My trusty Shorter Oxford English Dictionary includes this definition of the word “inoculate”: The deliberate introduction into the body of a micro-organism, especially in order to induce immunity to a disease; vaccination.

In the fifteen years since my three-year-old son, Michael, died, I’ve found the idea of an “inoculation effect” a useful and even consoling way to think about my loss.  I admit the analogy is imperfect, since no one would ever “deliberately” introduce an innocent to agonizing grief, or as I call it in my novel, Saving Elijah, “big time grief,” but I stand by it.

So what does “inoculation” have to do with grief?  While some of the newly bereaved out there may rebel against the idea that anything positive can come of major loss (and I would have undoubtedly been among them), I have found through the years that the excruciating pain I suffered in grief has mitigated the full force of subsequent emotional and/or physical pain. You often see this in children too.  There’s a kind of strength and resilience in people who as children were forced to endure terrible tragedy.

I became aware of the inoculation effect after quite a lot of time had passed, and I do think one has to have done the grief work in order to feel the effect. But the truth is, no matter what trauma I’ve faced since my son died –and there have been quite a few –I’ve managed to keep myself on a relatively even emotional keel.

Is it perverse to console myself by thinking that nothing could be as devastating as losing my child? What could? I wish I had Michael back, of course (though for all my potent powers of imagination, I can’t even imagine when he would be like now, as a nineteen year old), but life only goes one way, and human beings are forced to learn those lessons that are given to us.

I’m a different person now than I was before my son’s death.  Though I’m still often irreverent, I am certainly kinder and less arrogant, more devoted and less angry, more patient and less anxious, more appreciative and less nihilistic.  But perhaps the most important change is that I have a whole lot of perspective I never had before, and a sense that whatever happens I can, and will handle it with grace, strength, and wisdom.

Has anyone else out there discovered the “inoculation effect?”

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Fran Dorf

Fran Dorf, MA, MSW, is a poet, essayist, and author of three acclaimed novels, including Saving Elijah (Putnam), which was inspired by the 1994 death of Fran's son, Michael. Fran blogs on life, grief, culture, arts, etc. at and is currently working on a memoir of survival stories. Fran is also a psychotherapist and conducts “write to heal” workshops to help people cope with grief, loss, illness, and trauma. In 1999, Fran and her husband, Bob, started Jumpstart, an educational program for toddlers with special needs in their small city. Fran appeared on the radio show “Healing the Grieving Heart” with Dr. Gloria & Dr. Heidi Horsley to discuss “Writing to Heal.” To hear Fran being interviewed on this show, click on the following link:

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