What Lifelong Grieving Looks Like

Will Simmons Family 1985
My Daddy Will, Mom, and me in 1985

“There are infinite numbers between 0 and 1. There’s .1 and .12 and .112 and an infinite collection of others. Of course, there is a bigger infinite set of numbers between 0 and 2, or between 0 and a million. Some infinities are bigger than other infinities. A writer we used to like taught us that. There are days, many of them, when I resent the size of my unbounded set. I want more numbers than I’m likely to get, and God, I want more numbers for Augustus Waters than he got. But, Gus, my love, I cannot tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I’m grateful.” 

― John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

Say what you will, but I loved the book-to-screen adaptation of The Fault in Our Stars.

I think I might love it more than the book. Some declare it nothing more than another sappy story about star-crossed teen lovers, but it is far more than that. The central characters, Gus and Hazel, hold opposing views on what it looks like to like to have lived and die well, and these arguments require readers to examine their own beliefs about the meaning of life. John Greene’s novel communicates universal truths about love and loss, regardless of age. I loved TFiOS for its beauty and truth, and perhaps most for the honest portrayal of what happens to the love ones left behind.

I am one of those left behind.

My dad has been gone for twenty-four years now. I did not attend his funeral. I had just turned five. My mom knew it would be hard to get a highly active and fidgety five-year old to sit still and feign mourning. There wasn’t exactly a playbook for this. Most children’s introduction to death is with flushing a fish or putting down a dog, not burying their father. So instead of attending the formalized funeral, we held our own memorial service, led by one of my dad’s best friends where he explained death and heaven and hope of life everlasting to me and my tiny peers.

But what happens after?

What happens after the memorial, after the family and friends have gone home and the meals have stopped being served? What happens in the years and decades afterward? What I didn’t realize is how these eight months of my life when I was four years old, culminating with my father’s death would shape me. No one explains to a five-year old little girl that she will feel like an important part of her identity is missing for the rest of her life. Or that she might try to fill it with friendships and boys and love but that nothing will fill it or make it go away.

With every new milestone, I find myself missing a man I only knew for five years. I wonder what advice he would have given me, what sports I might have attempted, and how I might have been different if he had been around to help raise me. Losing my Daddy colored my entire existence.

“I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process.”
― C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

So what does lifelong grieving look like? For me…

Grieving looks like always wondering if your memories are your own or if they are merely implants of stories you have heard so many times, they feel as if they have become yours.

Grieving looks like sitting on a swing set alone, talking to God, wondering what heaven is like, and hoping that somehow by proxy, your Daddy is listening too.

Grieving looks like composing a memoir-style piece during a college writing course, knowing the ending is terrible, but having no idea how to end it, because you do not understand the impact the event has had – until you have actually lived the years yet to come.

Grieving looks like being utterly terrified of being abandoned and hanging on too tight to every serious dating relationship you enter from the time you are sixteen until you meet the man you will marry.

Grieving looks like watching a documentary on a bereavement camp for kids during your engagement at twenty-four years old, wondering what it will feel like to walk down the aisle without your birth father, and crying so hard you are positive you are scaring your fiancé.

Grieving looks like swelling with pride and brimming with tears at your little sister’s wedding when your Uncles marvel at how much she reminds them of their late brother.

Grieving looks like wondering if your future children will have any of your Daddy’s features, and what it will be like to explain to them they already have a Grandpa in heaven.

“Long after your friends and acquaintances have stopped paying attention, after they have forgotten to ask how you are and pray for you and hold your hand, you are still in a place of ebbing sadness. Mourning plateaus gradually…”
– Lauren F. Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath

Our culture is uncomfortable with grieving. We tend to do it badly, and confine it to a distinct amount of time, then expect people to move on. Contrary to the popular adage, time does not heal all wounds. Losses need to be processed – through counseling and relating in community. This is why art that embraces loss and stories like The Fault in Our Stars feel like gifts in this lifelong process. They provide a space to stop and reflect and relate.

I am so continually grateful for the beautiful life that I have been given, but grieving is a part of life too – one that should be given its due.

We need reminding that we are not alone in our pain, to wrestle with hard questions about what is to come, and to reminisce and hear the stories again and again. All of our little infinities will end and stars will fade out at some point, and what’s left will be the tales of how we lived and the ones we loved.

What did you think of the TFiOs story? If you have lost someone, what helps you through the lifelong grieving process?

17 thoughts on “What Lifelong Grieving Looks Like

  1. Erika, this is brilliant, and I agree with every word. I got to have my father until I was 12, so I have more memories – but every bit of this rings true, especially the part about hanging on too tight. I’m so grateful I have a husband who understands (he lost his brother, your father, way too soon) and the echoes of my dad I see in my own sons. Every part of life deserves its due. I love you, sweet niece. You are one of life’s gifts!
    much love,
    Susan

    1. Thank you Aunt Susan. I am sorry you are a part of this unfortunate sisterhood, but I’m thankful to have others who truly understand. I am so glad to have people who knew my Dad well in my life to keep his memory alive. I so loved spending time with you and your family this summer. How wonderful it is that you get to see your dad in your own children! There are many times I look at my Simmons cousins and smile because I know there are glimpses of my Dad in there too.

  2. I haven’t read the book or watched the movie…but they’re both on my list! Thank you so much for sharing your touching story, as well as allowing us to see your vulnerability. That’s what makes you a great writer; your willingness to tell the truth through your feelings.

    I haven’t felt the impact of a significant loss in my life; however it took me a long time to realize that it’s also possible to grieve the loss of someone who is still living. Although my father is very much alive, I still struggle with the repercussions of not having him as a significant figure in my life. My parents divorced when I was 5, and shortly thereafter my mom, her new husband, my sister, and I moved 8 hours away. I’ve never felt the love from my father that every child should. Yes, he loves me in his own way, but was not there for me the way I needed him to be. With the help of counseling, and Celebrate Recovery, my Hoboken Grace family, and of course God’s love, I’m on the road to healing; however it’s still going to be a long road.

    I love you, E! Thank you again for sharing your heart.

    1. Thanks for sharing your own story, Danielle. Loss is loss, whether it is loss of life or relationship. I’ve certainly experienced it with the end of friendships and relationships that ended by choice. It still requires the grieving process – just maybe looks a little different.

      PS. Be prepared, TFiOS might make you ugly cry. I got through the book ok, but the movie did me in about eight times over.

  3. Thank you for sharing.
    Yesterday I talked to my 6 year old nephew about his grandma, my mum. I told him she would have loved him very much and would have loved my husband who she also never got to meet. Our conversations about her range from big to little details, today I told him his grandma had to wait until she left home to get her ears pierced 🙂 Her picture is up in their house so my mum is part of their lives and stories.

    1. I love this, Clara! How wonderful that your family is able to keep the memory of your Mum alive with your nephews. Even those small details about when she had her ears pierced are the ones that will help them piece together who she was, and carry her memory with them.

  4. I am so thankful to have a sister with whom to share this “lifelong grieving.” Even more so, I am glad I have a sister and mom who have modeled a grieving laced with joy and healing, as well. I am so GLAD, by God’s grace, it has never sustained a lifelong bitterness in our lives.

    I resonate with so much of your heart, Er. I used to think grieving would just die eventually – just flatline. It wasn’t until college that I realized that this process would never, ever end. There have been sudden and unexpected “blips” of new grieving my whole life. At age 6, tears just gushing during a Mozart assembly (who knows what initiated that?! Maybe this was the moment that I could developmentally grasp it for the first time). At age 11, processing the tears and stories from my still-grieving grandmother. In college and just hours away from his Alma Mater. As a nurse, taking care of many dying cancer patients, finally understanding what mom and family went through. Relief that his suffering and response wasn’t like some I have encountered.

    Just when I thought I knew all there was to know about Dad, I’d hit a new stage of life and wonder what Dad was like at this age, what he might say to me as I, too, breached new milestones. The pang is deep and the questions are many, but I am so grateful that at least some can be answered by friends and family.

    “Grieving looks like always wondering if your memories are your own or if they are merely implants of stories you’ve heard so many times, they feel as if they’ve become yours.” Yeah. That too. All the time. I don’t know if I have one single memory that is my own. And I’ve always had a hard time with the thought that even Dad’s acquaintances have more of a memory of him than his youngest daughter. But there’s no use getting hung up on it.

    Thanks for processing out loud, in writing, throughout our lifetime.

    On another note, about your comment on how our culture sucks at loss and grieving: At EMU, I took a class called “Suffering and Loss.” We talked about every kind of grieving, loss, and change. I think it was the best class I ever took at EMU because we talked about it collectively and intentionally as a class. We had speakers, read Henri Nouwen’s “Turn My Mourning into Dancing” and Jerry Sitser’s “A Grief Observed.” Though we heard many, many stories of all kinds, it was such a good practice in listening to others’ loss, empathizing, and through a community lens, processing our own losses and traumas, small and large. It’s a shame that people think they are so alone in their loss. For all its deep pain, loss has the ability to transform us into people with big, fat, empathetic hearts who know the depth and height of both suffering and joy.

    1. Love, love, love you sister!

      I’m so glad that EMU offered you such a class. What a rare, important space to delve into such a universal, personal, and difficult issue. I wish I had taken something similar in my college years. I would love to have the opportunity to discuss these things openly in an open forum/classroom setting and share and hear from others. Maybe one day I’ll have the chance to audit such a class. In the meantime, at least ye olde internet provides a way to relate! And those books sound like good ones I should pick up.

  5. Wow, Erika. This is so beautiful and moving. I couldn’t help but cry as I read this – tears of sympathy but also of gratitude. We have very little control over what we’re dealt in life but you and your family are prime examples of how to maintain the balance of grieving and living. This is so helpful for those of us who have not experienced this kind of loss but want to love the ones who have. Love you so much, friend.

  6. Your Daddy Will would be so very, very proud of you two. He grieved deeply knowing that he was not going to be around to raise you and watch you grow up. He loved you so much. You two provided great joy for him.

  7. you what always stands out to me about you? Your unwavering, fierce love for your immediate family. I have not met all of your family members but I feel like I know them and love them too simply BC of how much they matter to you. It’s rare and beautiful. Because you have experienced such deep loss you are also able to experience such deep love. It’s so like God isn’t it? To build something so beautiful from brokeness. Praying for you always! Xo!

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