“If you gave someone your heart and they died, did they take it with them? Did you spend the rest of forever with a hole inside you that couldn’t be filled? –Jodi Picoult, Nineteen Minutes
I opened up Facebook on Monday morning, and I have been filled with sadness ever since. In any quiet moment, when I cannot use the distractions of my work or my kids to chase away my thoughts, my heart just feels so heavy. I feel hurt. It’s more than my heart, though. My mind, too has been shaken. I have not been able to make good sense of the whole thing, and that greatly disturbs me. All told, my entire system has been down, cloaked in sorrow. It is the kind of sorrow that can be summoned only by Death.
The note on Facebook was a simple one. It read, “Thank you for all your love. We are missing this great man.” Under it was a picture of my brother’s former fiancé—a woman I haven’t seen or heard from in twenty years—and her husband, looking happy and healthy on a snowy mountaintop. My heart immediately sunk. It couldn’t be what I thought! I combed through the comments, only to get confirmation of the worst, most empty feeling that had settled in my gut. He was dead. My heart just seemed to shatter, and everything inside me emptied out. I felt hollow, like an empty shell. I later learned that he was ski mountaineering with friends when a small avalanche swept him off his feet and down the mountain, killing him instantly.
His name was Luke, and he was, by all accounts, an amazing man of outstanding character and charisma, a wonderful father and friend. I read an article that he had recently written about balancing family and adventuring, and I read all of the comments and condolences. With all of that—and, just remembering how much I thought of his wife, Kathy, so many years ago, when I knew her and believed that the man to win her love would be a worthy one—I couldn’t help but wish I knew him. I sat at my desk that night and sobbed.
So, why was I so devastated by the death of a man I had never met, whose only connection to me was a woman I had only known briefly and so very long ago? Why have I grieved this loss so deeply, when I seem to have no stake in it? I have been doing my best all week to both get through my pain and to better understand its source.
My most immediate connection is the parallel life situation, in terms of being a parent to young children. I look at Kathy, who is now left without her best friend and with three little boys to raise without their Dad. I simply cannot fathom it from her perspective. How do you shoulder the burden so suddenly of being mother and father-figure, and being without your life partner? The sudden and unexpected nature of it just puts it into a totally different stratosphere than, say, regular couples who divorce or people who have been single parents the entire time. It is just different with this shroud of LOSS hanging over. There will always be the “Your father would have loved to see you do this,” or “Your Dad would be so proud” with the kids. And there will always be the “This would have been our Xth anniversary,” or “I always thought we would do this together,” in a way that just isn’t there with other kinds of break-ups.
It is all just different. Sad. There is a sadness, an emptiness attached to even the happy moments. Even the best, most celebrated moments—the graduations, the weddings, the births—become necessarily tinged with the shroud of LOSS. It makes complicated what should be pure and simple. I hate that about LOSS. And I suppose that is my biggest beef with it. Of course, I know Kathy and her little boys will go on, tough though it may be. They will probably become happy, successful people. But they will always be tinged, will always wear some form of the shroud. I despise the unfairness of that. I hate it.
Life is not fair. That is a concept that I understand intellectually but still have a very difficult time accepting psychologically. It grates against the very fabric of my being. It is miserable to me, to the point that I had to sit at my desk on Monday night and sob about the damned unfairness of Death. It is my personal struggle.
This issue of unfairness is the one—other than my haunting fear that my wife could die suddenly and I would be faced with shepherding my kids through life alone and wearing the shroud of LOSS—that has resonated with me most in my week of grief. I have never been able to stomach unfairness done to me, and I have the worst time letting it go. I think of my repulsion to a neighbor kid cheating me on the tennis court when I was little. The thought of that kid still riles me up. More recently, I was dealt a gross injustice in a work situation, and I cannot let it go. It comes in my dreams to haunt me, waking me in outrage. Even worse, I catch myself daydreaming about it—every day—imagining conversations that would expose my betrayal and set things right. I chide myself every time for it, too, because I know it is unhealthy and unproductive.
I just don’t handle unfairness well. This situation with Luke’s untimely death–and leaving Kathy and her three young boys behind–is just an extension of that. Even though I can see the difference between an act of a petty human being against me and an “act of God” like the avalanche that killed Luke, I still find myself railing against both. I envision all of the wonderful family times Kathy and her boys were due to have with him, and I can’t help but feel they were robbed in the worst way. Interestingly, I don’t think about Luke being robbed of all of that. That is perhaps due to my views on the afterlife (a topic for another day). No, my focus seems to be entirely on the ones left behind, the ones who have to somehow carry on despite this gaping hole in their world. It just feels so darn unfair to me, and that really hurts. I ache for them with all of my being.
I also feel bad that unfairness of this sort is rampant in our world. I think I block it out most of the time because I am so sensitive about it. It is for self-protection (I can’t just sit at my desk and sob every night, right?). But when I let one slip past my defenses, my heart really breaks. I feel that way this week about this tragedy. Grief has been my constant companion. Grief for the loss felt by Kathy and those little boys. My heart is in pieces for them. They have been dealt an indescribable unfairness, and with no recourse. “March on,” says the world. “Draw that painful breath in, and exhale. Now repeat.” That is all there is to do. That is cold comfort to me. I still can’t wrap my mind around it.
How about you? How do you handle the many injustices of this thing called LIFE? Open up your journal and write about what shakes your core. Are there things you simply cannot stomach? Are they things that happen to you personally—being cheated somehow—or are they big events you see on the news, like earthquakes or terrorist attacks? Are you better able to accept the unfair things that humans do to each other (e.g. abuse or rape), or “acts of God,” such as accidents or weather events? Do you look to God for answers why, or do you just accept that we live in an unfair world? Are there injustices that have been done to you that you still cannot get over? How do you handle Death? Do you feel that the person who died was dealt an unfairness? Or, are you like me and focus only on the blow felt by the ones left behind and the hole in their lives? Does it make a difference if it was an “untimely” death, such as a child or the young father in this case? How sensitive are you to all of the examples of cruelty and unfairness in the world? For me, I cannot watch the news and must put on blinders to even the small stuff around me, because it hurts my heart so much to let it in. What is your strategy? Do you think that because examples of Death and Life’s unfairness are in our faces and all around us every day, we mostly become numb to them? Is that a bad thing, or perhaps necessary for self-preservation? All week long, I have been wondering if there are any wise and comforting words that I could say to Kathy right now, something to help her to make sense of her loss and move on in Peace. I cannot find those words. Can you?
Cherish every moment,