How does loss change us?

I recently read “David and Goliath” by Malcolm Gladwell. The book discusses how our assumptions about strengths and weaknesses are sometimes wrong.

In the middle of the book, Gladwell writes about people who have endured trauma, and in particular, people who endure the loss of a parent while they are children. In the vast majority of cases, losing a parent does not bode well. Those children are less likely to complete their educations and more likely to land in prison. The asterisk is that a small percentage of these people become far more daring and courageous than usual. He points to U.S. presidents, who are more likely to have had an absent parent than the general population.

Gladwell focuses on a doctor who helped cure childhood leukemia in the 1950s and ’60s. The doctor grew up without his father, and his mother was nearly always out working. This man had a very difficult childhood, but that seems to have allowed him to take on the work of curing cancer in these children. Most doctors and nurses lasted only a few weeks or months in that ward of the hospital because, at the time, there was no treatment. Children who came in with leukemia inevitably died after a lot of profuse bleeding. This doctor seemed better able to cope with working in that environment and was willing to try unconventional, and somewhat inhumane, treatments. People around him said he lacked emotion, but his thought process was “I’ve been through worse.”

These chapters inevitably made me think about my own life and many of the families I know who have lost a baby. I know that every single one of those families would give back whatever wisdom they have gained to spend even one day with that missing child. And I think a lot of those families would brush aside this notion of strength and say that they are merely sadder and more anxious that some other terrible thing might happen (because these things do happen to people like us).

But before I make assumptions for you, what do you think? Chime in, please!

Six years out, I would say that loss has made me more fearless. I do worry about Greg and the kids more because losing them doesn’t seem nearly as abstract as I would like it to. But I worry a lot less about appearing to be crazy. There’s that question: What would you do if you weren’t afraid? I ask myself that a lot. When I have an idea, I try to think big. Whatever happens — failure or public humiliation — it will be nothing compared to what I have already gone through. And if I look crazy, well, I am a little crazy after what I’ve been through, and that’s okay.

2 thoughts on “How does loss change us?

  1. The loss leaves us changed, no doubt. Author C.S. Lewis likened grief to the loss of a leg. The wound heals but the leg doesn’t grow back. Nearly 10 years have passed since my son died at age 21. How am I now? Most days I get around pretty well for a one-legged woman. But I’m forever changed.

    You ask, am I stronger or sadder than I would be if he had lived? I can’t know that, for I can’t know what else the 10 years might have brought. I do know that I choose to live as well as I can because that seems the best way to honor his memory. He would not want me to give up on joy. But some days, still, grief washes over me like a rogue wave. It’s hard to tread water with one leg.

  2. I think the biggest change for me is similar to yours: I worry so much less about what others think of me. My twenties were full of superficial anxiety–did I sound stupid? Do I look ridiculous? Is everybody hanging out without me?

    And now I still don’t want to look stupid, but I just don’t spend much time/energy on those social anxieties. I’m not so worried about people liking me.

    (I’d totally trade this giving of far fewer fucks to get Eliza back.)

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