Tin Man's Books and Records: Finding the Words, Working Through Profound Loss with Hope and Purpose
and how we can use lessons from mourning on our healing journeys
Did Tolstoy get it wrong when he said: all happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way? Unhappiness, whether it stems from disappointment, grief or pain, is unnervingly common, and how we arrive there—the particular details of the complication that lead us to it—has hardly any bearing on the universal truths necessary to endure it.
With respect to happy moments, we might find more variety. Some of us meet them with bureaucratic efficiency— you know, like scheduling prom photos, baby gender reveals, and so on—and some with an existential nausea, like shirking in the corner, and downing booze at birthdays. But, tragedy finds us all, levels the playing field, leads us to a universal magma, like horses to water. This is when we join the rank and file of survival.
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The recent passing of my grandmother, the desire to figure out how best to support my mom, the passing of my friend in a scooter accident in Thailand, and twenty two months of life-changing physical pain post-Covid are but a few of the reasons I bought Colin Cambell’s book, Finding the Words, Working Through Profound Loss with Hope and Purpose, an autobiographical account and a how-to-find-the-words guide written by a father grieving the death of his two teenage kids.
While Colin does not concentrate the book on a detailed account of their deaths he does relay that his daughter and son were killed in a car crash where he was the driver. The tragedy occurred during the most inconspicuous, if not joyous, of events— a family drive to purchase a second home in Joshua Tree. The drunk driver who hit them was driving just three blocks to a bar, on a Wednesday, leaving her own kids at home. She also had a prior citation.
Of course, the first inclination is to draw comparison, perhaps to say Colin’s experience is far worse, or only applicable to those mourning an inconceivable loss. But I find many parallels in his survival guide with other notes from the Healingvrse. And, in a small, simple twist of fate, the birthdays of Colin’s children, Ruby and Hart, were on March 29th and 30th, the very days I read his book this year, to write this post to you.
Sure, at first, when we hit trouble, our knee jerk reaction is to find like-minded people, those who have gone through similar experiences—and there is always a place for that—but eventually, as we grow, as our hearts expand, we drift outside of our experience to hunt for universal truths across the prism of hardship.
This is why Victor Frankl’s words from his book Man’s Search for Meaning appear in so many other books on survival, leadership, self-improvement, etc. Incidentally, it is in Colin’s book where I learned a new Victor Frankl fact: he was already writing a book about man’s search for meaning when he was arrested by the Nazi’s and deported to the concentration camps.
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.”
One does not need to be preparing for the next Holocaust in order to apply Frankl’s words, and in the same vein, one does not need to suffer the loss of two children to draw key lessons from Collins’s book. We are fortunate to be a part of the same species.
Moreover while Colin’s experience may seem incomprehensible to me, and perhaps mine is incomprehensible to even some in the pain community, at the end, anyone interested in this kind of contemplation, can understand what it means to have a cross to bear, to overcome a curse, to survive.
For a detailed account on useful rituals for grieving during the first days, first months, and first years of the loss of a loved one, I encourage you to buy Colin’s book.
It was only three weeks after the crash, and we just weren’t ready to be in a circle of other people’s pain (a grief group). We staggered into the parking lot and Gail (his wife) doubled over as she wailed in raw agony, “What will we do? How will we live?” These two questions seem central to grieving.
What are we actually doing when we grieve? And how do we stay in life when so much of our heart doesn’t want to live without the ones we’ve lost?
This book describes what Gail and I did and how we stayed alive in the impossible aftermath of losing our two beloved children. I hope it offers some help and solace to others who are struggling with a loss of their own.
In this post, I only plan to share a few things that stuck out as poignant, sage, and universal, that which I think that all of us can relate to—even Tolstoy, if he had Long Covid and a toddler.
#1 “There are no Words…” is an unhelpful phrase!
Colin provides many helpful ways for people to speak on the issue of grief. He firmly believes that the idea—there are “no words,” is society’s way of shutting the grievers out. While perhaps well intentioned, it is to say that the “loss is so overwhelming and tragic" that no words are adequate to express condolences.” But the reality is that phrase is just a preemptive conversation killer. Furthermore, “We need words to process grief or pain.”
Colin finds time and again that sometimes it is necessary to help people find the words. Sometimes it is incumbent on the griever, to help his or her friends, family, and co-workers to find the words, the right ways to act. This may come in the form of sending emails, or frank conversations, detailing what you may need in the moment.
Colin calls this kind of message part of the Grief Spiel, an introduction or a list of ground rules for other people to follow around the taboo subject of his children’s death, because he and his wife needed people to talk about his children. They wanted people to “ask us about our grief and how we were managing and processing this catastrophic loss as it was, after all, the only thing they were thinking about.”
For example, Colin and Gail used to throw a massive New Years Party each year for friends. Once their children died, they were disheartened that they did not hear from many of those same people on that day—most likely, again, these people fell victim to the there are “no words” trap. So Colin and Gail wrote them an email.
Before we ring out of 2021, we’d like to ask you a favor of you…We desperately miss our annual New Years Eve party. Some of you came for nearly every one (12?13? years running?) and some of you were new friends who only came to what we never dreamed would be our last with Ruby and Hart….We cling to our memories, but this time of year makes it harder to remember the joy, because our sorrow crowds out almost everything else.
Because you’re the people who’ve celebrated with us for so many years, please take a minute today and email us memory you have of have them, or a thought you have about them. It can be one sentence—whatever it is we’ll cherish it…”
Early on the Grief Spiel, Colin says he included these words, exactly: “I don’t give a shit about your favorite cat who died, or your grandma who died, or your uncle…”. However over time he dropped this part of the spiel.
When the loss is raw, or when the pain is acute, we do not want to hear about comparisons that are not in tune, precisely, with the bellowing of our story, but over time, the heart expands in empathy for all suffering. This is one of the transformative effects of pain, or hardship.
#2 Fear and leaning into grief…
“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.
At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.”
Colin describes how in the early terrible days of grief, his brain worked on overdrive to figure out a way to “somehow how rescue Ruby and Hart from death.” For him, early grief feels “timeless and bottomless.”
All of my hopes and dreams were, in one way or another, connected to Ruby and Hart. They were my future. and now without them, I felt I had no real purpose…The combination of loneliness, madness, and meaningless can be terrifying.
While one wants to avoid the pain, it is important to lean into it, and ultimately, what I read time and again in Colin’s book is that, in the good moments, you learn to live with it beside you.
Refusing to be afraid of grief is an important part of the process. In fact, just two days after the burial of his children, Colin did something incredibly ballsy. He had two 36x24 photo prints of his children mounted on foam core, and placed in his living room. Looking at the photos he would shout: “I am not afraid of you!” This helped him face the fear, and feel “as though they were grieving as a family.”
#3 Rituals help us grieve actively
Rituals help us to take action in times of terrible grief. In Judaism there is something called Mourner’s Kaddish, a short prayer that does not mention death or loss. As Colin summarizes, “The mourner is expected to recite this prayer every day for the first year after the death of a loved one, and on specific holidays thereafter, during which there must always be at least 9 other people present.”
Colin says this is one of the most “brilliant inspirations of Judaism when it comes to grieving” because it “requires the mourner to be surrounded on a regular basis, forces her not to turn away from her pain and loss, forces her to have a community to bear witness, ensures that her grieving is active and translated into words and gestures, and that her mourning involves a celebration of life since the words of the prayer are not about pain or loss but an uplifting celebration of the goodness of G-D and a wish for abundant peace and a good life.”
Colin goes on to list many rituals, both public and private that he and his wife created in honor of their children. These were their way of facing the pain, but also celebrating the life of their children. This has also contributed to my own thinking around the failure to create any ritual for Covid, the pandemic we all suffered, creating a split reality, whereby many people resumed normalcy leaving most stones unturned.
Colin lists many examples of public rituals, many Judaic as that is the religion of his wife, including Mourners Kaddish, and Shiva where you open your home for people to grieve with you. Beyond that, he says you may have to come up with your own ideas, like doing a special gathering every year, or establishing a scholarship fund in honor of a loved one.
Private rituals are as infinite as there are people. Colin lists a few: wearing his daughters favorite t-shirt, wearing his son’s pajamas, when traveling buying an enamel pin from a gift shop because that is what his daughter would have done, making a toast to their children every time he and his wife drink a cocktail, thinking of his children every time he jumps in ocean, blowing a kiss goodnight to them every time he passes their room at night…
Transgressive rebellions are quite simply the rituals that might be breaking rules. For example, Colin tells of a family who lost a child to a rare heart condition and painted a mural on her parking spot every year despite the school prohibiting it for fear that “everyone would do it,” or one family who lost their son and replaced an official city park sign with one saying “Luke’s Crossing.” On the last night of Shiva, Colin gathered his community together to walk around the neighborhood, blocking traffic in the name of his son and daughter, a ritual that was pleasantly transgressive.
#4 Leaning into pain…
The pain I feel now is the happiness I had before. Thats the deal. - C.S. Lewis
After years, Colin came to believe that the pain he feels is due to the strength of his love. “Love is the other face of pain.” There are many dangers in avoiding pain, such as numbing through alcohol or drugs. He references Sonali Deraniyagala who wrote Wave, describing years of being in a haze of alcohol after the loss of her husband and two kids in a tsunami. She found that when she was finally ready to face her grief, many of her children’s friends had grown up already, the community was no longer there to support in the same way. Also emotions buried under repressed rage are harder to access.
Discussing emotions can be hard for people. I like one of Colin’s small suggestions, which highlights the universality of pain, and shows that “pain turn us all into teenagers.” Colin suggests having a planned activity like going on a drive, which can be “especially helpful to have meaningful talks with teenagers, as it may be easier to do with both people facing forward rather than across from each other over a table.” I know that my legs itch for a walk during trying conversations for the same reasons, and I will never again take for granted the health necessary to go on one.
#5 Pain vs Suffering vs Despair
Anyone who has been through a traumatic experience ends up thinking about the distinction between pain, suffering and The Abyss. Colin provides some clear cut examples. For example, “weeping while looking at a photo of my daughter is healthy pain, but allowing my mind to spiral into regret at all the moments I could have been a better dad to her” seem unhelpful, a.k.a simply suffering.
He states: “Crying is not suffering, it is a part of productive pain.”
We are bones muscle blood and then filled head to toe with water. There’s no empty space inside us. So when something new happens, whether it’s grief or joy, tears pour out as a way of making room for us to assimilate this new reality. Otherwise it wouldn’t fit inside our bodies —there would be no place for it to go.
-Hassidic idea as shared by Colin’s Rabbi Sharon
Seeking solace is important. For some this is being in nature, looking at the sky, the ocean, the cold Walden forest. For me, it can be found on the subway.
According to Colin, pain comes in waves, “your body will naturally let you off the hook after a little while, but despair is different.” It feels out of control, it makes you want to give up on life completely. This is The Abyss as I have called it, as Dr David Hanscom calls it, and its a place where suicide ideation can be found. Colin says that when he feels such levels of despair, after succumbing for a little while, he reminds himself that his children would “not want him to collapse in bed for weeks or fall away from life..and that doing so would leave no one to mourn them, no one to tell the world about them!”
#6 Meaning and Purpose
Colin ends his novel (and I have certainly missed many of his chapters here such as on Anger, Guilt, Acute Pain, the Holidays) on the value of finding meaning and purpose from an otherwise meaningless experience. He cautions that searching for meaning in the actual loss of a loved one, especially of a child, will often have you turn up empty handed, even 5-7 years after the fact, as studies show. Instead, he seeks to uphold the meaning of the lives of his children, by honoring them, by being of service, writing, or finding purpose outside of grief. Many of the stories around moving beyond chronic pain or recovering from PTSD end with the same message.
I feel it is appropriate for this Away Message to end with an example Colin shares of finding a purpose outside of grief, and which also reminds me of the novel, When Walls Become Doorways, about how great artists used their illness to create transformative art, which I wrote about in this post.
It is an example shared by a friend of Colin’s who had also lost his son, and who began painting afterward—an act which had nothing to do with the son’s life per se:
“On some level I feel like I’m connecting with Charlie by making art—I’m trying to capture some far-off spirit, some animating force that’s just beyond what I see but more than anything, if feels good to have something else to do besides feel terrible.”
With much love from the Healingvrse,