Not long after my infant son died of a neonatal heart defect, my wise friend Suzi told me – “You have to give thanks.”
“I do,” I said. “I practice gratitude all the time.”
“No,” she said. “You have to give thanks your baby died.”
I felt like slapping her. What a stupid thing to say to someone who’d recently lost a child.
“Not just him, your father and brother’s deaths too.”
I was furious. But you know what? She was right.
It was hard. I won’t pretend anything else. My mind scrambled for ways to be thankful. I could be grateful my father died at 42 because it relieved him of the pain he’d endured during his long battle with cancer. I was thankful that my brother’s suicide at 20 finally ended the unendurable suffering his schizophrenia caused him. Death was an end to suffering — that I was grateful for. I could give thanks I had them with me for the time I did, that my father was a good man, my brother – a fun companion. But my baby? How could I be thankful he wasn’t given a chance at life? How can people be grateful for the violent deaths of people they love?
Can We Be Thankful for Death?
I don’t know the answer. I only know that once I started looking for ways to give thanks, more reasons appeared and my heart started to feel lighter. It was my son’s death that helped me heal my past losses. I wouldn’t have my faith in life and appreciation of love and beauty and joy if he had not come and gone. So, in this way, I can be truly grateful. And it helps. It really does. His coming and going and the grief I experienced through his loss, was a great gift. A terrible gift, but a gift all the same. Grief, with all its pain, forces us to grapple with life in a way no other emotion has the power to do.
Nothing makes us question the meaning of life as strongly as death. When someone we love dies, we’re forced to acknowledge mortality and that raises scary, important questions about how and why we live.
So, what is it all about? I don’t think anyone really knows. What I believe is that each significant grief forces us to acknowledge that we are more than our bodies and the machinations of our minds. Grief is an invitation to explore and embrace our spiritual dimension. This invitation is a gift. You can accept it or you can look the other way – but the invitation stays open and you will be reminded of it again and again, until you finally open that box.
The Wisest Teacher of All
Grief, as our most difficult experience, it is also our wisest teacher and most precious gift. No one escapes it. The sooner we learn the lessons of forgiveness, surrender, gratitude, and love that grief brings, the better we will be able to embrace our lives. Every grief is a chance for the grieving to be re-born.
One of grief’s greatest gifts is an appreciation of the preciousness of life and the ultimate importance of love. We learn how central love is when someone close to us dies. When we are lost in the depths of our grief, it is the love of others that consoles us too. Grief strips us back to our essential being and we realise that all that really matters is the love we give and receive.
Grief makes us very aware that life is short and to be cherished. Feel the sun on your back, grass beneath your feet, watch young children play and borrow some of their wonder. Play with a dog and borrow some its joy. Be in the moment and give thanks for it.
It’s easy to feel thankful, especially on a beautiful day when the birds are singing. However, when we’re stuck in the quagmire of grief, it doesn’t seem there’s anything to be thankful for, every breath is an unwanted struggle. But if we stop and look around there’s sure to be one small thing to be grateful for. Small things add up.
Grief, Guilt and Forgiveness
The traumatic moment of a loved one’s death feels far from perfect, but that one passage of time is only truly with us once. We can choose whether to replay it or not. It’s natural to relive those dark scenes, to cry and release more of the pain, but we don’t need to dwell there. The past is over.
Grief brings with it a whole lot of anger. We rage against the circumstances that have brought death to us. We blame and hate and want revenge. Sometimes a person or system may be responsible, but most of the time we’re left with nowhere concrete to lay blame, so it lands on ourselves. Or on fate. Or God. To let go of that anger we need to forgive. The loss can’t be changed, but you can change the way you feel about it. By forgiving you can free yourself to move forward. It doesn’t mean you stop loving or missing the person you’ve lost. You are making the choice to try and find peace in your heart again.
Guilt is a natural part of grief. We look for someone to blame and for most of us, it’s easiest to blame ourselves and feel guilty. “If only I’d…”, “If I hadn’t…” or “The last thing I said to him was…” or “I never got to say goodbye”. Events unfold as they do. We make decisions and sometimes they’re the wrong ones, but all the time we’re trying our best with what we are able to do at the time. For some of us, there always has to be someone else to blame. It’s the drunk driver’s fault, the incompetent doctor, the unfair employer. What if death just happens? What if it’s no one’s fault? What if it just is?
People have even found ways to recover from the murders of their family members and been able to forgive the murderers. All these people felt they were healing themselves by forgiving others. They had to let go of their hate and anger. If they can do it, then surely we can too. To truly forgive an experience you have to find some way, however small, to be thankful that it happened. Practicing radical gratitude, giving thanks for pain even when we’re experiencing it, is the surest way I know to help ease that pain. That’s something to be thankful for.
Surrendering to a Higher Good and the Gifts of Grief
Giving thanks in the moment of pain is accepting that pain, surrendering to a power greater than ourselves. Surrender sounds like giving up, like cowardice and defeat, but wisdom comes in knowing when fighting against a greater power is impossible, when the courageous decision is to accept the situation and wave the white flag. Surrender brings a glorious sense of relief.
The more we try to control life, the harder the battle gets. Of course, we still need goals and to work towards them, but if we let go of our expectations and flow with the momentum, things tend to happen much more easily. We go through most of life suffering the illusion that we are “in control” and if we push hard enough then life will yield to our wills. The death of someone we love, especially if it is traumatic, violent or untimely, laughs at that idea. Right in the face. This is a gift.
Not long after my baby died, I found myself driving through unfamiliar streets trying to find my way home in the dark. I was lost, afraid and on the verge of tears. Then I decided to let go, to put my faith in a higher power to get me where I needed to go. I followed my intuition when it said turn this way, and then that, even though I had no idea where it would lead me. It took me, safe and sound, onto the brightly lit highway, on my way again.
And I realised, as I’d trusted that power to guide me then, I needed to trust where it was leading me in my life. Even though in my grief it felt as if I’d been thrown into a pit of snakes, I was gently being guided forward. Though I could not see it then, right and good action was taking place in my life.
I believe that in surrendering to this higher good and the gifts grief gave me, I opened myself to a deeper experience of life. I am grateful for every encounter, because I know that life is precious and my only job is to enjoy it, to open my heart and love others, not just to the precious few close to me, but to everyone. Because we are all the same and all different. Because we all love and live and hurt like hell when someone we love dies. Because we’re all in this together and the world is a beautiful place.
Some people do escape grief, the ones that die young.
Thank you for the essay. Here is a resource for dealing with Children’s grief – A TRUE children’s story – https://www.facebook.com/pg/The-Violet-Covered-Tea-Cup-1471627819746288/posts/?ref=page_internal
A most insightful and enlightening essay, Edwina. I have found that grief has given me resilience – in spades/buckets/truckloads. That is a gift and this gift of resilience enables me (and, I’d imagine others who receive it) to empathise, and have the ability to relate to others in the midst of it. When it’s new it’s crushing and it’s all a person can do to breath daily, but it lessens as the years pass. It never goes away. It’s like an amputation, I was told once by a wise man, you miss the limb but you learn to live without it.
Thank you, Edwina.