As some of you know, a month ago, my sweet 24-year-old son Henry fell to his death in a rock-climbing accident. I believe losing a child to death is, perhaps, the deepest pain we feel in life. This latest and greatest loss of my life is a chilling reminder that suffering one loss does not provide immunity for future losses. I have asked God tearfully, “Why couldn’t you take a child from someone with a lot of children instead of the guy that only had two?” I have sometimes thought, “Okay Father, I have had my Abrahamic test. I don’t need another one.” But, of course, that is not for me to say, and life does not work that way. The books aren’t balanced daily and our mortal ideas about fairness have little influence on the designs of our Father in Heaven.
My adult life has included an extraordinary number of major losses. In fact, I could almost say that I have a PhD in processing grief. When I was 26 years old, I lost my 17-year-old brother to cancer. That felt like a huge gut-punch. But it did not buy me any immunity from future losses—even the loss of my beloved son. My first divorce provided me no immunity against my second divorce and certainly not the loss of my son. None of these major losses guarantee that there will not be another one. Radically accepting the inherent uncertainty of life and realizing that none of us is guaranteed tomorrow can help us achieve acceptance and healing faster.
Important lessons I have learned in the crucibles of divorce and death, include the following:
(1) When a loss is very recent and raw, it is normal if you don’t even want to feel happy. The thing that will make you feel best is to allow yourself to feel heartbroken and sad. President Nelson taught that, “The only way to take sorrow out of death is to take love out of life” (Doors of Death,” Ensign, May 1992). In like manner, the only way to take the sorrow out of divorce is to take the love out of marriage. Grief is the way we honor the love we shared. Allow yourself to feel your feelings, cry, mourn, and talk through the deep feelings of loss you feel.
(2)Radically accept that your loved one has passed on and that you will never completely get over it in this life. My brother departed almost 29 years ago, and I can still get a lump in my throat thinking about his loss. A major loss leaves a mark, and it changes us forever. The loss of a child creates a grieving process that will last a lifetime. Accepting that the loss is permanent (for this life), allows you to learn to live with the loss rather than trying to get over it.
(3)Understand what healing looks like. My son’s death is still recent and very raw for me. I am thinking about the loss almost all the time. The same was true, at first, with the loss of my brother three decades ago. At first, I thought of the loss of my brother pretty much constantly. I do not usually think about his loss and most of my memories of him are happy. I ultimately returned to my old self and was able to be a generally happy person. I don’t expect this to be different in the loss of my son. The intense pain will be replaced by a mournful longing. I will gradually think about the loss less often and will be able to remember my son with more happiness than tears.
It is important to picture what healing looks like in the realm of grief. You don’t ever get over the loss of a spouse or a child. You get used to it. You adjust to not having that person here in mortality. You learn to be happy even with the wound in your heart. When you burst into tears 25 years in the future, don’t be surprised. It won’t happen all that often by then, but the loss will still feel painful when something triggers a painful memory of the loss. Understanding what healing looks like helps me to heal and adjust more quickly.
(4) Don’t let the loss define you. It is very important, albeit difficult, to keep the loss in perspective. It can consume me if I allow it to. But I have other responsibilities, including the responsibility to take care of myself and the remainder of my family who are still with us. While it is natural to focus all my energy on a tragic loss, it is not healthy to do so. After a period of intense mourning, it is important to simply be sad because of the loss itself—not because we are hanging judgments on it. Thinking it wasn’t supposed to turn out this way will only intensify the pain and keep us there longer.
(5) Get back to a normal routine as soon as reasonably possible. When my little brother died, we completed the funeral, and my father went back to work the next day. I know his heart was still broken and he was dealing with a variety of other problems. However, I think going back to work helped him to heal faster and to keep the loss in perspective. Conversely, after I got divorced the first time, I was so deeply depressed that I avoided real life and spent most of my time mourning my marriage. The deep stage of intense grief lasted four years. It nearly ruined me financially, which deepened the sense of overwhelm and depression I felt. While there is no perfect way, I am sure my dad’s way was better.
I am giving myself an hour per day to mourn. I don’t want to shut down my grief or pretend I am fine when I am not. But I do want to compartmentalize it to the extent reasonably possible. Getting back to normal life is helping me ease into the “new normal” and adjust to a world without Henry in it. That is a difficult and painful adjustment. It would not be healthy to allow it to consume all my energy.
(6) Prioritize self-care. Caring for yourself includes finding ways to relax and quiet your mind. This can include prayer, taking time to mourn, meditation, vigorous physical exercise, visiting the temple, taking a warm bath, journaling, reading sacred books or listening to sacred music, and other healing modalities. I am currently committed to exercising six days per week because I need the mood lift created by the endorphins. Exercise helps me to function in highly depressing or stress-filled circumstances. If you don’t feel like taking care of yourself, that is normal but not healthy. For a couple of weeks after Henry died, I lost my appetite and didn’t feel like eating. My wife Cathy kept putting food in front of me and I realized it was important for me to have nourishment to deal with the indescribable pain I was feeling. Affirmatively remind yourself that you need not feel guilty for being happy or feeling good when your loved one has passed on or otherwise departed from your life. If you no longer have a spouse, it is even more important for you to make self-care a high priority. It will hasten healing and help to move through one of the most difficult experiences mortality offers.
(7) Create a support system. Many people are praying for you. Take strength in the outpouring of love that you have received, even when you feel lonely, and people aren’t checking in as much. I promise you they still care. Reach out to understanding friends who you can share your grief with. When people say they are willing to talk if you need that, believe them. Take them up on it. However, don’t make grief the subject of every conversation. Talk and even laugh together. Do fun things together that will enhance your friendships. Having a large community of wise friends remains crucial to me in dealing with grief over my son’s death.
(8) Take inspiration from your good memories. Regardless of the nature of your loss, you can always gather hope by remembering the good and inspirational times you spent with your loved one. I vividly recall the night I felt compelled to leave my second wife. Henry and I packed up the car and left for a hotel. We went to a movie that night to take our mind off things. After the movie, as we were driving back to the hotel, I broke down. I said, “Henry, I don’t know how much more pain I can stand. I just feel like giving up.” Henry was only 17 years old and had various problems of his own. But he turned to me on that difficult night and said, “Dad, you’re the most positive person I know. You can’t give up.” He reminded me of who I was when I had almost forgotten. I will try to recall these words when I am sad and missing him or face other adversity in life. In the present situation, I am pretty sure Henry would say, “Dad, you’re the most positive person I know. You can’t give up.” I treasure those words and the love that came with them.
After several major losses, I understand that grief is a normal part of life. Embrace it as such and you will heal.