by Chris Mulligan

Learning to “notice” during my first year of grief was more important than anything else in helping me survive my grief. It also provided me a major life lesson.

I realized that noticing was the vehicle through which I have come to accept my life experiences as well as be able to move through them and learn from them. All the major events in my life — those that caused the most pain and eventually precipitated the most growth — have also caused me to reflect upon and recognize that the suffering was present for a reason.

I always believed that “everything happens for a reason” and “there are no accidents in life” but these events, these traumas that caused my world to shatter were ultimately the vehicles for my spiritual growth.

I learned to notice during my first year of grief after the Oct. 1, 2000, death of my son Zac.  At first, I was unable to notice anything, as I had to move past my denial (of my loss) to be able to even acknowledge that something else in my life was important. I needed to be able to see beyond my pain. Therefore, the first step was to identify that something else (beyond my pain and grief) was still important in my life.

This was the primary goal.  Claiming and then accepting that something else into my life were my second and third steps. If I had not learned to claim and accept, I would not be where I am today in the acceptance of my life.

How did I do it? How did I notice, claim and accept? How did Zac’s death demonstrate a major life lesson in my life? I first had to have a historical framework from which to evolve. In the first few months of my grief, I was not able to see beyond the excruciating pain, my depression, my frustration and the view that my life would forever be this abyss of negative being.

Time allowed me to crawl up to the top of my pit and gaze beneath into my despair. With eyes that had adjusted to more light, I was able to open to another view of my life. Finally, I was aware of other persons, places and things in my world.

With a wider focus on other stimuli in my environment, I was able to recognize that I had a grief history. With this timeline of pain laid out, I could see and feel changes in me that were not possible in my earlier grief. Slowly I shifted from an egocentric world to an expanded realm beyond my pain. Noticing became a new life focus.  I was no longer in constant pain, I could venture out of my inner uncomfortableness, and I allowed outer stimulation to enter my reality.

Observing what was occurring in my world was the first step in my changing through acceptance. The slow process of claiming was necessary in order to reach an acceptance of my life situation. My brain knew my son was dead but now, what did that mean in my life?
Yes, I would never see him again. However, how was I to live in this world without him? Claiming my new life involved much repetition. Zac’s insistence to notice the cows, notice the changing landscape and notice the everyday occurrences in my life solidified my desire to feel, act and be different. I did not want to feel devastated, hopeless, helpless and sad all the rest of my life.

I knew I could not live my life like that for long.  I had to decide to live differently. I had to decide how to live without him.  I consciously chose to accept that he was gone but I gave myself permission to grieve, to have my moments of sadness. However, I had to move from my despair.

Once I claimed that decision, I was actually able to move on and through the many steps of acceptance. Of course, acceptance was not a single event. I have continued addressing this issue for the eight years since his death. It has been a part of my daily life. Not only have I dealt with the acceptance of Zac’s death on a daily basis but also I have come to realize that I face acceptance in some form or another every day.

Unhappiness with the work environment, disagreeing with political decisions, changes in television schedules, opinions concerning environmental issues, taking responsibility for one’s own life choices when facing the consequences, as well as death — all of these call for acceptance.

I learned that I only have control over my life and my choices. Nothing happens in God’s world by mistake.  Everything in this world is exactly as it should be. Although we would all like to have our old (pre-grieving) life back, we have to recognize that each of us entered this life with our own purpose and our own goals.

I know now that I can only change the way I view my life and myself. Zac will continue to live in a place where I cannot hug him; my mother will soon succumb to her struggle with Alzheimer’s; but I will continue to accept what is and learn from my life experiences. I have learned much about life and living from Zac’s death. With Zac’s help, I have learned to “live what is.”

Chris Mulligan received her BS in Psychology and MS in Clinical, Child, Youth, and Family Work from Western Oregon University. Chris can be reached at, or through her website,

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