Grief Changes You — It’s Okay

I’m in the midst of a great class on bereavement ministry through the University of Dayton. As if I don’t read and write about grief enough, I’m doing even more of it lately. We are reading a book by Doris Zagdanski called “Stuck for Words: What to Say to Someone Who is Grieving.” It is a simple, straightforward book I recommend for those grieving or those who just want to better help those in grief.

Oliver, five weeks before his death on Easter Sunday (March 31, 2013)
Oliver on Easter Sunday, five weeks before his death (March 31, 2013)

Early in the book, Zagdanski writes “I believe that you are never the same after someone close to you has died.” She is right. I can look at me and the members of my immediate family and see how we have changed as a result of Oliver’s death. How people are affected depends a lot on where they were in life before the death of someone close to them. Plus, how that person dies also has an impact on them. Oliver was in treatment for cancer for nearly three years and I had plenty of time to process what was happening. When we finally ended treatments because they were not working we knew he had at most a couple of months left to live. We had time to prepare for his death. Neighbors of ours lost their little boy when he was hit on his bike on the way to school. They did not have time to process before, and they didn’t watch their child suffer for a long time either, so their loss was different from ours. (I’ve written before about “impolite questions” the grieving have, and wondering what is the best way for your child to die is one of them.)

I’m sure our neighbors are different since their son’s death as well and probably different than they would be if he battled cancer. Plus, he was their oldest son and they’ve had children since he died, so again, it is different from our experience. Every experience of grief is different so how people change after grief will be different as well. This is why “stages of grief” and other tidy ways of approaching grief, do not work. Fortunately, more recent research on grief acknowledges these differences.

I’m clearly a different person since Oliver died. I talk about him often as I learned a lot from him in his short life. His focus, even before he was sick, was to find the “happy” in life. Since he has died I too look for the “happy” and celebrate it. Grief looks different every day and the only constant is the presence of his absence. The poet Kathleen McGookey wrote in one of her poems, “Letter to My Mother”: “Each day I wake, unsurprised at your absence. It is the gray sweater, soft as a rabbit, I pull on against the chill.” This is an excellent description of grief and how we live with it. It becomes part of us, even comforting at times, as we can wrap ourselves in memories of the one we are missing.

Each day I wake, unsurprised at your absence. It is the gray sweater, soft as a rabbit, I pull on against the chill.

Kathleen McGookey
“Letter to My Mother”

Becoming a different person after grief does not mean we step backward. God is forever working in us and wanting us to grow closer to him, and how can we do that if we do not change? I’ll go so far as to not humbly say that I’m a better person since my son died.

None of this, of course, justifies the evil of a child dying. None of it is a “silver lining.” It just is. Me meeting God in the moment. Heart bared, hands up, and head down. Humbled in my lack of understanding while still trying to be open to God’s blessing.

We should not be ashamed that grief changes us. Indeed, we should delve into anything that knocks us out of our comfortable life. So delve into your grief, let it wrap itself around you, and live with it instead of against it. Grief is not something to get over but something to live with like that “gray sweater, soft as a rabbit.”

Those who know me know that a sense of humor has always been important to me. When you look like I do, a sense of humor is essential! So I joke and laugh, hassle my friends and family, and create more Dad-jokes than Dov can handle. But I can also be quiet on days where the missing of Oliver is palatable. My prayers involve more listening than talking and whenever death or grief appears in writing I’m immediately drawn to it. I’m different. That is okay. Being changed by grief is being changed by the one you love and miss. That is what relationships do.

2 thoughts on “Grief Changes You — It’s Okay

  1. Karen Michmerhuizen July 27, 2020 — 11:27 pm

    Well said, Derek. We move forward with grief, not “getting over” it.

    Like

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