They ask, “will it get better?” and I tell them “No, but it will get different.” Approaching one in grief with honesty and vulnerability does not bring resolution, it brings comfort. “Experienced grievers” can bring that comfort because they understand the pain.
My wife does gardening for a number of people in a housing area and recently a couple there lost their daughter, who was probably around 50 years old. But, when you lose a child, you lose a child — age does not matter. My wife does not work for the couple but had met them. Hearing the news she went right to their house the day after their daughter died to offer her condolences. They had heard about Oliver’s death since people often talk about what we have experienced to others without us knowing — that is okay. Because they knew about Oliver, they knew Mary Ann understood their pain. They were quick to invite her in and talk about what they were experiencing. My wife is an “experienced griever” and they wanted to talk to someone who had the same experience. So they talked and cried and the couple began their own journey toward experienced grieving.