On Grief


I’ve been thinking about grief lately. After two deaths in our family this year, people have asked me about my loved ones: “How are they doing?” “Are they feeling better?” And of course that makes sense. You hope that people heal, and you want to do anything you can to help speed along the process for those you care about.

But I read something really illuminating.

My brother-in-law Paul, who died this spring, had sent us the memoir Lament for a Son last year. In the book, a professor writes about the loss of his 25-year-old son, who died in a mountain climbing accident. Paul said it was the truest description of grief he had ever read.

This line, I loved:

Rather often I am asked whether the grief remains as intense as when I wrote. The answer is, No. The wound is no longer raw. But it has not disappeared. That is as it should be. If he was worth loving, he is worth grieving over.

Grief is existential testimony to the worth of the one loved. That worth abides. So I own my grief. I do not try to put it behind me, to get over it, to forget it… Every lament is a love-song.

The paragraph made me realize: You’re allowed to be sad. For as long as you want. The person is worth grieving. It was surprisingly reassuring.

Also, from modern-day sage Anne Lamott:

Death; wow. So f-ing hard to bear, when the few people you cannot live without die. You will never get over these losses, and are not supposed to. We Christians like to think death is a major change of address, but in any case, the person will live fully again in your heart, at some point, and make you smile at the MOST inappropriate times. But their absence will also be a lifelong nightmare of homesickness for you. All truth is a paradox. Grief, friends, time and tears will heal you. Tears will bathe and baptize and hydrate you and the ground on which you walk.

Also, my sister sent me this video, which is so heartbreakingly beautiful and worth watching (the part with the hands at 2:11!)…

Lots of love. xoxo

P.S. How to help a grieving friend, and the beautiful, beautiful article, Getting Grief Right.

(Illustration by Vanessa Jimin. Video is Moving On from Ainslie Henderson, via This is Colossal.)

  1. kimiko says...

    Thank you Joanna – grief has been the strangest, most confusing and complicated path I’ve walked. Every time I think I’ve figured out the rhythm, the ground shifts again. This post has offered much comfort – I have come back to this time and time again. Thank you thank you thank you.

  2. Thank you, thank you for sharing this! I very recently just lost my grandmother and to be honest I am still struggling with the loss but I found a tremendous amount of comfort from this post. Thank you again for these beautiful words.

  3. Thank you for this post. it really blessed me. some times i feel so weak when i feel sad about my mum, but then this post is so true. its perfectly fine to grieve for as long as we want and need.

    “Every lament is a love song” I love that!

    Rachel x

  4. Our bookclub just read a beautiful memoir where the author is grieving for her father – H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald. In this podcast she talks about the aftermath of his death and when she realised that she would never ‘get over it’ but absorb it into who she was –

  5. “Tears will bathe and baptize and hydrate you and the ground on which you walk.”

    Wow to Anne Lamott. It’s so true.

  6. If he was worth loving, he is worth grieving over. – I couldn’t agree more.


  7. I really appreciate how you take hard topics like your depression and tragedy and bring them to the table in a such an honest and gentle way. I think the internet is a place where these things can often be glossed over. I too have struggled with how to help a friend talks bout grief or how to allow myself to feel real pain. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Wow, Joanna. Thank you for sharing this. We’re the family that was supposed to stay in your apartment in July of 2013 and had to cancel because my brother-in-law was killed in a biking accident. This video is so beautiful and incredibly moving. I’m sorry you’ve had to experience such loss. You were so kind to me/us when we had to cancel our plans at the very last second and I’ve never forgotten that. Sending love & warm thoughts.

    • Sorry, that was supposed to be 2012.

  9. Sarah says...

    “You’re allowed to be sad. For as long as you want. ”

    This is exactly right. You’re allowed to grieve them for the rest of your life. Our first born daughter died at 6 months old from sudden infant death or cot death. There was no warning, no signs. We woke to her lovely plump soft milky warm skin lying cold and lifeless in her cot. We were devastated in every sense of the word. That was 12 years ago. We still carry it with us. We can be happy now, we can laugh, we can hope, we can dream but it never leaves you. There isn’t a day goes by I don’t think about her and miss her. The grief lies quietly in the background sometimes but every now and then I cry and cry and cry. But then I continue on. Once I apologised for my sister for not being ok with it after all this time and she hugged me and said “sometimes you’re ok and sometimes you’re not. None of us are. And that’s ok.” It was so wonderful to hear and allowed me the freedom to feel the grief til the end of my days.

    Thank you for this post Jo. xx

  10. Thank you for writing about grief. It is such a difficult thing to deal with and everyone griefs in a different way, it is such a personal thing. I read your post and got emotional, it touched me and reminded me of the passing of my uncle. We were close in age, more like cousins. He passed last year in his early 40’s, very unexpected and sudden. It has been very hard on our family. I say, we now have one more angel in heaven. I will never really “get over” the grieving or pain, I feel we eventually get used to living without our loved one’s physical presence, but never really get over it. It has been very hard for me, I finally wrote about it on Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead in Mexico/Latin American countries). My uncle’s son (14) wrote to me thanking me for writing about it and honoring his father, as well as sharing how important his father was in my life. Here’s a link to the post, if your interested, includes pictures from our childhood growing up together
    Thank you for such a touching post. Grief is a challenging thing .

  11. Thanks for this post, Joanna. My sister recently had a miscarriage, and at first I felt selfish to be grieving so much, but I realized that it is okay. I, too, can grief over her loss. I’ll be sharing this post with her wisely.


  12. Jenn says...

    Thanks for this beautiful post. Sheryl Sandberg recently posted on Facebook about what she’s learned about grief since her husband passed away suddenly. I found her words incredibly moving and relevant to this conversation. This article provides a recap and a link to the post:

    Joanna, my thoughts are with your family as you continue to grieve.

  13. Isabela says...

    Such a beautiful and important post! I am sorry for your losses!

  14. Ellie says...

    Have you read “On Loss and Living Onward” by Melissa Dalton-Bradford? She’s compiled this anthology of grief writings into chapters, each one beginning with a powerful, moving, essay about her 18 year old son’s sudden death. It’s a beautiful book and guide.

  15. it’s a journey. <3

  16. The video, while beautiful, is itself heartbreaking. I almost wish I hadn’t watched.

  17. Chiara says...

    Have you read the wonderful Transcending Loss: Understanding the Lifelong Impact of Grief and How To Make It Meaningful? I came across it one day when I was searching for comforting words, and this one had all the right ones. The author is warm, and comforting, and skilled, and attuned to what it is we go through when we grieve. More importantly, she gently explains why the so-famous 5 stages of grief are inaccurate and how awakening to the fact that grief is life-long can help us understand how it changes as we change, too. Can’t recommend it enough.

  18. bisbee says...

    Such an important post. That video is so moving and is such a unique way to show loss.

    My parents have been gone for many years – my mother over 22 years and my father 18. I am 64. My daughter-in-law lost both of her parents before she was 35. It is never easy, and it is never over…many mornings I wake up and realize I’ve been dreaming, and my parents were quite alive in the dream – SO real! It doesn’t end…it does change.

    However, I am always puzzled when I see or hear people say they can’t imagine losing a parent…or they don’t know how they will survive if a parent passes. We are supposed to live on after our parents die…it is really tragic if it happens the other way around. We need to learn about life and death in order to handle what is inevitable…and to somehow survive the unimaginable if it comes to pass…

  19. Megan says...

    Thank you, Jo. Thank you.

  20. Hailey says...

    I actually feel quite distressed after watching that

  21. My husband, the man I married when I was 21 .. died a little over a year ago. Suddenly, with no time for goodbyes or last I love you’s .. He was there and then he wasn’t.
    I was married to him for longer than I was not.
    He was my lover, my best friend, my protector , my everything.
    I fumble along and feed my cats and get new kittens and try to pretend life is normal … but it will never be normal again.

  22. Nina says...

    Agh, that video. My grandfather has Alzheimer’s and it really does feel like he is unraveling as we watch, helpless. x

  23. AB says...

    What lovely words you’ve chosen to explain the inexplicable. My best friend was killed in the VA Teach massacre 8 years ago, and grief over her is still something that catches me at the oddest moments. People always seem surprised about this–“do you think you’ll ever get over it?” Well, no. She was a bright, beautiful, essential part of my life and her loss shifted everything. So of course there is no “getting over” this. Of course not. As you quote in your post, it’s a lifelong nightmare of homesickness for a time that cannot be recovered or experienced again. But my grief is also a testimony to her and what she meant. Sadness and beauty are so often intertwined in our lives–acknowledging that truth is a kind of freedom that allows us to experience both fully and without reserve. Thank you for these wise words of comfort.

  24. Thank you for this! The video had me in tears. I lost my little brother in December and by far the easiest way to handle the pain is by pretending to have “gotten over it”. But I don’t think I ever will, and in some respects I don’t want to. Thank you for your words and understanding. Just what I needed. I’m so so sorry for your losses. If I have learned anything through my own grief I think it is to be more compassionate toward others. You never know what someone is going through!

  25. A says...

    A thank you that comes from across an ocean and a continent, your words and the comments that followed have really made a difference to this grieving heart, who has been trying to ‘move on’ too hard, for far too long.

  26. This was just what I needed today. My father died really suddenly and unexpectedly 10 months ago. I’m about to get married, and he’s not going to be able to walk me down the isle or share in any of the experience with me. Never in a million years did I ever think that wasn’t going to happen. I’ve also fielded the same questions you have; people being concerned for my mother and brothers (and me). I put on the same ‘strong’ facade that the lady in the article does. I still have surges of emotions that are so intense I can’t do anything but lie on the floor sobbing and making inhuman sounds. These have increased in frequency again, as my wedding draws near. And this blog post….it just feels so comforting, somehow, when someone gets grief right. So thank you.

  27. Grace says...

    My dad passed away in December from heart disease. Even though I saw him take his last breath, was holding his hand at that very moment, it still doesn’t feel real most of the time…until it does. I’m twenty-four and I can’t help but feel cheated, followed by a wave of guilt about my self-pity. My dad was an older father, had me on his fiftieth birthday. He was a smoker, had had kidney cancer and defeated it, had had two strokes and got through them with flying colors. The heart disease slowly crept up on us; it didn’t seem serious until my dad couldn’t go anywhere without oxygen tanks. My dad was given so much more time, especially considering his lifelong habit of smoking. Yet when I think about getting married, holding my first child in my arms–I know on those most joyous of occasions I’ll also feel loss. I’m just now beginning to understand that grief is lifelong. My family and I are all Christians and that has been my only hope and comfort. I’ve tried to live these past few months trying to find joy wherever I can–because the one word that best described my dad after “faithful” was “joyful.” I read books upon books on grief the first month my dad died. I read as many passages from the Bible that mentioned it that I could. “A Grief Observed” by C.S. Lewis was the one book I felt a connection to. It’s scattered notes on losing his wife to cancer, and it gave me perspective on what my mom might be going through. It is not an “easy” read nor is it necessarily “comforting.” It’s raw. It’s written in the direct aftermath of death. But it’s the realest account on grief I’ve read thus far. My dad and I’s birthday is this month along with Father’s Day. More than all holidays that have passed since his passing, this one will be the hardest. I truly find comfort in these excerpts as the day is fast approaching.

  28. Emmy says...

    I love that quote from the second passage about our loved ones living on inside of us. It’s so true. Sometimes when I find myself saying or doing something just like my dear grandma (who passed away last fall, and whom I was very close to) would have done, I realize she’s still here with me, in my heart, just present in a different way.

  29. Heather says...

    My friend sent me this post and it couldn’t hit any closer to home. I lost my mom less than two months ago at the age of 59. Two weeks after, her younger brother who also lived my parents, unexpectedly passed as well. The quotes you site are exactly how I feel everyday. It’s a constant nightmare that I’m waiting to be over, waiting for her to call, waiting to find her in her garden.

  30. Oh wow. That video had me bawling. I haven’t lost many people, just two who meant a lot to me and they were both my Grandparents. They played major roles in my childhood and now being a mother I see the world differently. What a lovely video… so sad and beautiful.

  31. weeks away from the one year anniversary of my mother’s rest from cancer, this was such a comforting read to take some time and enjoy today. thank you for the encouragement to work WITH our grieving process. so much is truly worked ‘through’, and then just when you’ve thought you’ve gotten through some major hurdles, it feels like someone’s come through and reset the course. now, I think I will envision the trials and difficulties more in that manner: a track or course with hurdles that, even if I successfully make it through a lap and up and over all of them, they will still be there to get up and over and again.

    truly, thank you so much for this today.

  32. Christina says...

    What a beautiful post. The fear of losing people I love has gotten so much stronger recently, as I move cross country from my family and start one of my own. Reading this and the comments makes me feel less alone in that feeling. And, as a veterinarian, it’s so helpful to be ever expanding my understanding of grief. We’re often in the position of helping clients with loss and, I’ve come to realize, it’s a skill on which I will be forever working.

  33. Sandy says...

    I just returned tonight to my home in the pinky of MI from my 6th chemo treatment for stage IV breast cancer. I have some time my doctors and the researchers tell me, not as much as I want. My young (53) husband and 3 boys (25, 23, 20) all have these moments where they are terrified of the truth that is before us all…losing me. I will tuck these precious gifts from your blog today and share them when the time feels right. If you haven’t read about or seen the Instagram, Sunsets for Shalin, it will warm your heart. Peace to your family, one day and one sunset at a time.

    • Becky says...

      This breaks my heart for your family but you seem to be handling your undoubted grief (and that of your family) with grace and dignity. You are a stranger to me but my thoughts, prayers, and best wishes are with you tonight.

    • Sandy, this is so hard to read. I’m so very sad for you and your husband and sons. You are far too young and life sucks, but death sucks more. I will think of you today xx

  34. Marinna says...

    You are a remarkable person to be able to write so thoughtfully on such a difficult topic. I am so terrified of losing the people closest to me, and becoming a mother made that fear cut even deeper. I just cannot imagine ever being separated from the people who are truly what I live for. This video absolutely gutted me! Thank you for sharing such a moving piece and sharing your life with us.

  35. Olivia says...

    My losses have so far been of pets and foetuses; I consider myself very lucky; although losing the babies was pretty rough, I haven’t had to lose any ex-uterine humans who I’ve been close too. My experience is that after all the grief and anger and frustration and misery fades, the love remains. That’s where I’m at with the (much-loved) animal losses. 4 years and a baby (I already had a child) after the baby losses, love is beginning to live alongside sadness, regret and missing someone as the main emotions. The animals have taught me that in time, with time, the love remains. I’m so sorry for your losses; I’m a doctor and a friend posted, separately,a link to Paul’s musings. The world is a poorer place without him, much love to you all.

  36. Anya says...

    My dad died a little less than 4 years ago. Some days the loss feels further away than others, and sometimes it punches me in the gut as hard as the day we lost him. The grief is always there though, and about two years ago I decided that it was okay, because grieving is the last way we get to love people. And I’ll always love my dad.

  37. Alisa says...

    This was a beautiful post. Thank you so much for sharing.

  38. ceciel says...

    wow, thanks Jo. so beautiful and real and how I love that you give us “light” reading on many days but also don’t stray from the tough stuff too.

  39. The Anne Lamott line about your loved one’s absence being a lifelong nightmare of homesickness really got me. The video made me cry. Really beautiful and heartbreaking as you said. I think about your family all the time. Sending you lots of love!

  40. Lael says...

    Thank you for this, I just had a miscarriage and it has been hard. xo

  41. marisa says...

    I’m so sorry for your loss. Those words are beautiful as is the video. It has been a month since my miscarriage and I still am not sure how to process to loss of someone I barely knew – I do feel the experience has provided me with greater empathy for the sadness, the hurt and the grief that people carry but which those on the outside don’t see.

  42. Amanda says...

    My heart hurts after watching that video, but in a good way. Still crying.

    I think of your sister often and send her and her daughter peace. Thanks for sharing this post. I’m sure that I’ll come back to it in the future.

  43. My Dad died unexpectedly in 1976 when I was nine, and since then I have moments of feeling loss and mourning the absence of a father. It will be 40 years this August and I still a take sniff of the aftershave he wore if I see it in a store and I feel the need to connect.
    Three months ago our dog, Paulie, of 14 years died and my daughter (12) and I have had many beautiful, raw conversations since. Most of her friends haven’t experienced a loss of any kind and had a hard time relating. Two weeks ago my longtime General Practitioner Doctor told me to grieve the dog like a spouse. Fourteen years of loyal companionship, sleeping by my side, waking my daughter every morning for school, being overjoyed when we walked in the door, whether it had been days or just a quick trip to the mailbox, is a precious thing and grieving honors the love we had for him and still have for him.

  44. Rebecca Janssen says...

    I so appreciate this post. My sweet, little sister died unexpectedly last August, and the grieving is just such a process. So many people don’t understand, or perhaps, chose to avoid understanding grief. Honestly, I hope I never stop grieving my sister. To do so seems to somehow lessen the importance of her life. Yes, we emerge, with time, from the deepest
    sorrow–mostly (watching that video took me right back there), but grief can be good. We should allow ourselves to experience it fully . . .

  45. Beth Nesbit says...

    I loved that video. I’ve been reading your blog for years and have been thinking how your sister and husband have been coping along with the rest of your family. Your brother-in-law Paul’s essays struck such a cord in me. I send prayers and love to your family.

  46. Joanna, I hope you and your family are taking gentle care of yourselves.

  47. Liz says...

    Buzzfeed posted about grief last week, and I really appreciated their list –

    Also I noticed a few people in the comments have mentioned wanting to help children of loved ones who have died, so I just wanted to share a few resources for anyone looking for support for children/teens. The website has a locator with programs for grieving children across the country, and Camp Kesem ( puts on free camps across the country specifically for kids whose parents have or had cancer. Hope this is helpful for some people looking for resources for kids!

  48. I really, really appreciate this post and completely agree. I lost my father to cancer when I was only 12 years old and though the intensity of the grief wanes with time, I still feel an empty space in my heart for him. He was a great man, worthy of grieving! I remember my mom grieving his loss so intensely that people stepped in and basically told her it was time to move on and stop grieving. But I think it’s really important to give someone permission to feel the grief for as long as they need to. She is okay, but she still says that she thinks of him every day. He was the love of her life, and I can relate. If my husband dies before I do, I will feel it too. Thank you for this beautiful post!

  49. Thanks for this. The part from Lament for a Son knocked the breath out of me.

  50. J in London says...

    ‘How terrible it is to love something that death can touch’

    Thank-you for this. We also suffered a loss around the same time and that quote has just stayed with me.

    This poem helped a lot –

    “Life is unpredictable,
    It changes with the seasons,
    Even your coldest winter,
    Happens for better reasons,
    And though it feels eternal,
    Like all you’ll ever do is freeze,
    I promise spring is coming,
    And with it, brand new leaves.”
    – e.h

    with love, J x

  51. Liz says...

    that video! It was so amazing! I lost my mother to cancer a couple years ago, sometimes I think I’m not still grieving until I see something like that. I have a 4 month old little girl, I would love to think part of my mother is living on in her.

  52. I have no idea what this kind of grief must feel like. You’d think that I’d be comforted by that, but as I get older and more attached to my loved ones, the fact that it will happen sooner or later is enough to make me teary eyed when I think about it. Thanks for sharing!

  53. Sam says...

    That video totally made me ball :( but in a good way, thanks for sharing.

  54. I enjoyed reading this. I have yet to experience this kind of grief as I have not lost anyone so dear to me. I know it is going to happen at some point and I really don’t know how I will handle it. This was insightful for me and encouraging to know that grieving will happen and that is good.

  55. This post came at the most perfect time, as most of your posts do. My sister was murdered five months ago and today has been really hard for me for some strange reason. I recently went to a local Grief Group and they would always say “Grief isn’t something you get over, or get under… it’s something you get through.” and I think that’s so true. I read this post several times and it was very comforting. Thank you.

  56. Judy says...

    Lamott, Wolterstorff and CS Lewis are all keen Christ followers. I’ve always appreciated your honesty about your own spiritual journey. And I find it interesting that their writings have been the most meaningful to you, since they clearly believe in an afterlife and the teachings of Jesus. Would love your thoughts about that. I’m so sorry for your losses. They are indeed worthy of your grief. When one of my best friends lost her husband (and had two small children to raise), someone told her that her tears were worth his loss. She always loved that and I never forgot it. I’ve learned to say it when someone begins to cry and is embarrassed by their tears. So beautiful.