Five Lessons Grief Teaches

Twenty-two years of grief changes a lot of things. I am a new person every day. I never expected to survive my daughter’s death. For months after, I prayed to die. More than once, I considered taking my own life, though I could not leave all I love here.

There is no good way or time to lose a child. When someone you love dies, everything unnecessary falls away. I have learned to see grief as a spiritual practice, and it has taught me to see life in new ways.

TRUTH: telling it and living it

My daughter Hannah died of cancer at the age of three. This is the first true moment in my human story. Everything I am begins with this. The truth of Hannah’s death is fierce and unrelenting. I cannot change it, but I can change the way I live with it.

When Hannah died, my life entered a “no drama” zone. I only had time and energy for the few things that mattered. I lost my politeness and learned to tell the truth. I let the phone ring and stopped reading fiction.

Pretending not to grieve does not make our children less dead. When tears are not seen as weakness, sorrow becomes a wise teacher. I also see now that truth is mutable. Truth changes as we change, and it waits until we are ready to see it.

JOY: finding it in the darkest places

For a long time after Hannah’s death, I was afraid to laugh or smile. I didn’t want to betray her suffering by feeling happy. As time passed, this feeling lifted. I smiled more and cried less. I noticed signs and synchronicities that reminded me of Hannah.

Joy is fleeting when grief makes a home in your life. I learned to find it in the darkest places. Saying ‘yes’ in the moment reveals unexpected happiness. I rarely make plans ahead of time now, as I can’t be certain how I will feel.

This way of seeing allows us to release the need for everything to be perfect. Joy is the possibility of happiness in every moment, the feeling that we are right where we need to be.

FAITH: from “my will be done” to “thy will be done”

Three months after Hannah’s death, I stood by the side of a road, prepared to take my own life. I was not afraid of death, no matter what happens Hannah is already there. As a truck approached, I suddenly became aware of my lungs breathing. I forgot about the truck and focused on my breath. I realized that something in me is still choosing life. I stayed alive to find out why.

There are no words to describe the space left absent when a child dies. The love you feel has nowhere to go. The longer your child is gone, the more you miss them. This missing becomes a part of you.

In my grief, I began to explore other religions and belief systems, hungry for validation of life after death. The God I believe in now is not the God that I grew up with.  Though Christianity remains the first language of my faith, I now see threads of truth connecting many understandings. For me, God is a force of a thousand names and one love. Hannah’s spirit lives on as part of everything.

Strange comfort, this holding of everything in one place; yet I see an intelligence beyond imagining which orchestrates life and nature. While it is painful to accept Hannah’s death, I also see her life making a difference in this world. Someone once described the earth as the planet for slow-learners. Faith trusts and breathes when it’s all we can do.

COMPASSION: from specialness to belonging

I do not know why Hannah died and other children didn’t.  At first, I felt a sense of specialness. No one could know the depth of my pain. For a while, I didn’t want to speak with anyone unless they had lost a child.  Gradually, I began to connect with other people.

Forgiveness is key throughout the journey of grief: forgiveness of those who live and of those who die. As I learn to forgive myself, I find it easier to forgive others. Our intent in harnessing grief makes transformation possible.  ‘Grief’ shares the same root as ‘grave’, ‘gravity’, and ‘gravitation’. It is a force with weight and heft. Once engaged, it can be redirected.

When Hannah was first diagnosed, one of her doctors gave us good advice.  He said, “Remember, no matter what happens, make the best decision you can with the information you have AT THAT TIME.”  Of course, we would change things if we knew then what we know now.  There is no solace in blaming ourselves and others for not knowing.

Although I sometimes have less patience for other people and their problems, I see each of us is a unique lens in a shared experience.  Compassion softens our gaze and allows us to appreciate new perspectives.  When we reach beyond our specialness, we realize we are not alone.

WONDER: from needing to know to letting go

There was a house in our little town which was painted pink from top to bottom. Hannah loved this house. In the last year of her life, each time we passed it, she would say, “That’s where I am going to live!”

A year and a half after Hannah’s death, my daughter Madelaine was born. One day, when Madelaine was almost three-years old, we were driving to the grocery store. Suddenly Madelaine started shrieking from the back seat, I turned to see what was happening and saw her pointing to the pink house.

“Mommy,” she exclaimed, “That’s the house where Hannah and I played in heaven before I was born!”

I had no idea how she knew, and in that moment I didn’t need to. Hannah’s death opened me to realms I never knew existed. Having watched my Father and my daughter take their last breaths, I remember a peaceful presence entering the room. This energy called life is where I feel our children’s presence is, and their spirits still make themselves known.

Maria Housden

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Comments (19)

  • Thank you for this message, it describes exactly how I fell and what I am going through. I needed to hear someone else feels the same and understands.

  • Despite the 32 years since our daughter’s death, I have not traveled the same path. The #MeToo movement has reignited the pain which has resurfaced. Our daughter died by her own hand after being sexually molested by her school guidance counsellor. She was a bright, beautiful, talented Olympic level swimmer. Because of her achievements she was not accepted by the usual female classmates & was stronger than most males her same age. Consequence? She was made fun of! Her counsellor warned her if she ever told ANYONE he would see to it that she would be institutionalized for being “crazy”. It started when she was 12. We wondered why she showered 4 times/day. The pool’s smell of bleach, she said. She then developed an eating disorder that led to her hospitalization for being so thin & now weak when she could no longer perform what she had excelled in swimming. Her self esteem fell. Psych. help focused on the anorexia & not its cause. We sought help from many professionals 7 each one had their own pet theory. While I was reluctant to have her leave home to attend college, it was recommended that we support that. In her psych care there she finally admitted what had happened. She hoped that if we guessed what happened the she did not tell us & she would be safe. Now she said she took so many showers because “I couldn’t get clean”. When we reported to the school superintendent, he asked for witnesses. He said ” If she committed suicide, she must have been crazy!” I will not list all we tried to do. We planted one of her favorite trees on the grounds of her high school in her memory. We set up an annual Travel/Study grant for any promising student who goes beyond to help others as our daughter had done during the annual National Honor Society induction of new students. Our daughter had been a NHS honoree. MeToo is a reminder of the lack of justice in this arena & ow hard it is for the so traumatized victim to come forward &, worse, not be believed. I would have felt luck to have been with her with her last breath. Instead, she was considerate of us to take her life far away, in a Motel room, putting herself in the bathtub so the possible mess “would be easy to clean up!”. She was 20 years old & 6 weeks from her 21st birthday!

  • This is so beautiful Maria. So much that you say resonates with me. I wrote down some of your feelings as I know I will be reiterating them. Oh and I love what Madelaine said when she passed the pink house. Hannah,’s energy- her presence is still here. You say the longer they are gone, the more you miss them. My son Ryan is gone almost 6 years. He died February 16th. I am having shush a difficult time. As I write this my head feels like it is going to burst! And I must hide these feelings from my husband. We just finished a 2 week vacation in the Caribbean yet I am more sad than ever. How can I share this? My son was 29 when he died. I always feel so sad for mommies that lost infants and young children. You never had all the milestones I experienced. But we all share this grief which will be with us forever, it is part of our life, it is my life. Once again, thank you for sharing.

  • My grandson was diagnosed with DIPG, pediatric brain cancer, at the age of 4. He suffered and fought for 347 days. He left us on Oct. 5, 2018. He was my joy at a time when, as we age, joy seems like something for the young. The caboose of the family. I grieve for my daughter as much as I do our precious Jace. She suffers every minute of every day.

    Our faith was strong during his sickness. We just knew that if we did what the Bible taught us to do that Jace would survive somehow. After all, that’s what we had been taught since childhood. That’s what I taught my daughter. Now, I guess I’m grieving the loss of my faith, too.

    I am just so, so sorry that you lost your daughter. Breaks my heart. There are no other words.

  • Very well said. We lost our son, Jason, at nineteen months of age, from complications of the brain injury he suffered during his birth. That was 32(!) years ago! He remains a part of me every single day and always will. You story resonates with me as I’ve felt all of the same emotions that you have shared. Thank you for sharing my thoughts too.

  • Just beautiful Maria. Thanks for sharing. My son passed away on 2/18/19 at age 48. I wish I could find the words to put my thoughts on paper.

  • Dear Maria,
    I am so sorry that your precious child, Hannah, died. I, too, lost my precious daughter, Cheryl, at age 24 to a drunk driver. There is no good way nor no good time to lose a child. Luckily, I have a surviving son and two lovely (now grown) granddaughters through he and his wife and I am grateful for the four of them. Perhaps I will someday have grandchildren. My husband & I were told about The Compassionate Friends by a young rabbi at our synagogue. We quickly became involved at T.C.F. and it helped us enormously in dealing with our grief & communicating with each other. We assumed leadership in a chapter, attended National Conferences and it helped us heal. We are now both in our 80’s and living in a Sr. Community, enjoying our lives for as long as we have left.
    Please hug your precious Madelaine for us. Perhaps Hannah & Cheryl have met. Wouldn’t that be nice?
    Warmly, Carol

  • Today is twenty years for us since our son died. He was much older than Hannah, but age really isn’t a factor when you’re talking about losing a child, is it. What you’ve said has also been true for us. Both we and our grief have changed over time. As you said, we cannot change our grief, but we can change how we live with it. I believe we experience things in life to enable us to come alongside others who are going through the same valley. We have discovered a number of outlets to express what we’ve learned through our grief; we find it comforting to be able to share with other grieving parents and let them know they’re not the only ones who’ve experienced, felt deeply, and changed because of the death of their child. For us, our faith has been the stabilizing and sustaining factor. Without it, I’m not sure where we’d be. Thanks for sharing from your heart.

  • I thought my thinking was wrong. Each day I cried inside and out. Ben died in 1995 at the young age of nineteen . The hole is still in my heart. It will never go away. I sing praises to God that I had 19 years to be with him and I’m sad that I no longer have those days.

    I will be praying for you my friend. Ann

  • I lost my son in 2012 and I understand well everything this mother is saying. I feel for her and the loss of her daughter.

  • Such a moving recitation of a one person’s journey of grief and so relatable. Thank you.

  • Maria,
    I lost my oldest child and only son to cancer 17 plus years ago at the age of 35; he was an adult unlike your Hannah and I identify with each sentence you shared with us. I am grateful you gave put words to my feelings and I want to share your writing with friends who are great friends to me but have not lost a child-I believe you’re words can explain what I have tried to explain for so many years. Thank you for sharing your story and I am so very sorry about the loss of your precious Hannah. May God bless you and your family as you continue your journey.

    Vaughn’s Mom

  • Thank you so much Maria for sharing that most heartfelt, beautiful tribute and sharing your precious Hannah with us.. Im so sorry for your loss and i believe i will be takimg some of your suggestions and maybe try to get a little “normal”. God bless you.

  • These lessons on grief are most touching. Thank you for sharing. My only child was killed 14 1/2 years ago in a wreck. Soon after, I lost my father to cancer, then my mother-in-law to heart disease, and finally, my husband to cancer. I went through 5 years of caring for immediate family members and helping them die, but losing my beautiful son who was only 20 years old has been the most devastating of all of these losses. I still wake up to that horror that changed my life all in one night, a suffering that undoubtedly hastened the loss of my other family members who lost their will to continue in this life. I understand very well that the death of one so young and so promising is not something you ever get over, you must learn to get through it by helping others, by creating something everlasting to honor such a life. Clint’s friends and I spent some 11 years working our golf tournament and now have a Texas A&M Endowment that helps other young students begin their freshman year at his beloved university. I have experienced such mysteries and visits as you have with your young daughter and the calming peace that follows.

  • I’m 6 years into my grief journey having lost my daughter at age 29 due to a motorcycle accident. Your words speak so much truth especially the statement that says “the love I feel has nowhere to go.” Thank you for your strength and courage. This can only help grieving mothers like me.

  • I can relate to the lessons in grief for I lost my beloved son “Ricky” at the age of 19. I also wanted to die,for the pain of trying to live was worse than the pain of dying. I had a husband ,16 yr old daughter & 6 yr old son and thought they would survive without me. I did not know anyone who lost a child but I had a lot of faith and God in my life. My 6 yr old son was my pillar of strength he would say”mommy why are you crying? Ricky is in heaven”I lived on cigarettes and coffee, but did not die for God showed me he was in control for I am here 40 yrs later.I had to make a choice, to die or resume life and live in my sons’ precious memory I will never accept Rickys’ death but I have accepted the fact that this is something I cannot change and my life will never be the same I can also say the longer my son is gone the more I miss him. The most destructive type of suffering is pain without purpose. Can we ever find meaning in our loss? I am not afraid to die for my faith tells me I will see my son again when I cross the threshold of death ,my son will be there to take me home to be with our Lord.

  • Thank you for sharing Hannah’s story and your story. I am so sorry about your sweet Hannah. I can’t even imagine. I lost my 18 yr old daughter to a car accident. I could relate to so many things you wrote as they were my feelings as well. We are their rememberers.

  • Thank you for sharing Hannah with us. Bobby was 26 when he died 28 years ago. His story was very different, butt the end was the same and I too wanted to die. My oldest granddaughter was born a year to the day that he died. Her sister was born on her 3rd birthday. My daughter says, Bobby is in charge of baby heaven and will not let me go through the rest of my life hating that day. With the help of Compassionate Friends I lived through the nightmare. I felt your pain and I too don’t take life for granted.

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