We’re taking our 9-year-old to the funeral of a teammate’s father in a few days. In struggling with how to tell our son and worrying about how he’d handle the realization that his peer has lost a parent, it dawned on me that as I approach 40, I have attended countless funerals over the years and the vast majority of them were for people younger, often much younger, than me. It wasn’t until recently I realized this is not the case for everyone. I have friends well into their forties who have had very little experience with death/loss. I probably had more exposure in high school than some of my friends have had their entire lives. I honestly thought everyone shared my reality. I have mixed feelings on how I feel about this revelation.
I come from a huge family with generations ahead of me still living and thriving. One of my grandmothers will celebrate her 101st birthday in a few months. I’ve seen a lot of living and examples of long, fruitful lives. Sure we’ve lost family members over the years, and friends have lost parents, but that number pales in comparison to the numbers of friends and acquaintances who have lost their lives during their teens, twenties, and thirties. Suicides, car accidents (countless, tragic car accidents), murders, illness or accidents… It’s not my intent to sound morbid rather to illustrate that our own life’s experiences shape us into who we become. We evolve because of what we learn, witness, and endure over time. And the more connected with our community we are, the more exposure we have to both pain and growth. (I feel it’s important to note that I haven’t lost a parent, sibling, or any of my closest adult friends so even my experience differs from many others reading this. I’m merely contemplating and sharing what I’ve learned over the years and how my experiences have shaped me. I certainly don’t want to paint myself as an expert on death and grief.)
My first encounter with death was of a great aunt who I didn’t really know when I was around 12 years old. At that point, because I didn’t understand death and certainly wasn’t comfortable with it, I was terrified of cemeteries and had a panic attack when we went to the graveside service after the traditional Catholic funeral Mass. I still remember what I wore, the smell of the funeral home during the visitation, nearly throwing up when I caught a glimpse of her open casket, the lighting in the church during her funeral, and the immense relief I felt when it was all over. It was a lot to take in. I was old enough to care but not mature enough to process in a healthy way all that death really entails. And being the highly empathetic adolescent I was, I began to imagine in my 12-year-old head and heart what it must feel like to lose my spouse, my mother, or my dearest friend. I was traumatized.
But as I mentioned, by the time I graduated from high school, I’d had plenty of experience with death, most of it tragic; much of it violent. The summer between my sophomore and junior year I experienced my closest, most painful loss. That summer and the following handful of years were undeniably the most transformative years of my life. Perhaps I was at the perfect age where maturity and opportunity meet. As I saw so many young lives end so abruptly, I began to grasp the reality of my own mortality and of those around me. I developed a new way of living. I appreciated the fragility of life. I started to recognize the magnificence in the mundane. And I became incredibly vocal about my feelings, almost unable to curb the urge to tell people how much they meant to me and to the world. I began calling people out when they were being assholes, but I mostly commended people for being kind and generous. It scared some people. Some called me “too emotional” and couldn’t handle it. But most were receptive and allowed the honesty to tear down walls.
My experience with death over the years has allowed me to be more comfortable with it. It’s no longer taboo or a word to whisper or tap dance around. I now find cemeteries incredibly peaceful. I understand the process of dying and what happens to the body. I have wider acceptance of what happens when our souls leave our earthly bodies. And most, most, most importantly, I now understand that death is the key to living. Each time I saw a young life end, I died to myself a little more and acknowledged in an undeniable way that my life is not really my own.
With so much experience behind me, I know the initial shock is normal, when your mind truly can’t compute the news that a loved one has died. I know the strange things our minds and bodies are capable of in the following minutes, days, months and even years of processing and grieving. And I know that some day, we will be able to see things a little differently because of our loss. Don’t get me wrong. Pain sucks. Heartache is worse than delivery without an epidural. Death tortures your ego and wrecks your body. IT HURTS in every way possible. But you begin to find comfort in recognizing how your loved one so deeply impacted the world. You can start to see how they saw things, how they processed the world, what they loved, and what hurt them the most. Maybe it’s most accurately described by the adage, “you don’t appreciate it until it’s gone.” It’s almost as if you see things clearer and continue learning from them after they’re gone from this world. And this helps you grow. The pain felt when someone dies is a gateway to deeper spirituality and greater appreciation for the people and opportunities in our lives. It is an invitation to ask more, seek more, and live more.
“Grief is love’s souvenir. It’s our proof that we once loved. Grief is the receipt we wave in the air that says to the world: Look! Love was once mine. I love well. Here is my proof that I paid the price.”
― Glennon Doyle Melton,