I have a friend and colleague who lives with Cystic Fibrosis (CF). She does not hide that fact, but most people who work with her may not realize it. She has incredible energy and an upbeat approach to life. When she is not roller skating down our college president’s driveway you might find her playing roller derby. Or fixing up her new house. Or talking about how wonderful her husband is. In other words, she is living a full life and not letting CF define her.
Recently, another friend noted how this contrasts with a woman she grew up with. That person also has CF and that is almost all you know of her. Her social media is centered around all she goes through daily because of her CF. Her life is defined by her CF, which is understandable since she lives with a life-altering disease. Still, you know there is more to her than her CF.
Oliver lived a short life and nearly half of it was battling cancer. But even in that short time, he was not defined by his cancer. He lived his life as fully as possible and cancer was part of his life, but only part of it.
Grief can work the same way. When Oliver was sick, my life was centered around the cancer world and that makes sense. When Oliver died, my world was one of grief and suffering and that also makes sense. I was defined by these evil and traumatic events in life. After Oliver died, when I walked into meetings, people would give me long looks — I was the guy whose little boy died at just six years old. They were looks of concern, love, and, possibly, fear. People looked at me through the lens of grief. Again, this all makes sense.
But 8 and a half years after his death, am I still defined by my grief? Of is my grief part of who I am?
If you’ve read almost any of my posts, you know that grief does not have an end date. I will always grieve the loss of Oliver. I miss him and I think about him every day. The way he would wave his arms at me when I arrived home so he could give me a hug. Our sword battles on the front sidewalk. Feeling his gentle breathing as he fell asleep with me rubbing his back. His horrible and hilarious knock knock jokes. The persistent questioning of everything, including what they were doing when he was in the hospital. His joy at beating a level on Bloon Towers. The way he would do his happy dance, especially when he did it for nurses when he arrived and left the hospital. His quick and cutting wit, as when a new doctor was checking all his vitals and told him he was a healthy boy. “Yep,” Oliver said without missing a beat, “except for the cancer.”
Today, many people I meet have no idea about Oliver. There are 12 other people who work with me in our office and only two of them knew Oliver. The rest have arrived in my life over the past 8 years. Of course, they know about Oliver. I talk about him plenty and I’m sure someone else in the office fills them in on the backstory.
Also, there are many other people I’ve met in the last eight years who may not know about Oliver — they don’t know about my family at all because that has not come up. So, there are many people who do not define me by my grief because they don’t know about it. If they did define me by my grief, it is because my grief defines me. Recently, I realized something.
My grief does not define me.
That is a scary statement to make because it feels like I’m forgetting about Oliver or saying “I’ve moved on” from grieving for him. Neither of these things is true. I grieve for Oliver all the time. Just the other day Mary Ann and I were hugging one another in the kitchen as she tearfully said “I miss him” and I told her I did too. This scene has been played out many times before and will happen again many times. It is natural to continue missing someone who has died.
Many of you have been on this journey with us from the outset. I began writing on the now-defunct CarePages just after Oliver was diagnosed with cancer. For three years you followed my updates and my ramblings as we all prayed for Oliver to survive. After he died, I continued to share my journey and eventually created this blog focusing on grief. There are no words to express the love and support our family felt throughout all of this. People cared for us. In today’s world, it is easy to be cynical. But I remember that people cared, still do care, and will always support others in need. But I no longer need to write this blog to work through my emotions or to update others. It is time for me to stop.
And I don’t end this blog with any answers. Why a young child is forced to suffer and die makes no sense to me. It remains a mystery. But in this Christmas season, we are reminded of another mystery, that of God incarnate as a baby of a humble family.
Hebrews 11 is a beautifully written explanation of faith. While the first verse is usually quoted as an example, the whole chapter expands from this verse. In verse 13 we are told of people who lived faithful lives before the arrival of Christ. “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth.”
There are many things in life I do not understand, but I know what was promised. At times I feel like a stranger on earth, but I’ve come to see that as an indication that my heart will only rest in another place.
And for Oliver
Oliver, days before you died you worried that we would not remember you. Fear not, little man, you will never be forgotten. Your brothers and sister, your mom, your grandparents, and so many others think of you daily. And this year a young woman at Hope College received a $1,700 Oliver Zane Nursing Scholarship, and it is guaranteed that your story will live on in all the students who will receive this award years after the rest of us die.
But being remembered by your name is not important. What is really important is that you are remembered through the impact you’ve had on so many others. The bravery with which you faced your cancer, the joy you found and shared in life, and most of all, in the love you radiated.
You will dance in my heart forever.