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CoastLine: Stedman Stevens On How Talking About Death Makes For A More Beautiful Life

Wilmington resident and VU Systems CEO Stedman Stevens is the author of A Beautiful Life: The Little Things That Help Grieving Families

Anyone who has lived through the loss of a person whom they loved deeply has come face to face with grief.  It’s a human emotion that most people will encounter during their lifetime.  

But it’s also one of the emotions that can knock a person sideways; depending on how it’s allowed to express,  it can obliterate hope or be a portal to new possibilities. 

Stedman Stevenswas living a full, rich life near one of North Carolina’s most desirable beaches.  He had a very happy marriage, three beautiful children, a lifestyle that meant his family had everything they wanted, an exciting career, and good friends.  Then one day, he received that call that would change life as he had known it.  The stomach pain his wife had suffered that morning was due to advanced pancreatic cancer.  She would die forty-two days later.

How he and his late wife, Lisa, chose to live those next forty-two days, how they chose to talk with their three children about it, and how Stedman Stevens carried on once Lisa had passed and he was confronting life – not just as a grieving widower – but as a single father to three heartbroken girls – it’s that story we explore.


Stedman Stevens, CEO of VU Systems; Author, A Beautiful Life: The Little Things That Help Grieving Families

The Author sent us this essay after his appearance on CoastLine:  

Transforming the pain of Grief to joy of Gratitude

All of us feel the unusual weight in the air and sense the loss of how our lives used to be before our new normal reality suddenly arrived. We all have reason to grieve now. But that need not be the end of the story. We can rise, if we choose, to grief’s challenge. Together we can change grief into an experience not simply painful, but also sustaining and fulfilling.

When we all start thinking and talking about an issue, things change. Consider some radical alterations of opinion over the past few years, altering the views on a matter from negative or barren to lush and welcomed. For example, jungle shifted to rainforest, swamp converted to wetlands, and in a funnier way prunes have turned into dried plums.

 No one is immune to the changes we are living through. With young children staying home from school, teenagers searching for ways to channel the nervous energy they used to call high school and college, adults with limited access to staple supplies, and everyone working at home while caring for family members near and far, our work-life balance is totally out of kilter. Do we ignore, discount or ruminate over our situation as our fear-of-the-unknown thermometer reading rises? This loss of a comfortable norm adds stress and pressure in many forms. Covid-19 is the sudden trauma that is driving our feelings of loss.

Those experiencing the highly charged emotional impact of grief from the loss of a loved one or the fear from being on the risky front Line are justifiably upset. The sudden loss of a loved one is a life-changing, traumatic experience. Nothing is the same as it was yesterday and the new normal is hard to understand and imagine. As a society, we do not like to talk about grief or death, but prefer to sweep it under the emotional rug. Grieving is the process that we humans go through to deal with a traumatic event like the one we are all living through today.

Since each of us is a genetically different, unique individual, it is not surprising that the experience of grief is highly individualistic. We all mourn at a different pace and on a different path. The journey is a messy, contorted process with no tidy stages. With so much change now for so many, what can we learn or how do we shift our response to the depressing burden of grief and anxiety?

One way that we might all lighten the weight is to consider how we think about grief and how to shift from our current negative view of grief to a more positive one—to one that includes strong feelings of gratitude.  If we transform grief to gratitude, we can appreciate the experiences we remember in a more positive, constructive fashion. It is a healthier approach to convert some of the intense pain of loss into positive thoughts that support good mental health, rather than letting loss eat away at our hearts.

We are all thankful for the times we had with friends, family, fathers, daughters and sons, but when they leave us we seem to focus entirely on the loss and their absence rather than on the richness they brought to our lives. That is, we tend to focus on the hole in the doughnut, the empty space, rather than the sweetness we can enjoy. How many times do you smile at that funny thing that a special person did to make you laugh? What about the great memories that rewarded our journey all along the way? The happy thoughts and memories can reenergize and recharge our emotional batteries.

For each of us, personally shifting moments of anguished Grief to thoughts of Gratitude can help to ease immediate pain and ultimately make us all happier, more considerate, better people. Gratitude can provide additional resilience to stress as well in times like we are now experiencing. Gratitude is a profound way to celebrate a departed dear one with honor and respect, while building new strength and insight into the memories.  This transformation must come from inside of each one of us.  It cannot be imposed by someone else who says you should be happy with what you had or other judgmental statements.

Such gratitude can spill over into relations with the living. Transformed grief can evolve into expressions of gratitude to those in our lives today. So, start today with a small gesture to someone, anyone. Whether a telephone call, a text, a handwritten note or a video—send it today.

No matter what vehicle you use, begin—and start enjoying the fulfilling serenity of Gratitude.

Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.