Defining grief

Little Washington, Virginia

In the weeks following Michael’s death, many people tried to empathize, and reach out to help us deal with the grief. The support was greatly appreciated, though one question that came up was how would I describe what I was feeling? What exactly is grief?

There are dictionary definitions, of course, and the literary works on the subject are too numerous to list. The funny thing is that grief, by nature, is unique for every person who experiences it. And each occurrence will be unique. For example, the grief I felt when my mother died was entirely different from what I felt when Michael died. What Lisa experienced was very different from what Caitlin or I did.

One book that we were directed to was by C.S. Lewis, called A grief observed. Lewis is best known, of course, for his Chronicles of Narnia cycle. But he also wrote numerous religious and philosophical works. In this particular work, he describes the grief that he felt after the death of his wife, and the healing process he went through along the way. But nowhere does he claim that his experience was typical, or that anyone else would feel the same way he did under similar circumstances. He described his experience as best he could, hoping that it might help future readers to describe their own grief.

That being said, how would I define my particular experience? The most obvious word would be emptiness. I felt that I was thrust into an emotional and spiritual void, where every possible emotion was being balanced, and cancelled out, by the sheer sea of nothingness that surrounded me. The only thing that could fill that immense void was the smiling face of my son, which is something I will never see again. (At least not in this existence.) It was a very lonesome and often hopeless feeling that would linger for days and weeks at a time. Even now, after over a year, I still haven’t fully come to terms with what happened. I can only hope that with time I will.

But then, death is inherently hard to deal with, though there are many approaches that one can use. Writers, philosophers and theologians have explored the subject for centuries, and one recurring notion is that everyone has “their time.” The exact way in which they leave this world doesn’t really matter. When it is time for us to die, we die. It usually doesn’t make sense to those effected. It is especially hard to fathom the notion of a six year old boy having reached “his time.”

But it isn’t altogether impossible. The Buddhist and Hindu traditions use the image of a universal network of gears, springs and balance wheels, representing how every person (or soul, or spirit) is connected to many others. It is rather like a giant clock.[1] Everyone of us has a role to perform within this system, and for every person it is different. For some people, their designated role may take many, many years. But for others, it may only require a few.

At Michael’s memorial service, a wide variety of people came to pay their respect. Many of them were from the school system, or were otherwise connected with the special education programs within the regional system. Many of them spoke of how Michael affected them, how much they learned by working with him, and how it changed the way they worked with similar children. That got me thinking in new and different ways. Michael apparently had a positive effect on how many of his teachers work with special needs children. Many of his teachers will be in the profession for many more years, and the lessons he provided may have a positive effect on other children in the future. Michael may have set some important things in motion, and the benefits may not be visible for some time. But he appears to have had an effect on that universal clock.

Truth be told, I prefer this clockwork idea over the more nihilistic notion that we live for a time, then just die, with absolutely no rhyme or reason. Within the universal clockwork metaphor, it could be that Michael’s role only required a few short years. If Michael was put into this world to initiate a chain of events, which could lead to greater things in the future, then it looks like his mission was successfully completed. I can take some comfort in that.


  1. The Judaeo-Christian tradition supports a similar idea of creation being a giant, interconnected machine. It is a major part of the Deist tradition, for example. But it doesn’t use the great metaphor of a giant clock.

One thought on “Defining grief”

  1. While I deeply grieve the loss of my grandson, Michael, I do find some consolation in the fact that where one child died, two children (through organ donation) live. And, I am convinced that Michael is in heaven with God, suffering no more, waiting to be reunited with us.

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