Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Monday, July 12, 2010

Dying Young

July 15

We think it’s a tragedy when anyone dies before he or she is 80 because that’s what we've been taught by society, and this seems to be the expectation in the developed world where modern medicine has solved a host of problems that would have killed us a century ago.

My wife died suddenly in her 40s from a heart problem we didn’t know about. Her doctors had never cautioned us, and it felt wrong because I seldom heard about people dying that young. Then I read the obituaries and discovered that a quarter of the people listed had not even reached age 60. Infants had died, and young mothers, and a man in his thirties who was excited about starting his own business. Somehow I had not noticed all the people dying around me.

In the margin of a used book I bought, someone wrote, “I’d like to live as if my life mattered.” Besides losing Evelyn, I think this was what bothered me the most. Evelyn’s life mattered. She worked in the public schools in special education, helping students beaten down by years of being called “lazy” or “stupid” to discover that they could learn. She was also helping friends cope with grief when their parents died. Her compassion was helping to heal wounds, and all of this goodness ended with her death.

I, on the other hand, was working in a retail bookstore. What I did did not matter. Yet I was the one who was alive. Every day I went to work and moved books around on the shelves. In the beginning, the structure and mindlessness of the tasks took my mind off grief for a few hours. But it was hard to continue doing that work two months later because there didn’t seem to be any point.

If the work we do doesn’t make a difference in anyone’s life, then why are we doing it?

The people who helped me the most with grief were those who were in love with life. If there was anything to celebrate, they were there ready to dance and sing. If someone suggested an adventure they had never tried, they were out the door with big smiles on their faces. If someone was hurt, depressed, or sad for no specific reason, they stayed and talked with them about it. Or they talked about nothing, just letting their hearts share the silence until things felt better.

Too often it seems that people who are overflowing with life die young. Some burn out by loving the world too much. Some take too many risks. Some are too gentle to withstand the world's indifference to suffering. They die because of accidents, illnesses, or someone’s inattention.

When people we love die, they take our hearts with them. 

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