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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Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The First Death

In his poem, “ A Refusal to Mourn,” Dylan Thomas said, “After the first death, there is no other.”

He was writing about a child who burned to death in the bombing of London during World War II. Besides the child’s death, Dylan might also have been referring to the death of his childhood belief in life’s innocence, his illusion that life was a happy existence where everyone lived to a ripe, old age.

I don’t know Dylan’s exact meaning. What matters to me is the insight his phrase has for everyone who has lost a loved one. It speaks of the reality that after the first death of someone close to us, no other death impacts us as hard, because this first death destroys our illusions and shakes the foundations that hold us up. It makes us so angry that we want to hammer everything around us into fine particle dust.

With our first loss, Death becomes a permanent fixture in our world, a shadow whose movement we notice in the corner of our eye. While every new death after this will still hit us hard, and sometimes brutally, it will fit into already familiar territory.

Life is more fragile than I realized.

Our first death erases what we thought was a hard barrier between us and death. We now understand that death can come at any time, for no discernable reason, and rip our hearts away. That people can just die from unknown health problems, or simple accidents like slipping on a rug, or because of someone’s careless inattention.

Our first encounter with death can remove our fear of dying. It can also unsettle us so deeply that we live in constant dread that someone else we love is about to die. After I lived on the boundary for a couple of months after Evelyn died, I realized that I no longer feared my own death, because the worst that could happen had happened — the one I loved more than myself had died. Nothing else would batter and pummel me as much. I had walked through the canyons of death and survived.

This is one reason why I began taking more risks when hiking by myself in the mountains of Yosemite where bears and mountain lions lived. I used to be more prudent. Now I could feel death’s closeness over the next ridge, moving like a silent mountain lion on a parallel trail that at times moved closer and at times further away.

Hiking alone through the wilderness, and seeing the wild landscape of nature, reminded me how much I still loved this world, and the possibility of encountering black bears and mountain lions wasn’t going to stop me from experiencing these transcendent moments. Sometimes, in order to truly live, we have to set our fears aside and take risks.

Grief breaks us, deepens us, or sets us free. If we’re lucky, it does all three.

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