Different Is Not Less
By Tony Rose
Tony Rose, the co-author of Beautiful Grief, shares a lesson he learned upon the death of his 28-year-old son.
Jonny was a month and a day shy of his twenty-ninth birthday when my wife, Chris, found him dead in our pool house. This was four years ago, and it began my experience with vast differentness.
“Jonny is dead,” she told me over the phone. I was in Oregon golfing with my friend when she called.
Chris’s phone call—and Jonny’s death—began a journey through what I came to know as the “liminal space.” The word liminal comes from the Latin word limen, meaning “a threshold.” The liminal space is the place wherein you have left one phase—one set of rituals or traditions—but have not yet established new rituals. You no longer hold your pre-ritual status, but you have not yet begun to transition to a new status of rites and rituals.
During the liminal space, you are standing on the threshold between your previous way and what will become your new way.
When someone you love dies, it is as if a tsunami has hit. The world as you know ceases to exist, so the word “different” feels like an understatement. When you enter the liminal space because of grief, you begin the process of being something new. The liminal space can seem permanent, and certainly so when grief accompanies it. This loss of a person or a relationship or an extreme shift in conditions—this differentness—changes the dynamic and balance of your life in such a profound way that the circumstances of joy that persisted before the liminal space cannot be recaptured.
This loss can seem enduring. After all, how can you be okay when the joy you once had can never again be realized?
Jonny’s death created a different world for me. My life is not the same as it was before he died. He does not sit in his seat at the table during holidays. I will not attend his wedding. Never will his laugh fill my ears again.
When he died, this difference felt, at first, staggering. It was as though my boat had crashed, and the ocean was tossing me around.
But as the months and years passed, I began to realize that the differences in my life were not differences of a lesser quality. They were differences of a different quality. I have more sadness than I had before Jonny died, but my joy is deeper. I notice moments that I would not have noticed before Jonny died, and I notice that my feelings are becoming purer and more accessible.
Here is just one example: I was recently honored to be a guest at the wedding of an employee, Carmen. To be honest, before Carmen’s wedding, her fiancé, Fernando, was an acquaintance. He and I had met a handful of times prior to the wedding. We had exchanged small talk and pleasantries. I liked Fernando, but had Jonny not died, I am certain that his wedding with Carmen would never have been as extraordinary as it ended up being. Absent the differences in me that occurred due to Jonny’s death, Fernando would still be a person I think of as an acquaintance.
Yet, I can say without a doubt that I will never forget watching Fernando dance with his mother on his wedding day. I found myself crying, watching a mother so tenderly celebrate the love and happiness she felt for her adult son, mixed with the bittersweet emotion of seeing her baby turn into a man.
I watched them dancing, aware that I will never have a memory of Jonny dancing with his own mother but sure that had Jonny not died, I would never have recognized the beauty and the quiet confluence of melancholy and joy that existed in that moment.
It was—even as I think about it now—a moment that will always move me.
There’s no question in my mind that it was almost as consequential as Jonny’s birth itself. I will remember Fernando dancing with his mother until my dying day.
I can, at this very instant, see a picture of them dancing in my mind.
As I watched them, it occurred to me that those empty places that I thought would never be filled can be filled if I let them. They will be filled with something different, but not something less.
Watching Fernando dance with his own mother did not have to be a reminder of what I did not have: It was better as a great substitute, a beautiful replacement, a differentness, for a hole that would otherwise be vacant—a small, surprising moment I could treasure in my mind as its own memory.
This is the closest I have come to being grateful for the context given to me by Jonny’s death. It was the first time I really articulated that there would be many glorious moments to come. They will be different than I would have imagined four years ago, but they need not be less.
I began to realize that the moments did not have to come from my wife, Chris, or from my daughter, Katie, or from me, or even from someone in my immediate circle—they could come from an acquaintance. I could share in a moment with my employee’s fiancé and his mother—a moment that he will never forget, but equally, a moment that I will never forget.
I could have thought, Jonny will never dance with his mom, and I would have missed the moment between Fernando and his mother. I would have equated different with less.
Instead, I was able to share in a beautiful moment between Fernando, Carmen, and their families. Absent the context of Jonny’s death, I would have been an attendee at Fernando and Carmen’s wedding. Given the context of Jonny’s death, I was a participant.
The world, and all of the moments that unfolded at that wedding, seemed so much richer, with more depth of color, than I could have otherwise seen them.
Would I trade this to spend time in the company of my son? Of course I would. But I do also hold that my memories of Jonny, and the new memories I have made since his death, are not of a lesser quality.
I think this is important to remember because differences happen. We change jobs or move to new cities. We become parents, and then we become empty nesters. We divorce. People we love die.
What I observe of people who are grieving is that they sometimes choose to dwell on the fact that their life is different, and they stop there. Instead of saying, “Oh, this is different. I am going to experience life in a different way,” they say, “Oh, this is less. My life is less. I will never be okay because my life is so different than it was before.”
My experience is that when you decide that different and less are synonymous, you fail to see the moments. You cannot see joy and beauty when you have already decided that your life is less-than.
For me, the ocean has settled. As I look around, the view is new. It is also beautiful, rich with colors I have never before seen.
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