The Surprising Nature of Grief

He was in his late 50’s, I’m guessing. Salt and pepper hair and mustache, thick black shoes, Bermuda shorts and the usual bright red apron. I was at Home Depot, purchasing something or other for the work we’re doing on our new home, and I noticed him, cheerfully helping customers through the checkout process.

He was kind, with a peaceful, even happy expression on his face. I could see him from where I stood waiting in line, and I remember thinking, “That guy is one of the good ones. Yeah, the shoes with the shorts are a tad nerdy, but what a sweet man!”

I dug into my cart, laid my wares on the conveyor belt and he quickly moved to the end of the island, getting ready to put my purchases into a bag for me. I handed over my credit card, signed my name and turned to thank him as I got ready to exit the store. And that’s when I saw his name tag:


Big black letters, larger than life. And as I saw them, I was startled to hear a great gasping sob erupt from my mouth. The next minute, tears were streaming down beneath my sunglasses as I made my way back to the car.

I had been blindsided by grief, deep and wide.

Kenneth was my youngest brother’s name. The one who died in 2009. A man I’d never met called me early in the morning of October 2nd; he was the manager of Ken’s sober living residence. He’d found my number in my brother’s cell phone and told me tearfully that Ken passed away in his sleep. He was 53 years old.

Oh my, such a sweet man. Troubled, broken, sick and tired, but such a sweet man. I’ve written about him elsewhere, detailing his life of struggle and pain. But that day — that instant in the Home Depot — my thoughts were these:

This could have been my brother.

He would have been so good at a job like this.

Oh, how I miss him! Oh, how sorry I am for all the turmoil he endured! Oh, how I wish I could change it somehow.

But I cannot. I cannot go back in time, much as I might wish to do so. I cannot change one second of his life.

This much, though . . . this much, I can do:

I can acknowledge my own sadness about him.

I can make space for the grief to surprise me, again and again.

I can thank God for Ken every day.

I can pray for his sons and daughter-in-law.

I can remember the best pieces of his story.

I can pay attention to those I meet who remind me of him in some way — size, demeanor, struggle.

I can not be ashamed of the sobs, the tears, the sadness or him. Instead, I can remember him with love and gratitude, accepting him for who he was, warts and all, and rejoice that his suffering is over.

Grief comes in waves, they say. Who knew the tide would still roll after this many years? Sometimes I think I’m ‘used’ to all the death and dying we’ve experienced in our family circle. But I’m not, and — thank God — I never will be. Though it often comes disguised as blessing, especially after a long, difficult illness, death is always our last enemy, a reminder that our time in this sphere is limited and finite. Ah, Lord, I thank you that Ken’s dying was gentle, though his living was harsh.

I miss you, sweet brother of mine. I truly do. 

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  1. You know this touches me. Yes, the waves, the unexpectedness of it. At least now I know the waves are further apart and calm down sooner.. With you this morning.

  2. Exactly, they are further apart and calm down more quickly. Thanks for your companionship.

  3. Oh how this touched me.
    Just beautiful.
    I once had a similar experience in a grocery store after my husband died. There was a clerk and I don’t even remember the name on his badge but the way he looked into my eyes it was like Jody was back right at that moment and was telling me everything was going to be fine. I was so shaken I have never forgotten it. To this day I believe he was an angel.

    • Oh, Lori – I don’t think I even knew that you lost your husband. I am so sorry. And I believe he was an angel, too. What a lovely small story of grace in the midst of the deepest pain.

  4. This is so touching. Thank you for sharing this, Diana. I can’t specifically relate to this grief, but it is so real it simply spills over with so much truth and meaning. <3

    • Thanks for your kind words, Lizzie. If you can’t relate now, you will someday. We all carry sadness and regret. It’s the learning how to live with it but not let it devour us that’s the hard part . . . and the gift.

  5. Lynn D. Morrissey says

    Diana, I am so very sorry. And this took a turn I hadn’t expected. I thought you were going to say that the H.D. man talked to you about a recent death. But it was you who were gripped by grief. I am so, so very sorry. Yes, death is our final enemy and it was never meant to be. That is what always gets me. It wasn’t in God’s plan. And yet He had a plan to overcome it. Praise Him for the matchless gift of His Son who conquered death and lives, risen, among us. I really empathized with your post, with your unbidden tears, because you are still so deeply touched by grief (when society bids you not be), when you lamented the difficulties of your brother’s life and untimely loss (I so relate, because I grieve for very harsh circumstances which my dear brother is struggling to overcome), and for all the pain in the remembrance. Just yesterday, actually quite unbidden, I also grieved the loss of my beloved grandmother so many years ago. Daily, she stares at me from a faded sepia photo, where she is no more than three, along with her older and younger sister–the baby who never survived past two. And I grieved for her and how I missed her and for the two aunts I will never know. And then I missed my beloved father afresh. Thank you by example for demonstrating that grief is not a two-week soundbite in life, a medicinal bitter pill to be swallowed quickly and gotten over, thank you very much. You are not wallowing in your grief, but you are remembering to grieve, because you loved so well. We never really get over true love. Who would want to?

    • Thank you for these lovely words, Lynn. I have a very young photo of my FIL when he was about three, a picture which I love – it’s a large oval in a frame – and in his face you can see that he recently lost his daddy to typhoid fever. It reminds me of that dear man every time I see it. I miss him, and my own dad, my eldest daughter’s first husband (though I adore her second one!), my best friend and many parishioners as well as my brother Ken. We never get over missing them, although the pain becomes less intense over time. I take hope in the resurrection – that’s about all I can say. Thanks again for reading and commenting – both here and on FB.

  6. I haven’t tried to count up the number of losses in my life, but there have been several. Most I’ve dealt with but I’m always surprised when something out of the blue brings me face-to-face with grief. I think those are the losses that were linked with regret and the “if only” reminders tag along with them. I agree with Lynn that grief is very much linked to love and isn’t something that ceases with the passing of a specific amount of time.

    • I hear that, Carol. Regret is a big part of my story with my brother. Regret in general — that we didn’t know more about what his issues were, that he suffered as much as he did all of his life. We loved him, but really didn’t know how to help him and that regret never leaves me. Thanks for reading and commenting. So sorry about all the fires up your way – hoping everyone is right about and El Nino year!

  7. Eva Sullivan-Knoff says

    Thank you Diana. This is touching and real and honoring. I know this will speak into other’s stories.

  8. You, too? A number of times over the years I’ve been blindsided by grief–long after the loss. One example: Years after I lost a high school friend, I was sharing her story in a small group, and suddenly the tears came–out of nowhere. It shocked me that after so much time, the pain would resurface. I greatly appreciate the positive actions you choose, Diana, when waves of grief roll in: acceptance, gratitude, and prayer. Those steps surely are the way out of a downward spiral of grief, regret, and what-ifs.

    • Thank you, Nancy. I usually shy away from ‘steps’ to anything – but this was what came to me as I moved my way through those tears. And I’m not surprised at all that you would cry many years after losing your best friend at such a tender age. I really try to pay attention to tears for any reason when they show up – I think God speaks to us pretty loudly in our tears, actually.