My Story: In Defense of Grief

A man who lost his wife to melanoma explains how he channeled his grief into advocacy that led to a change in legislation.

Too often the story of cancer has a tragic conclusion, as it was with my life’s first encounter with melanoma. I lost my wife, Bonnie, to melanoma almost 13 years ago. She passed away in our home on May 3, 2008, leaving me with an adult son, soon to be married, and a 12-year-old daughter just entering her teen years. As I write this, I still tear up and must take a break to clear my eyes.

The pain of grief has no description. To describe grief would be like trying to describe the color blue to someone blind since birth. This pain will be magnified when it is a parent and you must witness their children’s grief with little to no knowledge of how to appease their pain. But this pain is a necessity for us to heal. It is what directs us to mourning (the actual healing process for grief). Mourning can take many forms. Tears are probably the most common and natural. I shed quite a number of them in the months and years after her death. I did this openly with my children and without shame, setting an example that it is OK to cry and subsequently giving them permission to do the same.

For me, this was a beginning. As the pain reduced and was something I could live with on a daily basis, I was drawn to action. Grief has been the cornerstone of organizations for a long time. Look at Susan G. Komen, M.A.D.D., The Starr Foundation, etc. Grief has also been the driving force that has led many into the field of medical research and is responsible for some of the greatest advancements.

Grief first called me to legislative work to help those that need time off after the death of a family member. Most of us are familiar with the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the amendments individual states will make to enhance this act. After my loss it was very apparent that the standard three days off for the death of a family member was woefully inadequate. My endeavor started with making an appointment with my state senator. In our first visit, two simple sentences created a “legislative concept”. This was sent to the legal department and turned into a bill to amend the Oregon Family Leave Act. Three years of hearings, testimony from me and other supporters and a final bipartisan vote led to the passing of the bill and the Governor’s signature in July 2013.

Oregon is still the only state which allows two weeks FMLA for death of a family member. This process taught me the skills to move further in advocacy. Volunteering in walks, events and symposiums were now my outlet. I serve as a patient and research advocate on grant review boards. The success of that legislation brought me confidence and the realization that anyone can make a difference. This year, I am coordinating Portland’s Aim Steps Against Melanoma Walk.

Grief never completely heals. The pain gets better, becomes a part of you, and you learn to accept and live with it. There will always be moments when the grief will well up: when you hear a particular song, experience a familiar scent or taste a past favorite meal. These can all raise those bittersweet memories which will make you smile and bring a tear. Accept grief as a part of you, miss what you lost and appreciate what you have. Connecting that pain in your heart with the love that lives there is key. This is true healing. Ultimately…Grief is the price of love.

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