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Rediscovering Childlike Joy After Grief and Loss


As the holiday season approaches and a new year rings in, I am rediscovering the power of childhood joy in an unexpected way–through grief and loss.

Death comes like a thunderclap and in many forms. The past few years took my mother, father, and two close brothers-in-law. Such loss leaves holes in the grieving and rattles the foundation of life. In walking through grief, I discovered that America for all its richness is poor in helping those left behind to cope with the death of loved ones.

Then I heard Ted’s story. Within five-year’s time, Ted Wiard of Taos, New Mexico had lost his brother in a fishing accident, wife to cancer, and six and nine-year-old daughters with their maternal grandmother in a car accident. The loss was of proportions from a Greek tragedy. Ted himself was ready to die, finding no lifelines to live.

My own suffering, while not on the scale of Ted’s, was deeply felt. My dad had been the best man in my wedding among 16 groomsmen. We talked every day, and from time to time would fall upon some pretty big topics like what birds he saw in the yard that day, or themes from literature on living and dying, power and humility, and how to emerge from Dante’s dark wood in mid-life; it turns out not as a knight on a horse with a flashing sword, but more like a Jedi Knight calmly connected to all things. All of a sudden, he was gone. I found myself dialing his number even after his death.

My mother was probably like many mothers–selflessly devoted to the love and care of her children. She saw family and community in everything she did. In her final hours in her bed at hospice, she quoted The Somonyng of Everyman, a late 15th-century play about how the good and evil deeds one did in life will be tallied by God in the afterlife. Mom’s cup of good deeds was overflowing. In grocery stores, libraries and adult learning centers in our community after her death, people grabbed my arm to say how much Mom’s laughter and enthusiasm were still alive within them.

Around the same time, the loss of a family member (Terry) to pancreatic cancer days after his retirement from a 30-year career helping the community and of another family member (Billy) to a heart attack during a stressful period in the FBI took two loved ones in mid-life. Each shared the quality of laughing so hard tears would run down their cheeks. All of a sudden, family gatherings felt joyless.

Grief knocks on our doors at a time of declining support within America. With the rapid decline of participation in faith-based institutions, the loss of elders who pass on wisdom, low levels of trust in each other, and growing isolation with more Americans living alone, we reach for faith, ceremony, and support and often find too little.

A doctor told me to “run more,” which I did, but grief found ways to creep into daily life. After we sold Dad and Mom’s house and I built a library in my basement to house his 12,000 books, I found myself waking up at 3 a.m. every morning with unexplainable aches, pains, and fatigue running could not heal. A second doctor’s visit resulted in a diagnosis I had never heard of, “severe grief.” I reached for a ladder of support and could not find one … until I found Ted.

Somehow, Ted Wiard had turned his multiple, devastating losses into something unexpected. He was joyful–even silly–to the point of possessing that awe and wonder of childhood; he was passionate to the point of dedicating his life to helping the wounded, addicted, and imprisoned; and he was wise to the point of ensuring everyone that he helps sees suffering as a great teacher if we are open to its lessons.

Ted decided to create a lifeline for himself and others experiencing loss. He got a degree in grief counseling and created the Golden Willow Retreat Center specializing in helping those experiencing loss. At the recommendation of my good friend, Tim Shriver, I spent five days of hard work at the Center. Everything in my experience worked against my doing this. Wasn’t church every Sunday enough? Wasn’t there more work in which I could lose myself? Wasn’t loss just a natural part of life to accept? Was I really going to fly across the country to immerse myself in more pain?

The day after I met Ted, he spontaneously took me on a jeep ride through deep mud on BLM lands to see his “outdoor chapel” overlooking the Rio Grande Gorge, laughing most of the way there as we expected to get stuck. It was the first time in years I felt childhood joy, as tears of happiness rolled down my cheeks. I realized how much I had been dead emotionally.

The same spirit of childhood joy permeated Ted’s retreat center. I encountered a community of loving experts and healers who listened and counseled; engaged with me in faith-filled exploration of how we can tangibly maintain relationships with those we’ve lost; and awakened me through the power of ceremony with ministers and elders who provided flashlights for the future. More than anything, they reminded me of the power of joyful living.

At my closing ceremony in the chapel, Ted gave me the clay candleholder and wax candle his 9-year-old daughter, Keri, made before her tragic death. Ted told me that Keri wanted me to have it to be a stronger light to the world. Out of my weeping from such an act of love, I am finding new strength. In my final days at the Center, Ted said Keri wishes you “silliness, laughter, and rediscovery of childhood joy,” words he said Keri actually spoke to communicate to me.

We need more lights and resources across America and more encouragement in our culture to have the courage to confront the pain of grief and loss and emerge awakened to a more joyful life. Part of that journey is a rediscovery of silliness and joy in daily living until the tears run down our cheeks. I know that’s what dear Keri would want and will keep her candle lit on my desk for years to come, “as a light that shines in the darkness and the darkness shall not overcome it.”

This essay was featured in the December 22nd edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.


John M. Bridgeland is Founder and CEO of Civic, a bipartisan ideas company, and former Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.

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