I like to think of myself as an empathetic person who is able to feel compassion for people in difficult situations.
Maybe it stems from being a voracious reader since childhood, but I’ve always been able to imagine myself in a multitude of different circumstances. This imagination can allow me to mentally stroll in someone else’s shoes from time to time. Still, I can look back over the decades and clearly see when I failed with naive oblivion to understand how loss felt and how to commiserate without sounding trite.
The block could have stemmed from immaturity, lack of faith, or simply shortage of life experiences. Whatever the cause of my inadequacies, these lost opportunities to be supportive are haunting.
As a child, when I became cognizant of what death was, it was mostly unknown elderly people gone from my parents’ circle. My great uncle who lived close, but I didn’t know well, is one of the first I recall. It’s doubtful that I realized what it meant to my grandpa when Uncle John died. They were close in age and had lived their entire lives in this small bit of land known as Griffith Hollow. Grandpa, ever the cheerful optimist, must have been sad, but hid it from his adolescent grandkids.
Grandpa’s other brothers and grandma’s sisters who lived far away and were only seen occasionally passed slowly over the years. They were family losses, but they weren’t keenly felt in my young heart.
My life was fairly carefree until college when the deaths started rolling in. High school friends and vehicular wrecks, college chums and drinking or drugs. Attending funerals became more common, always somber, and uniquely emotional.
It wasn’t until 2004 when my cousin Davey was killed in a motorcycle accident that it dawned on me how little I had understood grief until then. Even though two years before, my brother-in-law, loved like a brother, lost his older sister to a rapidly escalating, unexpected illness. I think I showed compassion to him and his younger sister, whom I graduated from high school with, but looking back, I’m not sure I reached into my depths to comfort them.
Maybe I couldn’t have.
Perhaps only the greatest of writers can do that one thing we writers are told not to do—don’t write about what we don’t know. How did William Styron convey the agony of Sophie’s Choice? What could a white protestant marine lieutenant stationed on Okinawa in 1945 know about the anguish of a mother being forced to choose which child goes to the concentration camp crematory and which one lives? Yet, great writer that he was, he did.
Until Davey, I did not, personally, know what it was like to be punched in the gut by a phone call while walking down a sunny South Side street. Your kid sister’s voice breaks as she says, “Davey was killed this morning.” Not sure you heard the words correctly, you respond, “That can’t be, I talked with him last night,” as you sink to a random stoop, unable to get your feet to move.
But there it is.
Losing someone beloved, someone you were close to growing up and enjoyed as an adult brings the kind of grief that smacks you in the heart and makes you weak in the knees, calling for support from your family, your friends, and the God you have finally—now, at this moment—fully let into your heart, where he’s long been hoping to take the lead.
Right then, you realize that heaven must exist because there is no way that someone of Davey’s caliber, someone strong and powerful and so utterly exceptional can simply be gone, his personality absorbed into the stratosphere, no longer anywhere in space and time. When heaven strikes you as logical, that’s the point where faith plants itself firmly in your heart, and honestly, you couldn’t eliminate it now unless you tried really, really hard and who wants to intentionally give up found faith?
The next year, a force of nature friend was killed in a canoeing accident. It’s the way she would have wanted to go, but as her contemporary you know it was too soon for us to lose Jane. She had such tenderheartedness inside and much more to contribute to the world. Another little piece of your heart breaks off, but you contemplate that perhaps God’s collecting the good souls, isn’t he?
The following year was the loss of dear Helen—oh gosh, how I loved her! When I purchased my first little house in Red Lodge, Montana, I was lucky to have Helen and her husband live across the alley. Not only did I get to enjoy her bountiful flower garden, I got to enjoy Helen. Being in her presence was akin to having flowers bloom non-stop with the way she colored my worldview. Her husband died before I got to know him and when I visited Helen, she summed up her loss as, “It’s rotten.” With sixty plus years of marriage, hers was a succinct, yet potent phrase.
When Helen passed, I’d been telling myself for a week that it was time to call her. I’d moved to Pittsburgh, but it hadn’t changed our friendship anymore than when I bought my house outside of Red Lodge or when she relocated. We’d send letters, share phone calls, and anytime I was in-state, there was a road trip to Bozeman where both Helen and my niece Jenny lived. I learned that when the urge to contact a friend pushes at your brain, act on it. Don’t delay letting someone know you are thinking of them.
Later in 2006 came the happy occasion of Jenny’s wedding to a man who has readily fit into the family. To meet these two is to have a little bit of your heart grow back to wholeness with their humor, delight in life, and the pulsating energy that flows from them. When Ryan was injured in a work accident a month after their wedding, I bowed my head and prayed non-stop for hours asking the Lord to heal Ryan’s hands, heal his burnt hands and restore them to full use. My faith wasn’t great enough to pray that his back injury wasn’t as serious as they thought, so I prayed for this thing that wasn’t small, but wasn’t as big as curing the paralysis that would result from his fall.
Faith saw us through, that giving-over-to-God of the burden that you, as a mere human, are simply not strong enough to handle.
Your perception of what is important in life begins to shift as people you love pursue a rarely intentional journey. There becomes a dividing line between what you get upset about, choosing to take seriously or not and what you don’t allow to bother you, letting inconsequential events ripple off, barely considered. In time, that difference between the trite and critical becomes a chasm.
The losses keep coming. Maybe it’s the longer I’m alive, the more people I know and the bigger the grief when they pass, but the hurt in losing people gains in strength and power—able to bring me easily to tears.
- Mom in August of 2008 after lung cancer exploded in her chest.
- Uncle Jim, one of dad’s younger brothers, in March 2009 from the same thing.
- Dad barely a month later from the dreaded ALS.
- A friend in June from combined illnesses.
- Uncle “Big” Jim in 2012, whose body had enough of working hard to keep this jovial gem alive.
- Two years later, we saw the loss of another beloved cousin, Shelly, to suicide—an act that brings an entirely different hurdle of emotions to climb over.
Last December, I cried when Captain Jerry Yellin of The Last Fighter Pilot succumbed to his version of cancer. I’d met and fallen slightly in love with this powerhouse of a 93-year-old the previous December at Pearl Harbor events on Oahu. In that year, I read a number of his books and we corresponded sporadically via Facebook and email. His death pointed out, yet again, that someone doesn’t have to exist in your daily orbit for you to be infinitely sad when they’re gone.
There have been others along the way, mostly the elderly, but as with my grandad when I was not yet thirty, the age never lessens the loss. We may come to expect it when someone reaches their eighties, their nineties, but that doesn’t mean we don’t miss them, it doesn’t mean that hole in our heart isn’t newly ripped open, taking a long time for the gash to close.
Grief, the kind that bleeds air from your lungs when you walk away from Davey’s casket holding onto your Uncle Jim, his arm grasping your waist, both of you without words, shared love coursing from one to the other … that kind of grief can’t be imagined, dreamt up, or portrayed until you’ve lived it. Whatever Styron went through to enable him to create Sophie, it had to be impactful. That is, simply, the way love hurts when death whacks at your heart.
You have to, I learned, give yourself over wholly to the heartbreak when it roils in your stomach. For mourning to abandon you for the moment, allowing you to proceed, to breathe, you must wallow in the grief, even relish it, because in feeling something deeply enough that it physically hurts, you cross into a unique reality. You become more human, and humanity is the place from where compassion for others grows.
An empathetic person?
Yes, I believe that I was before this roll call of deaths began tearing away at me, hurting my heart but building my faith. I felt what I could in my imagination and hopefully was able to provide sympathy and support people who’d lost someone. My desire was to lean myself into them, wrap an arm around their distress, and hold them up.
But until I lost these bright spots of sunshine from my world, until faith was solidified in me, I couldn’t empathize from somewhere far beyond belief and into the realm of my very being. Grief, that breathtaking foe of happiness, brings a new reality that stays with you, unchanging, ever present, eternally ready to serve up the tears and sadness years after the person is gone.
You are, if you have loved deeply and from a place of strength, forever changed when someone you care about dies. It doesn’t mean you don’t love again. You celebrate life, you laugh, you dance, you make plans, you move forward, always going into the future … but you are changed, your perspective on what is significant changes, becoming rooted in a different reality.
Those circumstances or events that once seemed like mountains avalanching drama down upon you, shrink to tiny mole hills to be noticed in passing and confidently walked around. Drama, real drama, is only a silent heartbeat away from becoming reality, so those bothersome annoyances in life no longer matter, your preoccupation with daily vexations is minimal and your ability to live life in an advancing motion is huge.
The balance is in remembering that being human toward another is utterly momentous—providing acts of kindness, sharing love, living faithfully. The little irritations that pop up throughout a day, inevitable in our interactions with others, may require acknowledgement, but they don’t deserve to be dwelled upon. You have the life-encompassing, happiness-empowering, choice to say: This is of consequence, this is inconsequential…
To live this way—knowing in your core what is important—is to live wholly, compassionately, completely, and to not regret what you’ve been toward another human in this world when they are gone … or when you are.