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Voices of Experience: A Toddler in the World of Grief

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Harry Proudfoot lost his wife Jane to neuroendocrine tumor cancer (NET) in December, 2010. In the wake of that devastating loss, he decided the most effective way he could move through his grief was to go after with a vengeance the disease that killed his beloved. The result is his foundation, Walking with Jane, which you can read about here. Still, in the poignant piece he shares with us below, the author acknowledges his struggle to maintain his balance and stay on his feet as he continues learning to walk this difficult path of grief.  

At eighteen months a child is a toddler. The child walks, after a fashion, but sometimes--and for no apparent reason--falls on its butt. Sometimes the surprise induces laughter, sometimes tears. The child can speak, also after a fashion. It communicates in rudimentary words about the most basic of wants and needs--and tears and howls are still a major --though decreasing--part of the package.

I am a toddler in the world of grief. Eighteen months ago, when Jane died, the numbness and the pain were omnipresent. I remember bits and pieces of those days--arranging the pictures for the collages for the wake, carrying the coffin, leaving the church, speaking at the cemetery, returning to work, speaking at the Greater Fall River Relay--but most of the first year consists of long stretches of emptiness punctuated by short sharp memories of overwhelming sorrow and grief.

I remember vividly the day of my wife's death. Every moment of it is etched in my mind. But I still lack the ability to describe the despair of those moments--nor the act of will it took to do all that needed to be done over those hours. I was an infant again. I had no words with which to articulate the pain.

My screams in those first months after her death were silent and private. Our students still needed the fatherly half of the couple we were. I do not comprehend what a surviving parent goes through--how hard they are driven to remain strong for the children. My own task was hard enough. At night, at least, I could retreat into the grief and the pain and the tears a parent living with young children is denied. If you want to see real strength, look at them. My strength was largely exhausted in walking Jane to the end of her life.

I am learning to walk again. I am learning to talk again. There are days--yesterday was one--that I feel my humanity returning--that I feel emotions other than rage and grief, that I think about something other than wreaking vengeance on the foul disease that separated my wife and me. But then I wake up from some dream or see, without realizing it, some trigger during a walk or a drive and I am that toddler again whose legs are suddenly not where they were an instant before. The awfulness of grief rolls in and pins me to the ground and all I can do is howl in frustration.

But like the toddler, I get up again. Walking, for all its frustrations, is better than crawling.

For now, for all of us, it is about baby-steps. We just have to have faith that some day we won't fall down.

© 2012 by Harry Proudfoot, [email protected] Website:


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