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The Wisdom of Grief

"He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God." - Aeschylus

Growing up, I never gave much thought to November 6th. It was just another day. My energies were solely focused on the 3rd – my birthday – and later the 5th, my daughter’s birthday.

November 6 is just a day. 24 hours. 1,440 minutes.

But on November 6, 2004 and November 6, 2008, my wife and mother died of cancer.

Today, a child will get off the school bus and share a gleeful experience about reading a book. Another child will agonize over an upcoming history test and text with friends about the homecoming dance this weekend. Life goes on without regard for all but a few of us for whom this day has meaning - as it should.

My children and I, however, carry the weight of death on this day. I have spent years since these and other deaths learning how to hold onto love and loss, simultaneously, and now bringing the benefit of my experiences to my work as Group President of Elizabeth's Smile.

Side-by-side photos of my wife, Amy, and my mother.

Our Basics of Grief, written by grief and child development experts, explain that grief lasts a lifetime, and that grief reactions intensify during moments of transition, or when the details of the loss are revisited (ie, anniversaries, birthdays, etc.).

My attention on this day will be directed towards my children’s wellbeing, but the truth is my own grief weighs heavily.

Some things I have learned...

We each grieve differently. My experience is just that - unique to me - but if anything I have been through can help someone else, then consider a few things I have learned:

Grief isn't linear, but neither is time (in one sense). This isn't some new quantum theory, but for me it has a lot to say about the nature of grief. My memories of Amy and my mother, from different times of their lives, come flowing in at seemingly random moments. Ten years out, I felt like I had mastered my grief. The next year, I was crippled by it when my daughter won a series of awards and I felt my wife should have been present. One minute, I'm happy in 2023, the next my thoughts are in 1999 when Amy collapsed, then 2002 when she was finally diagnosed. The grieving experience for me is akin to a Jackson Pollock painting. Do your best, but for those grieving the definition changes. As Don Miguel Ruiz writes in his “Four Agreements” sometimes our best is superhuman, but sometimes our best is just literally getting through a day when we find ourselves struggling with grief. On those days, for me, being present with grief feels like walking in quicksand with weights tied to my ankles. And then... poof, the line snaps and I'm walking like I'm floating on air. Rather than put pressure on myself, I accept that in the moment, this is the best I can do, and quite often, that liberates me. Grieve. We all grieve differently. Some people need connection. Others need a quiet space to cry. I need to feel whatever I’m feeling without denying it or blocking it – happy, cranky, sad – whatever. Then, as I process my feelings, I often paint and write late at night. This enables me to process what I call, "the space before words." While my creations can be pretty dark or absurd, this has proven to be a constructive way for me to grieve. Process. However you need to process or be with your loss, I encourage you to do so. Unresolved grief leads to suffering and dysfunction. I have met far too many people whose unresolved grief manifested itself in things like alcoholism and drug addiction. Dealing with loss is hard - maybe the hardest thing some of us will do. Most of the work we do is done alone, in the shadows of relationships, or in a society that doesn’t deal openly and directly with death. It is very hard work, but it is possible, and there is help. Love. Victor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, said that everything can be taken from us except the last of our freedoms: our ability to choose our own way in any circumstance. Love isn’t captured in the sentiments expressed on a greeting card. It’s a choice. I choose to meet suffering with service; indifference with action and the pain of loss with a warm heart and the promise of a new day.

Please remember you are not alone in your grief. If you or anyone you know needs help finding resources to navigate grief, please reach out. Aside from our Basics of Grief, we have also curated a list of resources that we hope you find helpful.

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