Life After Grief

Hanna Jon Ingram speaks on the grief of losing her daughter and her husband to cancer

There is something you notice immediately when you meet Hanna Jon Ingram, it is the peace, the joy, the grace that exudes from her words and from her presence. Knowing the deep losses she has endured, it is a quality to behold. Hanna Jon lost her daughter Meg to brain cancer while Meg was a college cheerleader at the University of Alabama. She and her husband Lance lived out a parent's biggest fear - losing a child. In and out of hospitals and doctor's visits, they walked every step of that heart wrenching journey with a faith and reliance on God. In fact it is this deep relationship with God that they each would credit getting them through those dark days. In early 2022, Hanna Jon lost Lance to cancer.

HJ, as she is called by friends, knows loss better than most, yet she continues to live and thrive through strength and grace. With holidays come intense feelings of grief for many, HJ shares what she has learned on her journey and how she continues to put one foot in front of the other.

What do you find the hardest about the holidays?

The empty chair. But, we are pretty good about focusing more on who IS here instead of who is NOT. We’ll toast in memory and share stories. We may shed a few tears, but we are thankful for the time we had. We accept it was time for them to go and rest in the assurance we will see them again. We are more happy than sad.

What are the best ways you have found to deal with grief?

Talking about it. I’m handling it differently with Lance’s passing than I did with Meg’s.  I’m allowing myself to feel more and to face it head on with authenticity (it’s not always pretty.)  I think that our society does us no favors in “expecting” us to return to “normal” after we bury our loved ones. We should do a better job of understanding that our lives will not be the same again. That doesn’t mean we won’t have great, happy lives, but we can do a better job of helping those who have lost people to assimilate back into their new lives. We can demonstrate compassion better. Grief never totally goes away.  It softens, and it becomes easier, but even years later something can trigger us and we feel the wave of grief again. Being authentic about that and unashamed actually helps others going through it. We need to be a little more “real” and a lot less buttoned up about what grief is really like. Grief is messy and that’s ok.

What are your fondest memories of the holidays?

Hot chocolate, egg nog (Mimi’s recipe), dancing in the living room, watching Home Alone, laughter, guessing what’s under the tree, Christmas Eve Candlelight service singing Silent Night – and hoping it’s NOT my kid setting her hair on fire. Meg’s last Christmas Madalyn took her to Cecil Ashburn and they decorated a Christmas tree together – and all of her friends joined to decorate the tree.

How do you view grief?

As crazy as it sounds, I view grief as an opportunity. Don’t get me wrong – it’s hard and some days are so painful I can’t breathe. But, on days when I’m clear headed and focused, the opportunity is there. Opportunity to be grateful to have experienced the love that came before the grief. Opportunity to learn and refine myself, values and purpose. Opportunity to reflect. Opportunity to lean on God and grow in my love and trust in Him. And, opportunity to serve others going through grief.

How has your faith gotten you through these times?

Simply, I would not have gotten through these times without my Faith. We’ve dealt with serious cancer situations since 2005. But, when Meg was diagnosed in 2006, it was a “put your money where your mouth is” opportunity. It’s easy to say we have faith – until we are faced with an opportunity to live it out. We are told “in this life you will have trouble”. The lessons I’ve learned so far include acceptance of circumstance (asking “why” to questions you may never get answered creates unrest in my opinion), assurance of my future, and embracing that death is part of the circle of life (we need to stop being afraid to discuss this.) Having a strong faith doesn’t take the pain away, but it allows me to be content and comfortable that God can use all things for his glory if we allow. My prayer is that I walk in a way that allows others experiencing struggles to know there is joy in spite of the pain. 

What would you tell someone who has recently suffered a loss?

To allow yourself to feel the pain of the loss and deal with the emotions.  Then, when life gets quiet – everyone returns to their lives and there you are with the loss – be intentional about what you want your life to look like. Write it down and take 1 small step each day. Ask a close friend to be your accountability partner. Start a gratitude journal. Every single day take time at the end of the day to write down 3 things that brought you joy that day - even the tiniest little thing. This will CHANGE YOUR LIFE.  It sure changed mine. I started my gratitude journal in 2006.

What legacy do you hope to leave with your daughter and grandchildren?

There are a few things I would hope to be my legacy. The first is being an example of how to “pay it forward”. I’m a strong believer than when you think you’ve got it bad, go serve – get outside of yourself. We have had a lot of opportunity in our family to support people who have gone through similar circumstance. We are here to support one another and “pay it forward”, if you will.

Another thing I hope will be a legacy is how I model resiliency and strive to embrace joy. Life throws us curveballs, but it doesn’t mean we have a bad life. If Madalyn and the grandbabies can take anything from me I hope it will be that they see I work hard to embrace the joy and find beauty in each day.

As a final thing, I hope I leave a legacy of living a loving, happy, authentic life. If this grief journey has taught me anything, it has taught me to tell people that I love them.  To live life with no regrets. I encourage all you to let the walls down a little bit – tell people you love them. Give them a hug. It will make for a richness and a depth to life that is so sweet.

What signs let you know that Lance and Meg are still with you?

It is funny things like when I wake up at 3am. That was always when Meg and I had good conversation when she was sick. Now, when I wake up at 3am I just say “Hi baby, what’s on your mind”?  With Lance it is mockingbirds. Lance had a special connection with mockingbirds, especially after Meg died. Now, they show up in pairs and I feel like Meg and Lance are watching over me, encouraging me. And also, “our songs” seem to come on at just the right times. I feel very close to them regularly.

What has grief taught you?

Grief has taught me to be more present in my life and to carve out toxicity. It has also taught me to spend more time on things that matter – faith, family, friends, giving back to our community – and to not get too caught up in negativity. Grief has also taught me to set boundaries and to live more intentionally. In many ways grief has taught me to soften my rough edges.

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