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 bull sh*t, 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’ at 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. 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 (8)

  • Thank you for this lovely article. I have been through this and believe in every word you have said. I see this as a message from heaven 🙂

  • I know pretty much exactly everything you have wrote of the emotional roller coaster we as mothers endure after losing a child…..I lost my daughter 2 years and 5 months ago to cancer as well at the age of 19….I to have zero tolerance to anything anymore and I also feel that as time passes the reality sets in more and the grief becomes harder….especially when my sons are suffering as well as my family…the only thing we do is just not talk to each other and it continues to build up inside of us….I am truly at a loss of how to fix things…meaning put myself aside and make them feel better…at the end of the day we are moms that have to continue to protect and do right for our children….the only strategy I have right now is that I believe my daughter is still with us….we just need to have a different relationship with her….one where we can feel her presence but we cant see her…only in our dreams…

  • Can relate to all you wrote ,your description of grief was beautifully written
    I carnt help but wonder how far my beautiful talented daughter would of gone as a writer
    she had just finished her first semester at university study professional and creative writing
    and was well on her way to a bright future doing what she loved most ,the day before her 19th birthday she was placed in an induced coma
    surrounded by machines , suffering from pneumonia caused by a blood cancer ,she fought a courageous battle 52 days 4/6/1996 – 25/72014
    forever Young Never to write again or to hear her voice or too see her beautiful blue eyes looking back at me
    lm grateful she was mine for 18 healthy years as not everyone gets that long
    so sorry for your loss

  • Wow…you just wrote my innermost thoughts. We lost our 26 year old son along with his fiance in an apartment fire on April 29th 2018. Hard to see any good in it, but…He died holding the woman he loved waiting for the fireman to come. He NEVER has to experience the hardships of life. HE WORSHIPS BEFORE OUR LORD! FOREVER! These things get me through this horrible grief. Your words, every one of them ring true. Bless you and your family.

  • This article hit me hard and I feel it was written just for me. My daughter died 2nd January this year to cancer. She would be 3 on the 27th January. So deep in the raw part of grief I have found myself writing and asking about the love I have for Megan has been a question I have raised alot. Your article is beautiful and helps me see how I deal with this. Without my love I would not hurt so deeply and I wouldn’t change this love for anything.

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