Grief: a Universal Experience

By Darla Isackson

So many thousands of Americans have, in the past few weeks, been plunged into grief. Although grief may come to different people in different ways, it seems that grieving losses is a universal experience that no mortal can long avoid. How we respond to that grief is one of life’s great tests – and great opportunities.

Grief is Inevitable: Misery is Optional

Grief is a given in mortality; it is going to come. We can’t opt out of it, but when it hits us we have the choice of how to let it affect us.

Some interpret their experiences that bring deep grief as solid evidence there is no God – or if He is there that He is totally distant, unconcerned with mortal suffering. They may close up, become bitter and angry. Others find grief the very doorway to spiritual evidences of God’s loving care; they open up, become more believing and compassionate. Some rail at God for the loss of loved ones, loss of homes and comforts; others turn to Him with greatly increased realization of their need for spiritual strength and comfort – and find it.

My Year of Grieving

September 27th will be the one-year anniversary of my son’s suicide – a year of hurting and grieving and growing. I’ve always reveled in the beauty of autumn – loved this season brought to us by God in living color. But now the flaming reds and oranges of fall will forever be associated with the searing pain of my son’s death.

Surprisingly, grief has shown me many faces – some easier to appreciate than others. Grief has urged me to a deeper level of scripture study than ever before, motivating me to review, reanalyze, rethink my entire life and realize how few years I may have left. This experience has caused me to treasure my time and be more careful of its use. I’m so aware of things no one will do if I don’t do them.  And I’ve become so achingly aware of weaknesses I have still to overcome.

Can Loss Foster Personal Growth?

I’ve come to ask searchingly, “Can our individual specific sources of grief be exactly what we need for personal growth?” I have pondered the irony that I grew up with an obsession to look good, to create the ideal, to be an example of all that was good and true in the gospel. I pridefully believed that if I tried hard enough I could create the perfect marriage, the perfect home, have perfect children. And, oh I gave it all I had.

Yet here I sit, having lived through the dissolution of a long-term temple marriage, the challenges of a second marriage and blended family, and the unthinkable grief of the suicide of a beloved child who had walked forbidden paths of alcohol and drug abuse. Hardly the stuff of which “ideals” are made! Yet what other combination of circumstances could more effectively sear my soul of prideful illusions?

The Breadth and Depth of Grief

My grief for my son has included my grief for all my lost dreams, for my absolute failure to create the ideal that I was so certain of as a young person. But I’ve come to believe that disillusion is an important part of life – a blessing.  Who wants to stay in a fantasy world of illusion? Truth is “things as they were, as they are, and as they are to come.” I want to live in truth. Being free of illusion is freedom indeed:  “and ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”

The most elusive truth is my own identity. One of the hardest parts of the aftermath of the suicide of a child is being dragged to the depths of self-doubt. After all, I sometimes ask myself, what kind of a mother would have a child who would kill himself? I sometimes see that question in the eyes of those who do not know or love me.

But hitting bottom has brought me a solid knowing that no one’s opinion counts in the end but God’s. No one else knows our prayers and strugglings, the deepest thoughts and intents of our hearts; no one else knows how poorly or well we have done with what we had to work with. No wonder the Lord has told us not to judge each other, but to leave judgment with Him. 

Working My Way through the Process

During my initial grieving process I read many books, attended a grief recovery class and support group where other mothers whose sons chose suicide shared their pain and their strengths. The most healing thing of all was my increased personal scripture study, prayer, and therapeutic writing because those things opened me the most to the Comforter.

An extremely helpful writing process is detailed in the book The Grief Recovery Handbook by John W. James and Russell Friedman (Revised Edition, Harper Perennial, 1998).  The book summarize a process for healing from loss suggesting that undelivered emotional messages as well as feeling incomplete in a relationship keeps grief going.

The authors lay out a process of creating a loss graph and a relationship graph, then listing anything you need to forgive or be forgiven for in the relationship with the loved one lost, and any undelivered emotional messages you wish you had been able to communicate. After these are listed and shared with a trusted friend, you are instructed to write them in a personal letter to the person you have lost, and then read the letter out loud as though you were reading it to them. My friend Gayla, who was grieving the recent loss of her mother, walked me through the process and at the same time shared her grief with me. We cried a lot of tears together and both found the process very therapeutic. Gayla and her caring, loving, sturdy friendship helped me through the grief enormously.

Other helpful things along the way: I went to the doctor and got the medical help I needed. I started exercising more and made sure to feed myself well and give in to the need for lots of extra sleep. I went to counseling, talked to the bishop and received blessings.

As a friend promised me soon after Brian’s death, the waves of grief come at more infrequent intervals as time passes. They seldom knock me down any more, and often just lap at my ankles.

We Need One Another

I’m so grateful for all my friends and family members that have been close throughout the process. The light in my grandchildren’s eyes, their hugs and slobbery kisses, their constant delight in learning have lifted me and kept me going. My daughter-in-law Heidi has been especially helpful along the way. She went to the grief class with me, and her loving ways and concern have been a real strength on a daily basis. My sister Arlene and dear friend Patricia were always there for me when I needed to talk. My husband Doug contributed with his stalwart standing by, and his faith and absolute belief that Brian is just fine.

All the books I read stressed the truth that some solitary grieving may be necessary – but by and large a griever needs to tell their story and receive support from others.

They need to be listened to, they need to know that even one person has some clue of what they are going through. I’ve been so fortunate to have many people to share with.

How important it has been throughout the process to share my truth – to have an outlet in my writing to get it out. I was blessed when I chose not to keep not to keep my son’s suicide secret, not to hide, but to be able to write my feelings and have them treated with respect and care. The loving responses of Meridian readers and other friends strengthened and lifted me – it meant so much not to feel alone in my grief. Several mothers who had also lost sons to suicide wrote and rallied around me, assuring me that hard as it was, I would survive. Mothers who had the courage to share their stories of loss in books helped me know that so many of the things I was experiencing were normal, to be expected, and that I was not going crazy.

One book suggested that as time goes on and you move back into life, that it is very important not to make the suicide the focal point of the future. It happened. It is hauntingly, painfully real; but it is only one of millions of happenings in this loved one’s life and in my life – and that one dreadful decision does not wipe out all the good in the rest. That one idea made a powerful difference in my thinking.

Remembering Brian with Love

Sometimes it is still hard not to think about Brian all the time. I’ve been going through old letters and journals, combing them for precious paragraphs I wrote about him so I can add them to his picture history. I’ve interviewed Brian’s friends, trying to understand more about his life during the years when he was so far away from us. I’ve spent hours organizing and crying over his childhood pictures, remembering each precious year, each unique characteristic, laughing at his quirks, grasping on to tender memories and funny moments. First I thought I could finish his history in a few months, then just move on; but at the year mark, I am far from done. Sometimes I feel him close; sometimes I hold in my mind such a vivid picture of him laughing that it seems he should be able to talk to me. Less often I cry about the pain and sense of futility he experienced. More I often I think of how his life is now and the assurance I have that he now knows he is loved, knows God is real, knows what reality is, and is being tutored in gospel principles.


I praise the Lord for His plan, for the Comforter that has kept me sane, for the scriptures that daily feed my soul and remind me of sweet spiritual promises that can still be mine. Some days I still ache for Brian’s physical presence – he is so not here. But I am so grateful for divine assurance that where he is, is better.

The massive disaster of tsunami and hurricanes this year have sometimes made me feel small for thinking that my grief was so big. But we can’t compare our grief with the grief of others. There is no such thing as better reasons than yours or mine to grieve – and we all grieve at 100% for us.

The universality of grief comes largely because of the universality of love. Love and grief are opposite sides of the same coin. One of the best lessons I’ve learned is to tell others today that we love them – we must not wait for a tomorrow that may never be. I’ve been bathed in love this year and have hopefully showered a lot around to others too. It’s so easy to tell my grandchildren how much I love them, a little harder to tell my grown-up family members and friends, but I’m doing it – frequently. One never knows when one fleeting opportunity to express love could be the last in this life.