Living With Grief:
A Conversation with Tom Zuba
Tom Zuba never wanted to be an expert on grief, but after the deaths of his 18-month-old daughter Erin, his 43-year-old wife, Trici, and his 13-year-old son Rory over a period of 15 years, he suddenly had more insight than most people into how to deal with the heartbreak that comes when a loved one dies. Zuba is now a speaker, author and life coach based out of Rockford, Illinois, and is committed to sharing a new way to do grief that allows people to truly heal and even grow after the death of a loved one. In his recent book, Permission to Mourn: A New Way to Do Grief, Zuba tells readers that grief is more about life than it is about death. “You can use these tools to live the life you were born to live, not in spite of the fact that someone you love has died, but because someone you love has died,” he writes.
Were you affected differently by losing each family member?
I knew that children could die, because my younger brother, Daniel Patrick, died when I was 6 years old. But it never occurred to me that my own baby daughter could die. Immediately after Erin did die, I was holding my wife, Trici, at home, toying with the idea of going to the kitchen to get a knife and stabbing both of us. I wouldn’t have had to leave a note—believing that people would have understood why I did what I did. I didn’t think there was any kind of light at the end of the tunnel and I tried to deny, repress and numb my feelings about what had happened to the point where Trici finally insisted I get professional help in order for our marriage to survive.
We were committed to our family, and were overjoyed when our two sons were born. When Trici died, even though the pain was indescribable, I knew that I could heal. I chose to surround myself with people who were wiser than me and who could help. Six years later, when my son Rory died, I not only knew that there was a light at the end of the tunnel, I knew that tunnel was lit. Rory’s death was the hardest for me, though, because in many ways I had become both his mother and father. In the years after Rory died, Sean, his 9-year-old brother, was able to heal by seeking out and spending time with other “intact” families so that he could feel what it’s like to be surrounded by a mom, dad and siblings again.
Why is death still such a taboo topic?
Our society has come a long way, but it’s still uncomfortable for many people to talk about depression, suicide and death. It forces people to think about their own mortality, and if somebody has not personally been affected by death, they often don’t know what to say to those of us who have. I think that as the baby boomers get older, people are going to address these topics more. We also see so many lives saved on television and in movies, and if somebody does die, they don’t show any follow-up. The deaths of celebrities such as Robin Williams and Whitney Houston have been in the spotlight more, and I think that helps people talk about these taboo topics. Communities are having “death cafes” and other forums for discussion, and hopefully, it will soon become more of a kitchen table conversation.
What are some of the most common misconceptions about grief?
Years after Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ book On Death And Dying came out, she said she wished she had never used the phrase “stages of grief”. There are not five clean, well-defined stages of grief, and there is no timeline for healing. Everybody processes it differently. Grief and mourning are two different things. I define grief as the automatic response to a loss—a divorce, a death, a job, etc. Everybody experiences grief, but if we really want to heal, we must mourn. We must push our grief up and out, creating space for healing. Unfortunately, our society isn’t set up for that. We’re expected to return to work three days after a death in the family, and to me that is cruel and abusive.
How can people better relate to those experiencing grief?
We’re good at numbing our feelings with alcohol, sex, pills, video games, etc. We pretend we’re fine, which creates a vicious cycle, because we’re not being honest with ourselves or our family and friends. Somebody who is grieving may not be able to articulate what they need. A good thing for people on the outside to say is, “Tell me what it’s like to be you today.” That allows the person to express what’s really going on. Also, it’s okay to mention the name of the person who has died or share a special story or memory. That can be very healing. If nobody talks about those who have died, it’s as if they have been forgotten. Consider sending a card or flowers on the anniversary of the death and mention the beloved’s name, just to let your friend know that you’re thinking about them.
Speaker, author and life coach Tom Zuba can be reached through his website, TomZuba.com. Permission to Mourn: A New Way to Do Grief is in its second printing, with a new foreword by New York Times number one best-selling author Gary Zukav. It is available in paperback and eBook at Amazon and BarnesAndNoble.com, at Barnes and Noble stores and may be ordered through any bookstore worldwide.
Carrie Jackson is an Evanston-based writer and frequent contributor to Natural Awakenings magazine. Connect at CarrieJacksonWrites.com.