Charles Thomas: The Inevitability of Grief

Pictured is a large tapestry portrait of Prince Rogers Nelson (1958-2016) hanging on a fence at Paisley Park Studios following Prince's death in 2016.

As regular readers of his column know, I’m a big fan of the musician Prince. He tends to show up in my writing often, sometimes I even write about him in unexpected places. 

Recently, I’ve been re-listening to one of Prince’s greatest albums, his huge triple LP Emancipation. This album was a celebration for Prince. Finally free from a record contract that had limited the number of songs he was allowed to release in a year, the famously prolific artist released this 36-song tour de force. 

The major theme of the album is Prince’s love for his new wife Mayte and his excitement about the upcoming birth of their first child. Prince samples the heartbeat of their unborn child on the opening track of the second disc and mentions him on another. The lush album art in my CD version includes photos of Prince and his new wife as children as well as a photo of a very pregnant Mayte.

Their son, Amiir, was born on October 16, 1996, and soon after was diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder called Pfeiffer syndrome. There is no treatment for Pfeiffer syndrome, and sadly Amir died just six days after he was born.

I can barely imagine the pain that Prince and Mayte must have felt. While the loss of a child is devastating for anyone, Prince had just spent the better part of a year writing an album about a child who had died before the songs he’d inspired were even released to the public.

Because Emancipation was the launch of his independent music career, Prince had planned a huge promotional push for the album, including an interview with Oprah Winfrey. That interview was scheduled only a few days after Amiir’s death and Prince insisted that both he and Mayte do the interview in spite of their loss. Prince also demanded that Mayte not say a word about Amiir during their interview. As Mayte wrote in her memoir, she was shocked when during the interview Prince told Oprah that things “couldn’t be any better” and then took her on a tour of a nursey, a nursery that Mayte wrote “had everything a perfect nursery needs, except for the only thing a perfect nursery needs.” 

There aren’t a lot of universal human experiences, but grief is certainly one of them. If we live long enough, all of us will experience it. Sadly, in my clinical practice I regularly see the emotional wreckage that poorly processed grief and loss can leave in their wake. Some people struggle with grieving, and instead of dealing directly with their feelings, they end up hurting other people. 

That’s what Prince did. 

But Prince isn’t alone in that. Grief can lead many of us to do hurtful things. We may lash out at others, turn to drinking, or make impulsive regrettable choices. Some of us even turn away from the people still alive who want to help us.

While grief may be inevitable, responding poorly to it like Prince did is not.

The way you frame, understand, and process loss will determine whether you will have a productive grief or a destructive one. How can you grieve well? While there isn’t a single right answer to that question; let me offer a few suggestions.

When you suffer a loss, it can be very tempting to ruminate on why questions. Why me? Why mom? Why now? While it’s completely normal to ask these kinds of questions, they usually aren’t very helpful in moving you forward. 

A better approach is to start asking yourself what questions. What am I going to do with this new reality where I have suffered a difficult loss? What choices can I make now to honor my pain and honor the person I lost? What do I do with my life going forward? 

It’s also so important to let yourself feel the emotions you’re having and not push them aside. Prince would not acknowledge how he felt about his loss, but not acknowledging a loss doesn’t mean that it goes away. It’s still there, and it makes an impact similar to a slowly leaking pipe. 

There’s a profound image created by artist Cherie Altea called The Grief Bookshelf. It imagines day one after a loss as a bookshelf containing a single very large book called Grief. Next to that image is an image of day 1,843 of grief after a loss. The big book called Grief is still there and it’s still as big as ever, but it has been joined by other books, bowls and even a plant.

What makes this image so moving is that it powerfully represents the truth that while we will always miss those whom we lose, our lives go on and so do our experiences. The grief doesn’t disappear, but people and experiences are added to our life just like items get added to the bookshelf.

Another perspective that I’ve found helpful is C.S Lewis’s framing of the process of grief. Lewis wrote that loss is a “universal and integral part of our experience of love.” He viewed grief not as separate from love but rather as an important phase of love. In Lewis’ understanding, grief is the final act of love.

If grieving is an act of love, then it should be done intentionally and carefully. It should be allowed its own time. It should honor both the loss and the person grieving. 

In her book, Mayte writes about how Prince’s destructive grieving of Amiir impacted her. Unfortunately, that Oprah interview wasn’t the only destructive moment in Prince’s grieving process. Mayte wrote that in his grief, Prince took and then misplaced Amiir’s ashes. They were never found. When the couple eventually separated, Prince had the mansion they’d lived in completely leveled as if he could to erase his failed marriage and loss of his son by tearing down a building. 

Prince is a case study in grieving poorly. He was selfish; he hurt others, and he lived much too long in a state of denial. His unproductive grieving and refusal to face what had happened to him cost him his marriage, the public’s goodwill, and the opportunity to receive the loving support of his millions of fans.

While Prince made many mistakes during in his grieving process, he was eventually able to begin to work through his loss through his music.

A couple of years after Amiir’s death, Prince released another massive music collection called Crystal Ball. This set, even bigger than Emancipation, contained five CDs, one of which was an acoustic CD called The Truth. The shortest song on that album is a song called Comeback. Please follow the link to that song and listen to it. You won’t regret it. Not only is the song beautiful, but it also helps to explain why Prince would never admit that his son had died.

We will all face grief sooner or later. It’s inevitable. But there is a life after loss. C.S. Lewis wrote that “the death of a beloved is an amputation.” I think that’s true. When you lose a leg, it’s gone forever. 

But we must also remember that amputees can and do learn to walk again.

Charles D. Thomas is a writer, psychotherapist, and Main Street Media Group board member who made Three Rivers his home for over a decade. Feedback is welcome at [email protected]

Any views or opinions expressed in “Big World, Small Town” are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Watershed Voice staff or its board of directors.