Dan Stringer

navigating the convergence of faith, culture and the common good

Five years without Vincent

November 20, 2015

On November 20, 2010, our second son, Vincent Wing Seun Stringer, died at the age 18 months following a 6-month battle with liver cancer. That night, I wrote the first of many blog posts working though my grief, attempting to grapple with what just happened.

For the next year, I posted a public entry into my “grief journal” on the 20th of every month. It was my way of reminding the world we had lost a kid.

After the first anniversary, things started to feel different. Not better, just different. Blogging monthly about Vincent had become too emotionally draining. I was out of stories. There was little to say.

Except that the rhythm needed to change.

As we approached the point at which Vincent’s absence eclipsed the length of his life, I journaled less often. With each passing month, the gap grew between the younger Vincent we had lost, and the older, hypothetical Vincent, alive and cancer-free as he should have been.

cemetery 11-20-2012
But time steamrolled forward, taking us with it. The above photo was taken on the two-year anniversary, as grass sprouted through what was once a pile of dirt.

The day was further complicated by the reality that our third son was due any moment. Thankfully, Andre took his time and arrived on November 23, 2012.

Andre’s physical resemblance to Vincent made for a stark juxtaposition of death’s sorrow with the joy of new life. Neither negated the other—they were both true as could be.

With Andre’s birth came new layers to our family’s annual grief pattern, a cycle that now includes one kid’s birthday and another’s death-day three days apart.

Every. Single. November.

By the third anniversary, my focus shifted from survival to sustainability. That day, I wrote:

Each anniversary is like an ominous semester deadline, when your list of unfinished assignments can no longer be ignored. Grief will let you procrastinate, but only for so long. My tears are due today.

The wave of every anniversary left greater dread of the next one in its wake.

In my quest for a more sustainable grieving pattern, I started using pre-written prayers. Weary from reinventing the wheel each year, I developed a responsive prayer for our family to recite every November 20th.

This practice didn’t take away the pain, but it provided continuity with the past while conserving energy on an emotionally taxing day. “Give us grace to treasure Vincent’s memory and help us bring comfort to others,” we prayed.

A year ago marked the fourth anniversary, our first in California. Many of our new friends and neighbors didn’t know we had a middle son, so I used this space to introduce Vincent and re-tell the story of his magnificent life.

Around that time, the book Father Factor was published, including an essay I wrote exploring the experience of losing my father and son to premature deaths. Writing helped me describe the unspeakable, but it hasn’t stopped the cruel advance of dreaded anniversaries.  

Which brings us to the present moment. The road has been long, and it isn’t getting shorter.

Although Vincent’s absence remains conspicuous as ever, it now takes me much longer to write about my grief. Sometimes I’ll be up late at night for hours, grasping in vain for words that aren’t there.

These days, my grief is more like a shipwreck sitting at the bottom of an ocean that gets deeper as time adds new layers of water. Right after Vincent died, I only had to put on a snorkel to find it, but the process now requires a deep sea dive.

Time has a heartless way of creating distance from Vincent, even if he’s never far from my thoughts.

Especially today.

  • Lorraine

    We were praying for you today as we knew it was a hard day. I taught here this past week and told meaningful, sad, beautiful stories of Vinny’s battle with cancer and of his passing. I wanted the students to cry, or at least to swallow hard to keep from crying. I wanted them to understand that I have FIVE grandsons, not four. I wanted them to feel the loss and love I have for him. I want them to miss him too and I think in a way, they did because they cried too.

    • Thanks Lorraine for your prayers and words of support. It’s a comfort to hear that around the world, there are people mourning with we who mourn. And yes, you definitely have FIVE grandsons!