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The Choice To Heal: The Five Insights


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The Choice to Heal: The Five Insights

By Alvin C. Johnson, Jr.

Several years ago it became apparent to me that I was stuck in "recovering" from my son's death. Nicholas contracted leukemia in 1986 and battled the disease for nearly three years before his death in 1989.

Seven years later, in 1996, it seemed there was no place for me to go with the continued feelings of grief—feelings which included sadness, frustration, and guilt. This was not my daily experience, but it came on periodically and occasionally crippled my ability to engage in life and work. While this was taking place I was also studying about family emotional systems process with Rabbi Ed Friedman and so I presented him with this problem. His immediate response was to suggest that I enter more deeply into my family, and somewhere in my family I would find the direction to move so I would no longer be stuck in my grief.

Armed with this conviction, my wife and I headed to Florida in March of 1996 for several days of golf and fun with my parents. In the seven years since Nicholas had died, no one in our circle of family and friends took his death as hard as my parents. They continuously called Zachary, our second son, "Nicholas" and struggled to move forward, themselves, with this tragic loss.

My decision was made; I'd talk to my Dad. So on the golf course one day, enjoying the beautiful sunshine and warm temperatures, I shared my struggle with him and asked how he dealt with Nick's death. His answer surprised me, but also became the cornerstone on which I continue to deal with Nick's death today. "Son," he said, "I get up each morning, sit down at my desk, and open the drawer where I have a picture of Nick. I say, 'You bugger.' I think of how much I miss him, how grateful I am for him, and then I give him into God's hands…every day." His comment afforded me one of those moments in grief recovery where insight leads to deeper healing.

The first insight was this: I was stuck because I held to the belief that grieving has a finish line while we are alive. In reality, the only end to the pain we feel over the death of our children is our own death. The intensity subsides over time, as do other characteristics of grieving, but there is no day on which we can say we are done grieving the death of our children. While we hold to the joyful memories of our children who died, we also hold to the pain of the loss that comes from the fact that they died. Efforts to live outside that pain prove futile and frustrating. Even when you and I have worked our way through the pain to the "other side," the path we traveled leaves a clear road mark and an indelible imprint on our psychological, intellectual, emotional and spiritual memory. There is no going back—but there is no finish line either. The experience, with all its emotional components, remains with us all our lives. So, instead of looking for a finish line, I adopted my dad's strategy and looked at recovery from Nick's death as a 24-hour experience. There was no knowing what I'd be like three days, three months or three years from then. In fact, the future looked overwhelming. Instead, I started putting Nick in God's keeping for another day—and only one day. As I gave Nick to God, so I gave my grief to God, thereby inviting healing. Whether God is or is not in the equation for you, the key for me was realizing recovery was a 24-hour experience and when broken into daily bites became manageable.

The second insight was this: I was stuck because of holding to the belief that acceptance meant that the experience of Nicholas would make rational sense. It didn't then and it doesn't now. Nearly 11 years later, the death of a child still does not make sense to me. But the reality of children dying isn't for me to understand: it is for me to accept. Acceptance does not mean there is a rational explanation for why a child dies nor that I must like the reality. It simply means that the death of a child is a part of life and a part of my life. Acceptance means that the events of this fine boy's life actually did take place and I was a participant and witness to them. Acceptance means that life has moved on and will continue to move on with or without me. Acceptance means that no, time does not stop when our world comes shattering down from the death of a child. Oh that it would, but it does not. Acceptance is looking back and embracing what happened in order to look forward and move on.

The third insight was this: The fact the picture was in a place that my dad visited every day inspired me to keep pictures of Nicholas in a place where I would remember him every day…and enjoy remembering him. We can keep our departed children close through the wonder of photography and other items that remind us of them. My dad struck a unique balance between those who set aside large spaces for remembrance and those who set aside no space for remembrance at all. If needed, he knew where to go in his house to be close to Nick and, therefore, to a package of complete memories. Nick had and still has a place in his emotional and spiritual home. This is highlighted daily by being able to look at his picture. Not only does Nick have a physical space, but also a space in memory. We become unstuck when we structure the means to keep the memory of our departed children close. This varies from person to person, but keeping physical reminders nearby encourages us to keep emotional, spiritual, and mental image memories nearby and accessible as well.

The fourth insight was this: Gratitude for the life of Nicholas helped muster movement against the forces of being stuck in grief. John Claypool tells a story in his book Mending the Heart about the time in his life six weeks after the death of his daughter from leukemia. He could not sleep, got up and went to read the story in Genesis 22 about Abraham and Isaac. As he read the commentary he was amazed to learn that this story of Abraham and Isaac was a story of God reminding Abraham of the gift he had received and from whom the gift came. Claypool says that from that night forward he came to see his daughter's life, though shorter than he wished, as a gift which he did not deserve and for which he desired to give gratitude. Gratitude is difficult in the midst of feeling cheated and deprived by death. However, gratitude overcomes tremendous pain and can move even the most stuck bereaved parent to new places of recovery and joy.

The final insight was this: Healing and recovery call for us to make a decision, to answer the question, "Do I want to get better or not?" One can argue that grief recovery is more complicated than answering this question. But grief recovery concerns the direction we point ourselves day in and day out. If we wish to get better we need to encourage ourselves and point ourselves that way every day; we need to surround ourselves with bereaved parents who have healed and found meaning in life again; we need to realize that no one can point us towards the healing we desire except ourselves. Ironically, the times in our lives when we least feel like making decisions are the times when we need to make them: Seek healing? Stay stuck? Recover? Die ourselves? Sometimes it does come to such simple decisions as these.

When I studied churches that had experienced trauma, those that recovered had one principle characteristic in common: someone stood up and, from a position of leadership said, "We are going to heal and grow from this experience and embrace a new future." Most often the leader said this before knowing what direction recovery would go nor whom would help. They sought, as best they could, to point the ship in a direction that gave them the best chance of re-engaging life; choosing to get better.

Of all the insights given to me by my dad that day, this last one continues to be the most effective. Grief stays with us for a lifetime…as long as we have our minds we cannot escape from the experience of what took place. However, each day we can point ourselves towards the vision we hold of recovery and have the faith that one day we will get there.


Fr. Alvin Johnson, at the time he wrote this story, had served as an Episcopal Priest for over 20 years. In 1989 he and his wife Vickie became bereaved parents when their first child, Nicholas, died after a long battle with leukemia. Nicholas is survived by a sister Hannah and a brother Zachary. Fr. Johnson currently serves as Rector of St. Michael's Episcopal Church in Barrington, Illinois. He recently received his Doctor of Ministry degree in Congregational Studies focusing on the comparisons between how congregations and families recover from trauma. Fr. Johnson has spoken often at Compassionate Friends meetings and was a keynote speaker at the 23rd national TCF conference held in Chicago. He also served on TCF's National Board of Directors.

© Copyright 2000-2011 by Alvin C. Johnson, Jr. and The Compassionate Friends

Reprinted with permission from We Need Not Walk Alone, the National Magazine of The Compassionate Friends, Spring 2000

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