My writing has slowed lately because I’ve been grieving. My father-in-law and close friend, Bobby, died following heart surgery. His absence means that our family must reorient our relational compass. It’s effected every aspect of life, as you well know from your own losses. His house feels vacuous. Our regular meals together are missing a key ingredient. The usual jokes fall a little flat.
Bobby is gone.
Loss #1: Danette
Death and loss don’t usually make a large impact on children under a certain age unless it’s their own parents. My great-grandparents and several acquaintances from church died before I turned 10, but none of them left a scar. I knew too little of them or of reality for it to matter much.
But no one stays innocent forever.
Danette was my first felt loss. She and her sisters were the same ages as my siblings and I. We only saw each other every couple of years, but they meant something to me. Danette charmed the world with her easy smile and graceful conversations. She was beautiful, sweet, empathetic and artistic. She also suffered with early-onset arthritis.
When she died in a car accident on the way to meet friends, it shook my world. “Young people can’t die. Especially beautiful ones, right?” Youth may be innocent, but it’s certainly not without prejudice.
Death felt like petty superstition. What if I had written her a letter? Or told her I thought she was pretty? Could I have somehow stopped her dying? Am I going to die young too? What’s my cosmic role in this tragedy?
My young mind believed that the death of this girl I rarely saw was somehow partially my responsibility. That the cosmos was punishing me. Sure, her parents and sisters were suffering, but it’s really my own feelings and actions that mattered here.
For a few years after this, I looked around searching for patterns involving unrelated happenings and my own behaviors. Without using these words, I thought I had subtle magical powers. The ripple effect of my actions, surely, was larger than that of other people’s.
Youthful arrogance cannot be bothered by such trivialities as reason or logic.
Loss #2: Eric and Amy
The second great loss came from another car accident in high school. My two friends Eric and Amy died on a Wednesday ten minutes after school got out. What was different for me this time was that I had just seen them both. Amy and I had Chemistry last period of the day and sat next to each other. We had just laughed and joked. And in my pubescent mind, it’s impossible to go from laughter and closeness to death so abruptly. The laws of physics surely don’t allow it.
I learned of the accident the next morning as I stood at my locker before school. I felt dizzy. The walls began caving in. I called my mother to pick me up and take me home where I curled up on the floor holding a previous yearbook and alternating between crying and trying to etch their faces and voices into my permanent memory.
In that moment, grief tasted of fear. Fear that I would forget them. Fear that it could happen soon to any of us. Fear that the world was in chaos.
Teenage angst turned to existential crisis. All the rules for living I had learned up to this point seemed pointless. Death and pain came anyway. Joy faded, and fear remained.
Loss #3: Bobby
In May of this year, when I got the call that Bobby passed, I wept silently. I was not surprised. It did not fill me with dread. I did not consider myself at fault by some random chain of events. I simply cried and let myself feel his absence.
I cried for the realization that we — the greater collective that knew him — would no longer hear his contagious laughter. We would no longer eat his wonderful food or hear his jokes or play games and do puzzles with him.
I cried for the passing of one who created so much beauty. I wept for the struggles that my mother-in-law would have to go through. I empathized for us all from a position of understanding. Our friend was dead.
Grief this time feels like a low, dull ache. I still ask the big questions like What’s it all about? Why do we continually strive when it all ends in the same bleak finality? But this time the questions don’t carry the same darkness or self-centeredness as they had before.
Don’t get me wrong, I often feel depressed and don’t want to get out of bed. I feel heavy when I revisit shared places or hear his voice coming out of a stranger at Walmart. I lose sight of joy when I think of his life’s goals that were cut short by an ailing heart.
But I do get up, get dressed and strive to create something of beauty each day, because I now understand something that I didn’t when I was younger: I see now that the real focus is life, not death.
Life motivates me to play music, write poetry and travel the world. It invites me to meet new people, offer a helping hand and listen to my neighbors. To me, life is about having fun with my brother and his children, about discussing big ideas with my brother-in-law and about making sure my mother-in-law will still be able to take her dogs on hikes for as long as she is able.
Life is about the beauty we create by being fully present in this moment.
It’s not about feeling sorry for myself. At 40, I’ve known many, many others with more difficult lives than my own.
It’s not about feeling responsible for the chaos and tragedies in the world. I'm aware of my smallness. The Powers that be have made sure of that.
And it’s certainly not about being a martyr. Sacrifice must be chosen as a means to create beauty and meaning, not to perpetuate self-pity. And laying down our lives is pointless unless it’s done out of love, proactively choosing an effective way to benefit others and ourselves.
A New Day
Today I woke up with sore muscles, a stiff back and an upset stomach. I could just lay here and watch Netflix. But if I’m honest with myself, sore muscles are my new norm. The body ages. Aches and pains increase. Old friends die.
But simultaneously, Yoga is offered on every corner, healthy eating is easier than ever, and my nephews are laughing. The opportunity to love and create beauty is only limited by my willingness and capacity to notice it and move forward.
So, today, I choose to focus on the only moment I know: this one. Who is in front of me right now? What art can I participate in? How can I bring compassion into each encounter?
These are the questions I choose to ask. And the answers I create make all the difference.