Five Lessons Grief Teaches

Bereaved parent, Maria Housden, author of the book, Hannah’s Gift, Lessons From a Life Fully Lived, has been a keynote speaker for past TCF national conferences.  She was also the opening keynote speaker for the 2020 TCF virtual conference and wrote the following article.

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 (15)

  • I lost my 16 year old son over 41 years ago; I’m not “over it”. I will never be “over it” but as you wrote so beautifully – it gets “easier”. Reading your story brought me to tears for all of us, you, me, Hannah and my son Ken. I was made fearful of the Christian God when I was a child, but I even as a child I could never believe in the God guy of the bible, who killed people with floods and plagues. This resulted a nagging guilt feeling , that I would be sent to the Hell place if/when I died. I’m now an old man of 85, way down the road of life and have totally lost that fear. I have written a book titled, “Hey God! You Don’t Scare Me … Anymore! I was in a beautiful setting, on an awesome day and my thoughts wandered back to childhood when I first heard and was made fearful of – God. I asked him/her/it if it would converse with me and I received an answer. Many other conversations followed. What I learned might be helpful to you. I will be happy to mail you a copy or it’s available on Amazon. If I could I would wrap my arms around you an tears would flow once more. I wish you and yours all the best. Sincerely from my heart. Dwight

  • It is always sad and it always stayed sad !!!! My 3 year old daughter died of malignant brain tumor She was adopted I was heart broken, millions of people adopt kids why me ? why it happened to me ? i must be a bad person that’s why am i being punished !!!
    But one day a light turn on in my heart that God wanted me to take care of this beautiful angel when she was sick otherwise she would have been staying in a foster home with sub minimal health care.At least i left no stone unturned to provide the best medical care RIP my angel baby she would have been 34 years old TEARS

  • Wow.. my lil girl was not born when I lost my Mom… n she was like 4.5 when we lost my mother in law…
    My older girls , her n me were going to go shop for groceries for the feed… n we were talking about my mom…
    N she sais… I remember your mom.. she showed me you and she showed me papa. N then she said, grandma showed me you n said… that’s your Mom….

  • So true, five lessons grief teaches. It was so profound that it made me stop and cry a couple of times- in a good way.

    I immediately thought, at least we had our son 23 more years- he beat us to our permanent home @ age 26…and yes we have often said that he is in our future.

    Is there a way of sharing this on FB, I am sure someone would benefit from reading all the wisdom?

  • Oh my! Our 6 yr. old son, Scott, died 41 years ago. I can relate to many of the same feelings and reactions as you had and have, Maria. He died of a sudden illness called Reye’s Syndrome. The Drs. told us that if he survived he would be like a 4 month old infant for the rest of his life. We unhooked him and let him go with the angels…. I have been a special education paraeducator for 32 years and I can tell you that Scott is with me every single day that I am at school with these special needs kids. I can’t explain how much I love them, it’s in my soul. I belong to a group of bereaved parents from ages 4-12 on Facebook. I try to tell newly bereaved parents that it will get better but know that those words mean nothing as their grief is so new and raw. I feel so connected with them as we travel this unthinkable journey. Thank you for your kind words. I will read your books. Hugs to you.

  • A door opened when I read this. 22 years is the marker when life changed for me with the accidental death of my 24 year old daughter who’s birthday we celebrate next week. Living with grief changes everything. Every moment counts.

  • Hello Maria, Thank you for your thoughts, I found this moving and helpful to me to read.
    There are times when people ask “how are you”, with a look of pity or maybe it is their tone but now I can respond
    one or two quotes from “Five Lessons Grief Teaches” instead of just saying “well I am OK, I guess”.
    Blessings to you and yours, Elizabeth

  • After reading and re-reading the second and third to the last paragraphs I just sat here and cried my eyes out.
    What a beautiful thing to hear your daughter Madelaine say.

    Thanks for sharing your story.

  • you have captured this mommy’s heart and used the words that I have felt but couldn’t verbalize. thank you

    your sister in Christ, Kimberly

  • Maria’s article very beautifully and accurately echoes so many thoughts and feelings we encounter after a child dies. Having said good-bye to two of my daughters in two years, I also wished to die, to never again experience joy, to turn away from the God I trusted and to never again risk loving. Yet in these nine years of grief, missing my girls has re-shaped, rekindled and re-vitalized my spiritual life in ways I never imagined possible. I too wrote about these beautiful changes in my book, “Blessings for a Grieving Mother, 52 Devotions from the Psalms.” Thank you for featuring Maria’s words for us ‘slow learners.’

  • So many correlations in this article. I can identify with most all of them. I just passed the 30th anniversary of my son’s passing on September 20, 2020. At some past anniversaries I have not posted anything on Facebook. This year, being somewhat of a “mile marker,” I posted some old photos of Eric and his older brother, Kevin. The comments helped, and despite our tragedy, there really were some blessings that came out of what happened. My son was tragically burned in a house fire on the night of July 4th, 1991. He only had a 10 percent chance of survival, but he did….for almost three months. After the doctor in the burn unit told he my son might die after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage, I was in disbelief and felt I was dead to the bone. The next morning when the respirator was disconnected, we said our goodbyes. I have been to three TCF conventions, the first one being five years after my son passed. It helped tremendously to be around other people who had suffered a similar loss. For a long time, I thought my story was the worst, but then I came to see that it wasn’t how my son had died, but that he had died, period. Everyone has a horror story when their child dies, and no one, absolutely no one, should have to bury a child. I’ hope Madeline ‘s birth gave you a new life as well. I know that the birth of my son’s three daughters helped save mine.

  • I met you years ago at a conference and came and had coffee with you at your home in Salida. I am a grief counselor and have referred to your story and journey many times. Hannah lives through you and your story. My practice is in Greenwood Village, I live in Parker. Thank you for these words, I am sure they will help many

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