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When Everything Matters


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While this author writes from the perspective of a bereaved parent, her observations about “the energy that stems from a passion born out of deep sadness” speak to anyone who is mourning the death of a loved one:

When Everything Matters

© 2006 by Nita Aasen


Despite the seriousness of the condition known as clinical depression – a mood disorder caused by a chemical imbalance – the word depression has a tendency to be overused and misused when talking about sadness. The assumption is that these words are inherently synonymous and interchangeable in their meaning; that is, if one is sad, one is depressed.

My sadness following the deaths of Erik and David was definitely profound. Caring others suggested that I seek out a prescription for an anti-depressant; the magic bullet that would “fix it” and help me be my “old self” again. Prior to my own experience with parental grief, I would have likely joined this chorus of well-wishers. However, as I learned, situations viewed from the outside frequently seem easier to solve than when lived from the inside. After experiencing the double whammy of a catastrophic loss – that is, living with an intense grief that also resulted in devastation of my world view, I questioned that “easy fix.”

Around that same time, I found myself reading a book (Gili’s Book, 1998) written by Henya Kagan-Klein, a bereaved parent and psychologist. She asserted that deep sadness was a more accurate term to use for parental grief than depression, since the chemical imbalance that forms the basis for a diagnosis of clinical depression was, in most cases, not a factor in the sadness of bereavement.

Another helpful distinction noted by Kagan-Klein was that those living with deep sadness continued to respond to touch, warmth, and reassurance, whereas those experiencing clinical depression were more likely to feel like giving up on life. When nothing matters in serious cases of untreated clinical depression, it became difficult to function; those affected lack the energy to do the most routine activities of daily living, verbalized a sense of hopelessness, and most seriously, may have had suicidal thoughts.

Recently Gloria Steinheim, appearing on CBS Sunday Morning, made another astute observation about the difference between depression and sadness. She succinctly said, “With depression, nothing matters, but with sadness everything matters.” In the world of sound bites, this one actually provided an accurate synopsis of the primary difference between the two conditions.

Further clarifying the distinction between sadness and depression, John Schneider (Finding My Way, 1994) asserted that the sadness of bereaved parents was focused on the death of their child and his lost future, whereas those experiencing depression clinical depression focused on distorted and negative thoughts about themselves. Another significant difference was that parents know without question that their sadness was a result of their child’s death, compared to depression where the cause was usually not inherently obvious.

Kagan-Klein concluded that a turning point in parental grief occurred when they began a spiritual-like quest for a mission, because it mattered that their lives continued to have a sense of meaning and purpose. A nugget of wisdom from Martin Luther King said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” With this perspective, individuals are encouraged to give a voice to their mission while living with loss, understanding that continuing to remain silent about things that matter will accomplish nothing. This concept would apply to anyone who is working hard to assimilate, in a meaningful way, the death of their loved one into the fabric of their lives while also readjusting their world view (those assumptions, beliefs, and values constructed to make sense of one’s world and serve as a basic framework for living one’s life) to fit their current reality.

There are an untold number of possible missions. Many bereaved become more sensitive to the needs of those experiencing intense grief and provide support by volunteering at a hospice or becoming involved with a bereavement group. Many others choose a mission that is directly related to the cause of the death of their loved one – accident, suicide, illness, or murder. In these situations, their deep sadness frequently becomes the impetus to invest huge amounts of time and energy participating in organizations or projects that work towards preventing similar tragedies because they refuse to be silent about things that matter.

As examples, those whose loved ones have died by suicide may become involved in organizations that educate others about the risk of undiagnosed clinical depression, or they actively support legislation that imposes severe penalties for driving drunk, advocate for stiffer laws against sex offenders, domestic abusers or any cause of murder or discrimination. These actions, having strong connections with their loved ones, have frequently resulted in laws that have saved lives, protected victims, and/or stiffened consequences for offenders.

Their passion to do something positive in honor of their loved ones and to make this world a better place becomes a major driving force in their efforts; it gives them a reason to get up in the morning and to keep on going on. Just as important, these bereaved individuals begin to sense that their lives continue to have purpose. The energy that comes from a passion born out of deep sadness has frequently yielded impressive results when everything related to life, death, and love matters.

However, other missions, seemingly unconnected to their loved one are, in fact, deeply connected. The daughter of a bereaved parent couple loved animals. While horses were her passion, another of her dreams was to have a family-operated dairy farm. Following her death, her parents took a significant financial risk to bring the dream to fruition. Their sense that their daughter’s spirit was cheering them gave their lives a purpose that went well beyond the basic need to generate an income. It mattered.

Through reading the literature following Erik and David’s deaths, I came to understand that my deep sadness was the catalyst in my search for a mission honoring my sons. My initial goal was to use insurance monies and memorials to establish several scholarships and other tributes carrying Erik and David’s names because it mattered that their names be remembered. Over the years, I cross-stitched a number of hand-made gifts for those who had been a significant influence on their lives; it mattered that I thanked them for that relationship.

About two years after the accident I began writing to other bereaved parents. Even though there was nothing I could say or do to diminish their grief or deep sadness, I could acknowledge their emotional pain and their never-ending love for their child; it mattered that they know that they were not alone in their grief journey. As my mission evolved, I began writing essays. Since I did not readily sit down to write except as needed for my work life prior to my sons’ deaths, it was rather surprising that writing became my primary survival strategy. While writing helped clarify the many issues surrounding my grief journey, more than that, it mattered that I do my part to shed some light on the grief experience for others, including those who want to provide appropriate support to their bereaved loved ones.

Kagan-Klein also point out that any mission is subject to unplanned twists and turns as it evolves. Some outcomes may be slightly or significantly different from the original vision. Despite the disappointment some experience, what tends to matter most when everything about life, death, and love matters is that no stone has been left unturned in the process. Being able to say, “I did my best; I gave it all I had,” is likely to bring a degree of purpose and solace into one’s life. With this insight, the bereaved discover just how resilient they are while also gaining the hope and strength needed to continue seeking meaning as they are learning how to live with loss.

– Source: Living with Loss Magazine, Summer 2006, pp. 32-33, www.livingwithloss.com

Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

[Working as a nurse in various clinical settings for many years, Nita Aasen cared for countless patients and family members as they confronted death and dying, loss and grief. As a nursing instructor she brought these clinical and educational experiences to the classroom. But it was years later, when two of her three young adult sons (Erik, 27 and David, 25) were killed in an auto accident on Thanksgiving Day, 1994, that Nita learned how little she truly knew about grief. Her book, Living Still, Loving Always was published in 2004 by Wilson Publishing House.]

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