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. In addition to the child’s death, Dylan might also have been referring to the death of his childhood belief in life’s innocence and that everyone lived a happy existence into ripe, old age.
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. And sometimes the first isn't the hardest.
Life is more fragile than I expected.
The first death erases what we thought was a hard barrier between us and death. We now understand that death can come at any time to anyone, for no discernable reason, and rip our hearts away. People can just die from unknown health problems, from simple accidents like slipping on a rug, or because of random shootings and terrorist attacks. Often there is no warning, no time to prepare, and it happens so quickly that we don’t have the chance to say goodbye, reconcile arguments, or tell them that we love them.
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 Evelyn’s death, I lived on the edges of society for months as I walked through the wilderness of grief. I also 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 began taking more risks when hiking by myself in the wilds of the Sierra Nevada Mountains where bears and mountain lions lived. I used to be more cautious, wanting to come home in one piece for Ev, but I realized that many of my fears were illusions, just as my blind optimism had been. It no longer bothered me that I could sense death’s closeness over the next ridge, moving like a silent creature that at times moved closer and at times further away.
Hiking alone through the wilderness, and seeing the wild, untouched beauty of nature, reminded me of how much I still loved this world. The possibility of encountering wild animals with attitudes wasn’t going to stop me from experiencing the transcendent moments that occurred now and then. Yet, in order to experience the depth and breadth of life, I had to set my fears aside and trust.
Grief breaks us, deepens us, or sets us free. If we’re brave, it does all three.