Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Faces of Death

As I am entering my late 30s, I feel I am an anomaly in how relatively little death has crossed my path. Like most, I've survived the passing of aging grandparents and of acquaintances whom I have not seen nor spoken to in years, but in my first 37 years I am blessed (for lack of a better word) to have never lost someone who has been an integral part of my daily life. Others close to me have certainly experienced death intimately and I have tasted the breadth and depth of its impact upon them, but I have been limited to that vicarious perspective of how the grief of death can touch us all.

However, I have new perspetive on death, mortality and grieving as my family and I have been touched by death three times in the last two months. In as much as each of these deaths have similarities that come with a conclusion of life and the strong emotions that follow, each of these deaths are just as much remarkably different in the conditions of the death, the life story of the deceased, and the impact to those left behind.

The first of the three stories sounds more like the teaser of an episode of Dateline that was literally ripped from the headlines of a small town about 40 miles away. After dropping off her son at school one morning, a 25 year old woman disappeared. Two days later her car was found burned in field with no signs of her inside. By the weekend, her body was found in the home of a family friend after a nearly 24-hour standoff with police and, as expected, with much speculation. The story made news headlines across the state from the get-go, and she and her family were in the public eye in what was undoubtedly the most tragic time of their lives. The victim turned out to be the daughter-in-law of my daughter's 4th grade teacher. Being the small faith-based school that it is, the entire school community rallied around her and held vigil for the lost daughter-in-law. The affect on the students was profound as, through their beloved teacher the darkest faces of mankind, the very things from which we all hope to shelter them.

The second death to touch us was at the nearly opposite end of the spectrum. In her 90's, my wife's great aunt had been battling cancer for the last year of her otherwise healthy and full life. Her body slowly succumbed to the disease and with the support of family was able to place her affairs in order, address the impending end of her life, and discern some peace with her passing.

Then came Steph. Stephanie was a 33 year old mother of two with whom we shared in raising our kids, trained for races and vacationed for the last 4 years. She had been battling a rare form of breast cancer for the last 2 years with a vengeance and with a spirit that forced jaws to drop in awe. Despite being a penetrating energy of strength and hope that was palpable in any room she entered, she succumbed to the cancer knowing that she was leaving her 9 year old and 4 year old behind.

Wow, indeed. Amidst the overwhelming consumption of death and grief, of which I did not have deep experience, I was struck with the imbalanced wave of death we were facing in such a short amount of time. Death sets normal life into such a spin under usual circumstances, and here we were facing it three times within a narrow window. Of course, all three brought floods of emotion that would be considered seemingly usual; sorrow, disbelief, reflection, empathy, pain, peace, to just name a few. However, it was the differences between these three instances of death that caught me by surprise. It wasn't just that there were differences, but how breadth of how these experiences fell so widely across the spectrum that captured me.

The headline death was the least personal but the most shocking. Being 3 degrees removed and not having any personal relationship with the teacher's daughter-in-law, the grief felt was out of pure empathy - the pain, bewilderment and sheer sorrow that her family was suffering was unfathomable. My heart went out to my daughter's teacher and I offered my support, which while sincere was also with the understanding of how my relative distant relationship with family was great enough that it was unlikely I would be called upon. This death rocked our world, but mostly because of the sensationalism of the story, not because of any personal loss. Subsequent to our own pains we experience from a story like this comes the pain of watching the layers of innocence being stripped from your children. I'm not speaking of death itself, as death is an important and key component of all life that we can guide our children through in preparation of the many other losses they will experience throughout their lives. However, this death was wore a mask of some of the darkest faces of mankind that not only bring tragic grief, but challenge them with issues of trust, safety, and faith in humanity. These are struggles from which we hope to shelter our children so they can navigate thier childhood without fear.


The emotions of the great aunt's death did not differ in the level of emotion, however the range of those emotions were drastically different. There was sadness surrounding her death, but none of tragedy or unfairness of the first story. She lived a long life - which is an interesting statement in and of itself. We tend to carry an assumption that having lived a long life makes death justified and therefore more bearable. Her death was relatively textbook and uneventful - starting with a diagnosis, moderate amount of treatment and then a resignation into a predictable path of her life concluding. She struggled with her mortality but I believe she was able to navigate it to a point before her passing with the guidance of her hospice nurse and my mother-in-law, who was by her side for the last 3 weeks of her life. The news that she had finally passed was met with a head bow and a nod in acknowledgement that the inevitable had finally come and she was now at peace. With it also came a sense of relief for my mother-in-law who placed her life on hold to sit with her aunt during her final days and provide for her until the end. It was equally painful to watch my mother-in-law endure this as it was to understand her aunt's struggles with facing death.

Empathy - for more than just the deceased.

Stephanie's death was not headline news however, although predictable, it was horrifically tragic. Without intending on contrasting the grief felt among these three deaths, Steph's death broke my heart. The path of her journey that moved from fear of a diagnosis, to hope of treatment, to exhaustive disappointment, to acceptance that death was likely, through death being imminent was a natural course occurring over a two year span. I would have thought that this seemingly gentle progression of the disease and her prognosis would have tempered the degree of the tragedy. There was time to prepare emotionally, say goodbyes, and try to find some peace in the sadness of it all. However, the tragedy was nonetheless tremendous and consuming. The tragedy was not from shock of the news or the circumstances of it, but tragedy was defined simply because of the implication of her death. First and foremost, she was leaving behind her children. Her 9 year old daughter is just at the age where she can start to understand the concepts and finality of death and the fear of not having her mother in her life will consume her. The youngest only knows that he misses her and doesn't understand why she is not there, however his 4 year old brain is only capable of holding on to the memories of his mother for a brief time. Eventually, his mother will be come a collection of mere stories and anecdotes to him rather than memories. Secondly, in as much as the great aunt's death is more tolerable because she was in her 90s, Stephanie's death is that much more intolerable because she was in her 30s. She had a lot of life in her and a lot of living left to give her family, friends, herself and this world. Losing her at the age 33 was a travesty.

Game changing.

Under the single umbrella of death came three very different experiences - so differing that it is at times unrecognizable that we are talking about the same passage of life. It is representative of the unlimited paths a life can follow and stories that can be written. From birth to death, a life can be neither planned nor predicted and even seemingly similar experiences can differ drastically from neighbor to neighbor. Lives on similar paths will have varying details. The details of those lives will bring on varying experiences. And equally, those experiences will bring varying effects upon each individual who is touched by it.


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