Five Lessons About Grief
A Personal Perspective
This year the t-shirt was bright green with “Running Wild at Camp McAuliffe” splashed across the front. In smaller print, just as it has been for the last 20 years, were the words “Tom Hammerle Rock & Run.”
McAuliffe Elementary School holds a run at the end of every school year to raise money for childhood cancer research. Every student in the school participates and every student knows the story about my son Tom, who was diagnosed in the second grade with a “1 in a billion” type of malignant brain tumor. Tom died 10 months later.
I know more than a little about going through the grieving process. I also know that most people will, at some point in their lives, go through it, too.
I share here the lessons I have learned personally and professionally.
Lesson one: Grieving starts the moment you receive the bad news. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote in her series on death that there are 5 stages of grief in a terminal illness: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. My husband Pete and I skipped right to the last stage because Tom’s prognosis was so grim that we had to start addressing the reality immediately. We made our decision that first day driving back from Children’s hospital: we were going to give Tom as normal a life as possible for the time he had left. In my experience with families who receive a diagnosis for dementia or other terminal condition, the ones who reach acceptance early are able to give their elder a better quality of life.
Lesson two: Take help when it is offered. We were completely unprepared for the multitude of people who offered to help. Among them was Ross Perot (my husband had served as Denton County Chairman for his presidential campaign), who called almost weekly. Still, it took us awhile to set aside our reticence and accept. I realize now how common that feeling is for caregivers, and how it can work against them.
Lesson three: You cannot control events. I could not control Tom’s cancer or its effect on his siblings Mark and Sarah. I could not control insurance companies or clinical trial protocols. Caregivers who realize the difference between control and advocacy can be much more effective.
Lesson four: Everyone grieves differently. Our family and friends grieved on their own schedule and in their own way. In my practice I often see families who are torn apart because they are critical that other people are not grieving “the right way.”
Lesson five: Religious beliefs matter. Tom’s neuro-oncologist told us that in her experience families who survive a child’s death have in common a strong religious belief. More importantly, she said that terminally-ill children who hold religious beliefs are more at peace and accepting. I am of the opinion that holds true for people of all ages.
Tom was a joyful, mischievous little boy who died on July 25, 1999 at the age of 8. Twenty years later, I still grieve.
This column was written as a tribute to all who have lost or will lose a loved one. It is dedicated to the memory of Tom Hammerle. The opinions expressed are the author’s alone.