“Unable are the loved to die. For love is immortality.”
~ Emily Dickinson
Death is funny to me. Not funny ha-ha, funny strange. I don’t have a lot of experience with it, most of the deaths that I have been connected to have had the buffer of one or two degrees of separation.
As a child, the only death I remember was my grandfather’s when I was eight or nine. I felt badly, I remember crying when my mother told me, but feeling oddly detached at his funeral. The truth is I have never been extremely close to either set of grandparents or my extended family (extenuating family issues, coupled with the fact that growing up we were seldom on the same continent for more than a few days at a time). My grandmother was (understandably!) distraught, and my mother was unbearably hurt, but the distinct memory I have of that day is feeling scared that I didn’t feel sad enough and wondering if something was wrong with me.
The trouble is that as I’ve grown up, death has become more and more frequent. In this last year alone I’ve mentioned a few, but sitting back to run the tally, I’m a bit taken aback. I have been vaguely connected (second and third degrees of separation with friends and coworkers) to three suicides, three automobile accident deaths, one passing from old age, two accidental deaths, and worked on two death cases at work. It’s everywhere. And I’ve felt as oddly detached from all of them as I did to my grandfather’s.
I wonder if this is because I’ve never been touched directly by death. I have absolutely no idea how I would feel if either of my parents passed away, probably as if part of the ground had suddenly fallen away from under me. If any of my siblings died I suspect I’d feel something beyond rage and pain – they’re kids after all, they aren’t supposed to die (even though I know kids die everyday). Gio nearly drowned once and the sensation I felt was terrifying panic and corrosive guilt (I was his big sister and I hadn’t been paying attention to him when he went swimming in the deep end of the pool – I’d actually told him to leave me and my friends alone. The next time I saw him he was being pulled from the water, blue and lifeless. That horrible feeling has never left me). If J. died… frankly I’m not sure where I’d be. He teases me that he needs to die first so that I have to clean up after him and deal with the damage, I counter that he’s being a rotten selfish punk to leave me to do the emotional heavy lifting, and he comes back with, “You could handle it. I couldn’t.”
I’m sure he means this as a testament to my personal strength of will (or something), but the first time he said something like that my first thought was, “Great, even my husband thinks I’m emotionally stunted…”
The funny (not funny ha-ha) thing about death to me is that life keeps going for those you leave behind. Standing still has never seemed to be an option to me for survivors, and yet I have seen people brought to a crashing halt from personal loss and pain. I have no idea what that must feel like. I have no idea if my attitudes and detachment from death stem from genuine sangfroid or lack of personal experience, but either way I know exactly how lucky I am never to have been put in a position to find out. Most people have casualties behind them. I’m still waiting for my first massive personal loss, and just hoping I’ll be able to bear up and keep going when it does.
*Many thanks for your kind words towards my brother-in-law’s family. Many of you are able to speak from a personal and authentic place that is truly compassionate and experienced. None of us get out unscathed, and I think the only true balm is the wisdom and care of friends.