The Power of Grief

Alyssa Carvara

In 1980, my husband and I and our three beloved children — Victor, 17; Andrew, 15; and Fay, 13 — were a blessed and privileged family, living full lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Then, on July 12, a week before his 18th birthday, Victor fell off a cliff while hiking in Yosemite National Park and died. Our hearts, our lives were shattered. I was a psychotherapist, grief counselor and dance/movement therapist; I had offered support to others for years. But nothing had prepared me for the unimaginable.

I did not recognize myself. I was overwhelmed by a roller coaster of unfamiliar emotions. I had bursts of uncontrollable crying. One night, I clung to Victor’s clothes as I sobbed on the floor of his closet. I felt crazed, confused. I couldn’t register that a red traffic light meant stop. My gut burned with a fire I didn’t think I could bear.

Alongside my own devastation, I witnessed my husband’s pain, my children’s pain. We walked around stricken, like ghosts. Victor’s room was empty; his place at the table, vacant. How do you live after a child dies? How do you continue to be a parent to your other children?

How can life ever feel worth living again? These questions and others swept through me daily. I felt I had to solve the mystery of how parents, children and other family members make their way through this bewildering landscape of loss.

I remembered my Aunt Lena in Savannah, Georgia, where I grew up. Her son Walter had been killed in a car accident as he returned to his Army base during World War II. Retreating into a silent grief, she never again spoke Walter’s name. No one in the family could mention him. A terrible sadness hung over her house.

Shortly after Victor died, I called Aunt Lena’s daughter, Sara, to ask her about her experience after Walter’s death. She told me how difficult it was to never be able to talk about the brother she loved and missed. “Tell everyone to talk about their child,” Sara said. “Tell them not to keep the silence, to bring the loved one into the conversation.”

I made a vow that if I survived — which didn’t seem likely at the time — I would honor Victor’s life by turning my grief into action. I would help families endure the death of a child by gathering insight from those who had survived. I would share this wisdom with as many grieving parents as possible.

Reaching out to the true experts — other bereaved parents, grandparents and siblings — I asked the questions that haunted me, that were so difficult to answer. The people I spoke with shared their intimate feelings generously — their grief, love, confusion, struggles and healing — in the hope of helping others. They told me stories of the one they lost, of the ways they coped and re-engaged with life.

Everyone says time is the great healer, and it is. But time is only part of what helps us heal. What we do with our time also matters. We decide each day whether to close down in response to grief, and become bitter and angry, or to open up to the awe of continuing to live.

Initially, consumed by my overwhelming grief, I wanted to turn away from life, from the excruciating reality of my son’s death. However, I discovered that bereavement can be a powerful catalyst for change. My perspective on life shifted dramatically. With time, I found, we can choose to live life with more openness, kindness and compassion.

As one of my Brandeis professors, Abraham Maslow, wrote in a letter after he suffered a near-fatal heart attack, “The confrontation with death — and the reprieve from it — makes everything look so precious, so sacred, so beautiful, that I feel more strongly than ever the impulse to love it, to embrace it and to let myself be overwhelmed by it.”

Once I believed life is too long. Now I believe life is too short. I say “I love you” more often. The miracle is that, even with a broken heart, I have learned to love, laugh and embrace life more fully than ever before.

Nisha Zenoff — known as Nancy Robinson during her Brandeis years — is the author of “The Unspeakable Loss: How Do You Live After a Child Dies?” (Da Capo Lifelong Press, 2017). She can be reached at nishazenoff@gmail.com.

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