Note from website editor: This contribution was written by Abby Fuller. It was originally presented on April 2, 2008, at a chapel service at Manchester College, where she is associate professor. It was titled "The Gift of Loss."
Most of you know that I lost my 8-year-old daughter Scout to cancer on July 7, 2007. The past nine months have been by far the most painful of my entire life. I don’t know that there is anything worse than losing a child. At first, I didn’t want to live–and this is typical for parents who lose a child. In fact, many plan their suicides. For months I woke up every day wishing that the world would disappear. I tell you this not to elicit your sympathy, but so you will know that it was from the depths of this kind of pain that came the unexpected gifts I will talk about today. I had thought that if Scout died, I would not be able to go on. And yet here I am. And not only am I here, but I have learned more in these past nine months than I ever thought possible. I feel like I have undergone the most astonishingly rapid spiritual growth spurt of my life–sort of spiritual boot camp, if you will. It’s tough going, but if makes for fast changes. What have I learned?
1. I have learned that our culture deals very badly with death.
We ignore it, deny it, and avoid it as much as possible. This is manifested in so many ways: the positive value our culture puts on youth and looking young and feeling young (instead of valuing the wisdom that comes with age); the measures we go to, to keep people alive at the very end of their lives; the way we consign dying and death to hospitals and funeral parlors, instead of allowing these very natural and inevitable things to happen at home. Why does this matter, our culture’s denial of death? Because when death comes–and it always does–we are shocked, frightened, unprepared, at a loss. We don’t know how to sit with someone as they die, comforting them and supporting them as they make the sacred journey to the other side. A dead body seems creepy to us because we have never touched one before. We push aside grief and try to “move on” because our sadness is uncomfortable to those around us, and to ourselves. We don’t know what to say when a friend or family member loses someone close to them, and so we stay away and say nothing.
Compare our culture with this example:
Sobanfu Some is an African healer and lecturer. She speaks about the way grief is regarded in her culture. In her village, at any given time there is a grief ritual-taking place. Anyone who is grieving is welcome to come, to cry, and to feel together in a community of others as a simple matter of course. The notion of avoiding this process and these feelings is as illogical to them as avoiding a meal when feeling hungry. Holding onto grief is likened to holding onto a toxic substance. It is only through the acknowledgment and expression of the grief that the health of the organism is restored. And our fear of death is really an aspect of a larger concern: our fear of loss. Think about this: “All relationships end.” All relationships end. I read those words recently and was struck by the paradox that while this is so obviously true, we almost never pay attention to it. It’s too frightening, I think to live daily with this realization.
In a strange way, embracing the inevitability of loss has given me comfort: what happened to Scout and to me is not out of the order of things, it is PART of the order of things. As my husband said, “Eventually, if she grew up she’d have to say goodbye to us when we died. She just happened to go first.”
I’ve been reading a lot of Buddhist philosophy these past months, and a central precept of Buddhism is that the source of human suffering is an unwillingness to accept loss. But as Mary Oliver reminds us, loss is a part of life, because change is a part of life. So if I face my mortality head one, the next question becomes, What am I going to do with this life that I do have?
The moment we fully acknowledge the inevitability of death is the moment we fully feel the preciousness of life, because it doesn’t last. So life and death are parts of a whole–one can’t exist without the other. Which brings me to the next lesson I’ve learned:
2. Happiness is overrated.
I don’t think the point of life is to be happy. I think the point of being here on earth is to grow as human beings–to gain a deeper understanding of and appreciation for all that is. And guess what: we don’t grow when we are comfortable. It is when we are challenged, when we suffer, when we are uncomfortable, that we grow the most. Now, you might argue that as we grow as human beings, we in fact become happier–yes, happy in the truest sense of the word–not fun, ha-ha, laughing at jokes happiness, but a kind of hard-earned happiness that comes from experiencing both pain and joy, both life and death. From realizing that they are parts of a whole. The happiest person I ever met was a Holocaust survivor. My senior year in college I took a course on Literature of the Holocaust, and toward the end of the semester the professor invited this woman to speak to the class. She had the most serene, genuine, warm presence I have ever seen in a person.
3. I have learned to let go of what I cannot control (and to cherish what I have).
This lesson was a gift that first came when Scout was diagnosed with cancer in January 2007. During those first days, as I sat crying in her hospital room, I realized, “I cannot control the outcome of this. But what I can do is love her with every ounce of my being for as long as she is here.” And I did that. I was also determined not to allow the terror of losing her to distract me from enormous gift of having her there right then. But the possibility that I could lose her gave me the gift of a deep, attentive love with her. I remember her asking me last spring, “Mom, why are you kissing me so much?” Letting go what we cannot control means also letting go of the fantasy that somehow if we are good, if we are kind, if we believe in God, if we make the right choices, then nothing bad will happen to us. When Scout died, I wondered, “Why her? Why not some kid who was a bully, who didn’t have a happy life, who was dumb, whose parents didn’t care about them?”And I realized after a time that the answer to, “Why me?” is “Why not me?” Nothing makes me or my family immune from death or illness or injury. (And of course the life of a kid who is a bully or not so smart or whose parents don’t care about him are just as precious as my daughter’s life.) But I suffered a loss of innocence: I realized I am not immune from tragedy. No, we can’t control what happens to... but we can make do with what we’ve been given. What really matters in life is not what happens to you, it’s what you do with it.
4. I have learned that when your heart breaks, it breaks open.
I think of it this way: each of us builds a hard shell around our heart to protect ourselves from deep pain. (But in my vision, the shell doesn’t keep pain from coming into your heart–because the pain is already there, it’s an unavoidable part of life, because loss is an unavoidable part of life. Rather, the shell keeps the pain in, confines it, so we don’t have to think about it or feel it.) But this same shell also keeps in feelings of deep joy and deep love and of peace, of oneness with the universe. So, since my heart was broken from losing Scout, I have experienced not only the greatest pain of my life, but also the greatest love and gratitude I have ever known. I find I am less interested in judging people, less willing to get in the middle of conflicts, I spend less time speculating about people’s motives, more aware of and appreciative of the good qualities in people. I spend more time amazed at and grateful for what life has brought me–especially Scout. What a miracle that she was here, for eight perfect years, that I got to be her mom. In my extended family, there has been an astonishing change since Scoutie went up. I have four sisters, and my mom and dad are still around, and we have always been close, but with conflict. But since July, each and every one of my sisters and both my parents have shown an enormous generosity of spirit, not only toward me, but toward each other. Scout’s death changed my parents’ relationship, my relationship with my husband, and more.
5. I have learned that love is the strongest force in the universe.
I told this story at the celebration of Scout’s life in September, so some of you have heard it. In late August, my friend Marcie said to me, “You are going through such an extraordinary time. What are you learning?” I told her that I didn’t know; I was too deep in grief to see that yet. Later that night I was lying in bed and suddenly the answer to her question came to me–and it was so simple that I had almost missed. The big lesson in all this, in Scout’s illness and our struggle to get her cured and our deep sadness upon losing her–the overarching theme in all this is not loss, or cancer, or how unfair the world is, but LOVE. As I lay there, I found myself actually grinning. My love for Scout, and Neil’s love and Leo’s love and my sisters’ love for Scout, Scout’s love for us, the outpouring of love that my family received from friends and colleagues and neighbors: everything else pales in comparison to that love. Most importantly, I realized when I lost Scout that nothing, but NOTHING, could take away my love for her, and so I would always be connected with her in that way. Cancer could take away her body, but it could not touch my love. Love can outlast time, distance, and even death. It is, indeed, the strongest force in the universe. As anyone who has suffered a terrible loss will tell you, I would return all of these gifts in a second if it meant I could have Scout back. But I can’t have her back. A few months ago while I was swimming laps, I thought to myself, “My life is over.” And the universe spoke to me–or maybe it was God, depending on your beliefs–and said gently but firmly, “No, it’s not over; it’s just different.” I can’t have Scout back--and so the important question is, What do I do now with what I have? Here, now, in this life that is so very different from the one I had, and from the one I wanted–and this is where I find myself. Where do I go from here? I have these unexpected gifts to help me along the way, and I feel they are gifts from Scout.
*Delivered at the Wednesday chapel service at Manchester College, April 2, 2008.
Return from The Power of Scout to Journey-through-Grief homepage
Abigail A. Fuller Associate Professor of Sociology and Social Work Director, Peace Studies Program Manchester College