On the day we buried our youngest son, our first grandchild was born. Dealing with grief at the loss of a child was the last thing we had expected at what should have been a joyful time.
I’d been in the middle of writing a book of observations I had made as a surgeon while caring for patients who were in the darkest hours of dealing with brain tumors, traumas, and other maladies. I thought I had learned some things that might help people handle the strife and pain life brings, navigate grief and loss, and find or hold on to their faith in those stormy seasons.
With my son’s death, suddenly, I was one of those people dealing with grief, looking for answers, raging at God, groping around in the darkness searching for something — anything — to hold on to.
We held a service and said goodbye to Mitch. Friends and family gathered together, holding one another up against the heavier gravity of grief.
But we were missing our oldest daughter, Caity, and our son-in-law, Nate, as they were a thousand miles away in Texas.
While we labored to survive the pain of grief at the loss of a child, Caity was laboring to deliver. Her joy and excitement mixed with the pain of losing her brother and being unable to gather with us or for us to be with her as we’d planned.
A week later, my wife, Lisa, and I flew to San Antonio. We were silent during the journey because every time we tried to talk, tears still choked our voices.
Holding my new, perfect, miraculous granddaughter was a wholly different experience from any other baby I’d ever held, even my own. Before, it was always me pouring love and energy into them, amazed at their flawlessness and giving them my heart immediately. But in holding baby Scarlett for the first time, it felt as if she was donating life to me. She was giving me something that had been seeping from my open wounds since her uncle, whom she’ll never meet in this lifetime, left us so unexpectedly 10 days before.
Our week in Texas, and the months that followed, were a cacophony of “buts”:
- We had a new grandbaby, but we’d suffered the loss of a child.
- Each of us loved her, but we were desperately grief stricken.
- We loved Scarlett, but we missed Mitch.
Every smile had a corresponding tear; every sorrow had a connected joy.
Pervasive guilt enveloped me every time I caught myself thinking only about being a grandfather and not about being a father whose son was gone. It seemed as if it were somehow an offense to Mitch for me to have a moment of laughter at the latest picture or video Caity sent. Dealing with my grief was complicated and challenging.
Scarlett and Mitch were connected by all those “buts.”
Life Keeps Moving When Dealing With Grief
The thing about grief is, most of us don’t know how to handle it. This is especially true the first time we experience it. But life keeps moving on, and soon we have to get back to work.
As I reinserted myself into my world of neurosurgery, moving in and out of the lives of hurting people, I began to notice something I’d never seen before: People grieve when they lose things they thought they knew.
If I were to sit down with you in my doctor’s office, look into your eyes and say, “It’s brain cancer,” the entire narrative you’ve created for your life would change by the time my words trailed off.
A Change in Plans
You might have been thinking you knew the gist of your life. However, your dreams and plans didn’t include chemotherapy, radiation, and painful surgeries. You might have been thinking about a 30-year mortgage, but now I’ve told you about a 15-month average survival.
It also happens with trauma patients, with stroke victims, with families of people who take their own lives, or succumb to their illness. They run full force into “but.”
- “We were supposed to do that thing, but the biopsy results were bad.”
- “Our life was this, but then the accident happened.”
- “We had all these plans, but you died instead.”
Grief also happens in those spaces between what we thought we knew and what’s proving to be true, and when our expectations are shattered. When instead of paying for your child’s tuition, you’re swiping your Mastercard to pay for his burial.
Before I became the father of a lost son, I thought I was an expert observer of other people’s troubles. But as a father grieving the loss of a child, I was forced to turn my eyes inward and strive to understand what was happening to me. I had to focus on finding my own way ahead and leading my family forward in the darkness into which grief had plunged us.
As time passed, Scarlett grew, and the acuity of losing Mitch faded just enough that we could breathe again. The grief and loss of a child lessened. And a miracle happened: A tiny, almost imperceptible space formed between Mitch and Scarlett.
It became possible, in fleeting moments, to see her apart from him. To feel the pure joy of her smile and her laugh. To absorb her love and give her ours.
When Scarlett was about 2 years old, she was having anxiety every night around bedtime. This wasn’t surprising, since she came into this world at a time when all the people around her were enveloped in tragedy, pain, and loss. So, she had perhaps a more realistic welcome into life than most infants do: We’re so glad you’re here, but life’s really hard.
Caity and Nate said prayers with her every night, lying in the darkness with her, comforting her. Caity had taken to recording the precious things Scarlett said during those prayer times. But one voice memo she sent changed everything for me.
Nate found that Scarlett liked to be reminded of how loved she was. So on the recording, we heard his list: “Mommy loves you. Daddy loves you. God loves you. Jesus loves you.” And then, in a quiet, almost angelic toddler voice, Scarlett said, “And Mitch loves you.”
There was a long pause. Then Nate replied, “Yes. Mitch loves you, Scarlett.”
Scarlett never met her uncle Mitch. But in the darkness, with all the uncertainty and doubt her little 2-year-old heart grappled with, somehow she found some light in knowing that Mitch loved her.
No More “Buts”
Looking back on those days, it’s interesting to see the metaphor. As a family of deep religious faith, we had a death and a burial, and three days later we had a resurrection of sorts. Scarlett burst forth out of our grief at the loss of a child. Although it took time for us to see it, she would deliver the ability to turn the “buts” into “ands” again:
- We had lost a son, and we had a granddaughter.
- Our hearts were hopelessly grieved, and we had inexpressible joy.
- We had doubt that God loved us, and we had faith in His grace every time we held Scarlett.
When we lose the things we think we know, faith can crumble under the weight of doubt, loss and pain. When all we can see are the “buts” tying any possible good to all we’ve lost, the darkness seems impenetrable.
But what I’ve learned in the six years since we lost Mitch is this: It is possible to find your feet again. It is possible to see light again in the laughter of a baby or the glory of a sunrise or the touch of a loved one’s hand. It is possible . . . because of “and.”
“And Mitch loves you.” Scarlett gave us the “and” we needed.
Find the “And”
Whatever life brings you, I can promise that I’ve seen enough trauma and tumors and war and all the other hard things people face in their lives, that those who survive and manage to hold on to or find the faith to keep going have this one thing in common: They find the “and.”
- You lost your spouse, and you had a wonderful life together.
- Your doctor gave you bad news, and there’s a very promising clinical trial at the cancer treatment hospital.
- You’re going through this hard thing, and you’ve got incredible support from lots of people who love you.
Scarlett is 6 now. She’s perfect and precocious, and she calls me Pop. Not long ago, she asked me to tell her about Uncle Mitch. And I did. She smiled when I told her how funny he was, how smart and kind and loving. She asked me if he was in heaven, and I said yes. Then she hugged me and gave me a kiss and fell asleep in my lap right after I said, “Pop loves you, and Mitch loves you.”
Dealing with Grief
If you are dealing with grief and loss and need someone to talk to, you can reach a counselor at 1-855-771-HELP (4357).