Confessions of a Grieving Father

Susan Smith shares her interview with Zig Ziglar, author and world's most sought after motivational speaker about the death of his daughter. Ziglar says that grief is not only unavoidable but desirable because it "brings us to the point of realizing the vastness of our love," and it "puts us in a position to trust God alone for our restoration." Grief is "perhaps the most profound way of expressing love," he writes. "The more we love a person we have lost, the greater our grief."

by Susan Smith

Zig Ziglar’s not supposed to cry.

As one of the world’s most sought-after motivational speakers and an out-and-out optimist, he is looked to by others to outlast any storm and to do so with a smile.

"People expect me not to have the same feelings other people have," Ziglar says. "Because of what I do, what everyone has heard from me, they expect me to always be happy."

But when his 46-year-old daughter Suzan, died of an incurable disease in 1995, the upbeat Ziglar was laid low by the loss.

“I cannot hide my feelings when my daughter comes to mind,” he says. “Sometimes my tears are of comfort and sometimes they are of pain. But I don’t hide them.”

Suzan Ziglar Witmeyer had pulmonary fibrosis. Her family had hoped and prayed and even believed that she would get well enough to have a lung transplant. But on May 12, 1995, a physician heavy with disappointment told the family huddled in a hospital that there would be no miraculous rescue for Witmeyer. Their hope plummeted as he confirmed that she would be with them for just a few more hours. A few more minutes.

“On May 13, 1995, at 9:45 a.m., a nurse said, ‘She’s gone,’” Ziglar writes in his book, Confessions of a Grieving Christian. "Those words broke my heart."

“It is impossible to describe fully the grief that overwhelmed my family and me at the death of our beloved firstborn daughter. Nothing had prepared me for the intensity of pain and sorrow I experienced."

The day after his daughter’s death, Ziglar walked through his neighborhood, numb and unsure of what else to do. He wept as he walked, wrestling with the chasm between his devastating pain and his unshakeable certainty that “a loving heavenly Father would never do anything that was not in his long-range plan for you.”

As he neared his home that morning, Ziglar felt God impress in his mind, “as if he were audibly speaking to me, that ‘Suzan is fine. She’s with me and you’re going to be fine, too. I want you to keep walking and praying and weeping.’” He calls the comfort he found in that moment “unbelievable.” He cried then, not for Suzan, but for himself and his living family: his wife, Jean; Suzan’s husband, Chad, and daughters Elizabeth and Katherine; her sister, Cindy, and husband, Richard; her sister, Julie, and husband, Jim; and her brother, Tom, wife, Chachis and daughter, Alexandra. “We loved her and missed her, but we knew she was better off now than she ever was with us,” Ziglar says.

Ziglar continued to walk and weep in the months ahead, literally pacing out his pilgrimage of grief, which he describes as the “step-by-step journey you take as you wrestle with the void in your life.” While he learned traversing the trails of sorrow was that he would never get over his loss, that he could experience deep sadness and joy simultaneously, and that he never knew when a piercing anguish would sweep over him.

He describes grief as one big roller coaster ride filled with slow climbs, breath-snatching falls, and unforeseen turns. In his book he wrote that, three years after Suzan’s death, “grief still shows up at the most unexpected times.” Now, almost six years after Suzan’s death, it still does.

“I’m still surprised by unexpected tears,” he says. “It happens periodically. I’ll eat a cookie and realize that I will never eat another one of Suzan’s pecan cookies. I’ll see a woman and think, ‘She looks like Suzan,’ and get all teary eyed again. Something brings it home again that she’s no longer with us. You never get over it, but you do learn to deal with it.

Ziglar says the principle difference between his grief now and his grief six years ago is its frequency. Although grief never departs, it does subside, he says.

Ziglar laments that others so often expect the grieving person to bear up valiantly under their burden and “get back to normal” as quickly as possible. He recalls at Suzan’s funeral, broken-hearted and exhausted, being told by well-meaning friends to be strong. “That is not the time to be strong,” Ziglar says with a note of compassion in his voice. “That is the time to be weak.”

A devoted Christian dedicated to living his life as he sees it mapped out in the Bible, Ziglar says the Bible “tells us repeatedly to be weak. Others tell us to get over it, to get a life. But God tells us to cry and to weep.”

Ziglar says that grief is not only unavoidable, but desirable because it “brings us to the point of realizing the vastness of our love,” and it “puts us in a position to trust God alone for our restoration.” Grief is “perhaps the most profound way of expressing love,” he writes. “The more we love a person we have lost, the greater our grief.”

Ultimately, Ziglar longs for those grappling with the alternative of death to delve into their own grief. “Acknowledge that you are grieving,” he says.

“Don’t try to avoid your feelings. Your heart is broken. Admit it.” For him, healing for a broken heart comes from “handing it to God and letting him mend it.”

He also encourages the bereaved to allow grief to run its full course.

“How long does grief last? I have no idea,” he writes. ”Grieving is a process that takes time, there are no shortcuts. There is no magic formula that will make all of the pain go away.”

Today, Ziglar says he wouldn’t receive his daughter back even if God offered, because “it would be the most selfish thing I could do. She’s so much better off with him than she ever was with us.”

True Confessions…
Zig Ziglar wrote Confessions of a Grieving Christian in 1998 to help others coping with the death of a loved one. He receives more letters in response to this book than to his other 16 books combined. And nine of those are bestsellers.

“There’s so much lousy information on grief out there,” Ziglar says. “Anything I can do to help others in grief, I will do.”

In the book, Ziglar writes of his daughter’s death and of how the family continues to deal with it. His faith in God permeates every page. He writes consistently of the comfort found in relinquishing his broken heart and tumultuous emotions to Christ, who “is healing my heart.” When asked what hope he offers the person who does not believe in Christ, he says he offers the hope of coming to.

Still, his book offers thorough and practical insight for those who do not choose a religious path.

Give out of your grief.
Look for opportunities to help someone else, even while you are hurting. “When you yourself are hurting, give what little joy you have, and it will return to you.

Share your grief.
“Shared grief builds and deepens a relationship. And over time, a deep relationship gives freedom to share grief. The process is cyclical.”

Keep talking.
“Continue to think about and to talk to the person who has died as if he is still with you.” This, Ziglar says, keeps the memories alive.

Talk about her.
“I believe that conversation is a priceless healer. We know that a broken bone needs attention. So does a broken heart. Talking is great broken-heart therapy.”

Buckle up.
The grief journey is like a roller coaster that you can ride but cannot steer. “There have been moments of deep grief that I was unable to anticipate. There have been moments in which I expected to experience grief, and those moments passed without strong emotion. Grief emerges at random.”

“I can lament the fact that I do not hear Suzan’s laughter, or I can rejoice at the number of times I did hear it. Many things related to grief are choices.

Pick three.
Ziglar suggests that you isolate the top three memories you have of the person who died and focus on those.


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