Grief has made me do things I never thought I would do. Good and bad.

Before my 10-year-old son David died six years ago I was living what I considered to be a charmed life. I had married a wonderful lady. I was fortunate enough to be pursuing my life’s passion as an actor/singer/screenwriter. I had not held what artists lovingly refer to as a “day job” for over 15 years, and in between show biz gigs, I got to play stay-at-home dad to my kids. I was a very lucky man. Of course the night David suffered an acute subdural hematoma and basically died in my arms, my luck changed. After that night, I found myself doing all sorts of things I never thought I’d do. I cried uncontrollably multiple times a day. I stood in the middle of my living room screaming at the universe, demanding answers it never intended on providing. I helped arrange my son’s funeral, brought him home in an urn, and placed him on a shelf wearing one of his favorite baseball hats. I became a roommate to my wife, sharing a home and bed, but no longer being the partners and team we once were.

That was during the early months, which stretched into a year or so.  As time moved forward I found myself going through the motions of so many things just to survive. I think it is safe to conclude that the majority of the “bad” things grief caused me to do happened in the first couple of years. After that, my wife and I started to reconnect and the bouts of uncontrollable tears gave over to more constructive fits of sadness and tears. I found they became easier to direct into moments that didn’t disrupt my life as much. After several years of survival, a sense of wanting to actually live again began returning, but priorities had changed. I found myself open to the idea of relocating from the center of the show biz universe in Southern California. The family and I moved to Michigan, certainly not a move that followed my life’s plans to be famous. I found that the years of performing were now morphing into a desire to pass along to aspiring performers the things I had learned over the years. I found myself becoming passionate about teaching. I also found my writing moving away from screenplays and becoming more introspective and designed to reach out to others who were struggling with the pain of loss I had been through. I founded a nonprofit, which used my life’s pursuit of entertaining others to help people struggling with grief. The comedy was no longer solely to entertain, but to give back to others and help them heal.

David’s death has transformed me.  Things that once were important to me no longer are significant. I have discovered meaning and value in things that quite honestly, I never allowed myself to consider in the past. I now have empathy for other people’s pain I never had time to contemplate before. And I still find myself doing things that are completely out of character for me.

Yesterday, the day after what would have been David's 16th birthday, I did something that growing up, I never would have considered. It was something I had been taught my entire life was stupid, and silly. It was a destructive juvenile act and served no purpose other than to do damage to yourself. Yes that’s right, I walked into a tattoo parlor and had a man take a needle with ink on it, and I let him put a mark on my skin that would be there until I die. Perhaps this seems silly to you, or not a big deal. I know tattoos have become very stylish with the younger generation. I know from my work with bereaved people that tattoos also play a role in remembering those we have lost along the way. They were not for me though. Unquestionably, there was no chance that at 51years of age, I would get a tattoo. There is no one who knows me that would ever have told you, “Yeah, Bart’s the kind of guy to get a tat.” Of course, I had never thought of my wife as the type to get a tattoo either, but three years ago she got a lovely little butterfly on her ankle to remember our boy. At the time she got hers I considered it, but could think of nothing I would want to put on my body permanently that seemed good enough to honor David. Besides, I’ve always battled my weight, and was always concerned a nice modest tattoo would some day stretch into a mural on my ever-increasing waistline. Then about a month ago, while looking at pictures of memorial tattoos on a bulletin board at the Compassionate Friends National Conference, I saw several tattoos that were just words, not pictures or designs, but simple words. I realized that the words I have been using as the motto for my non-profit Healing Improv, to give hope and comfort to others, would be the perfect thing to adorn my body. That is, if I ever got up the guts to do it. Those words would not only represent David, but also his sister Abby, my wife, and our lives together. They would represent the strength and love we have used to move forward even though David is not here with us any longer. So yesterday, in a small room full of colorful tattoo art and Star Wars memorabilia, I let a bearded dude wearing a Popeye t-shirt, with lots of tattoos on his arms, put a needle to my skin to create a living memorial that would be with me forever.

I am certainly not advocating you get a tattoo. It is an intensely personal choice, and many people have a multitude of excellent reasons, from health concerns to religious convictions, why it would never be an option for them. I have had some friends react like I was crazy for getting one, I have had others applaud me, and some people have even called me “brave.” I’m not sure my little tattoo adventure comes remotely close to being the definition of brave, but apparently everyone has a kind of visceral reaction to me memorializing my grief experience permanently on my arm. Certainly my parents, who are in their 80’s, did not understand it. I felt like a little kid telling them what I had done over the phone. I knew they would not approve, but when I told them why I had done it, even they admitted they could not find fault in what it represents. Love. Strength. Family. Life.

Grief has made me do things I otherwise never would have done in my life. It’s a fascinating journey full of many twists and turns. One concept that has served me well is learning to go with the flow, and do what feels right for me. I did that yesterday. As strange as it feels to look at my arm and see the words that will be with me forever, I know it was the right thing for my wounded soul. Be good to yourself. Peace, Light, and Laughter.

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About the Author
Bart Sumner's book, HEALING IMPROV: A JOURNEY THOUGH GRIEF TO LAUGHTER is available in the Grief Toolbox Marketplace. He is the founder & President of HEALING IMPROV, a nonprofit charity in Grand Rapids, Michigan that provides no cost Comedy Improv Grief Workshops to people struggling with finding the road forward. He lost his 10 y/o son David in 2009 to a sudden accident. He is an actor and writer who writes the blog MY STORIES FROM THE GRIEF JOURNEY at the website for
I'm Grieving, Now What?