I was invited to contribute an essay for our local NPR station’s “This I Believe.” This essay is apart of a yearlong project on grieving called “Learning to Live: What’s Your Story?” The audio can be found here and the essay is below.
We all believe many different things over the course of our lives and our beliefs shift; much as the relentless waves alter the contours of the shore, new experiences cause us to grow and adapt.
A few years ago I wrote a “This I Believe” essay about the importance of honor, of doing what is right at all times. I continue to hold that belief, but in the last few years I’ve also realized the value and importance of expressing loss.
I believe in the necessary and restorative power of grief.
On New Year’s Eve 2012 our son Mack died of sepsis, an uncontrollable blood infection that took his life in a matter of hours. While I had spent more than a decade in the academic and theological study of Jewish and Christian responses to loss, nothing could prepare me for the loss of my child. Shortly after Mack died our friend shared a slim volume on grief by Granger Westberg. It is called “Good Grief” and in it Westberg points out that we grieve all sorts of things in our lives, big and small.
We recognize and understand that when someone we love dies, we will grieve. We mourn the fact that they will no longer be in our lives. Those around us will often recognize that we are grieving, offering us support and the emotional space to express our feelings of loss. But we often do not realize that we grieve all sorts of “little things” as well.
Shortly after Mack died, a student met with me to discuss her academic future. She said, “I’m sorry to bother you Dean Brady. My changing majors is nothing compared with you and your wife losing your son.” Of course they are different categories of loss, but as I told the student, for her, at that point in her life, this was a major loss and change. She had always intended to be a physician and realizing this was not her future was truly heart breaking for her. She was grieving the loss of that intended future, just as we grieved the future we had dreamed of for our son.
In the Penn State community there are many who still grieve the events that followed the disclosure in 2011 that a Penn State football coach had sexually molested young boys. In talking with members of our Penn State community, I realized that, although few acknowledged it, we were, each in our own way, grieving. We were grieving for those young boys and the scars they carry, we were grieving that memories of past football victories would now be tarnished, we were grieving our own loss of innocence.
We all grieve and we grieve all sorts of things. I believe grief is healing. If we embrace it, its waters, which feel like they might drown us, will purify us instead.