How would I live if I were exactly what’s needed to heal the world? Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen
“Are you still up?”
“I am. Wanna chat?”
Moments later, the phone rang. It was 8:43 pm on a foggy January night. Two hours later for her, I thought, as I answered the call.
Mary and I connected on Facebook, thanks to a professional baseball team roster full of mutual connections, most of them via LIVESTRONG. Her son David, like Jimmy, was diagnosed in his early teens with an aggressive form of cancer. Both born in 1992, they died a month apart in 2014, months shy of their 22nd birthdays. Jimmy of aggressive brain cancer and David of mental illness, brought on by the isolation and damaging effects of treatment.
With Dan out of town for work and Molly away at college, the house was quiet. I perched on one of our teak and black leather kitchen barstools and listened as David’s story poured out of Mary. For all the similarities, there were challenges and agonies she and David had faced that Jimmy and I didn’t experience. An early lesson in how poorly the categories of grief .. child loss, cancer loss .. capture the specifics and circumstances.
As Mary talked, my brain whirled. What could I say to ease her pain? How could I comfort her? I could think of anything that felt consoling or helpful. Only a few years into my own grief journey, I didn’t yet understand that there wasn’t anything I could have said that would have eased Mary’s pain or helped her heal, only platitudes that would have made things worse.
Trapped in silence by my own speechlessness, I took a deep breath and willed myself back into my body. Re-grounded myself in the chair and just listened.
I don’t remember a single thing I said that night. It’s possible I didn’t say much more than “I’m so sorry” over and over. I was too stuck in my head to learn much, still convinced that I should have some superpower to fix someone else’s pain. But I do remember noticing the way sharing Jimmy’s life and story with Mary lifted my spirits and seemed to do the same for her as she talked about David.
That call was one of my first glimpses into the gifts of grief. The way our deepest wounds allow us to connect with others who are also mourning, even if we don’t know them well or at all. The way the worst losses open our eyes to other people’s suffering and make it impossible to look away. The way they break us open and compel us to reach, as Cheryl Strayed says. The way we discover that we are the people we have been looking for.
My conversation with Mary also helped me realize all the ways I had been distancing myself from other people’s pain. To pretend that a life-altering loss can be fixed or mended is to fool yourself into thinking that yours can, too. To buy into our culture’s insidious message that you simply need to look for the bright side or focus on the post-traumatic growth that may or not be possible, as if that somehow makes the loss worthwhile. This mythology keeps us from facing the harsh truth that some losses do unrepairable damage to our lives. They happen in ways we can’t prevent, often for no discernible reason. Regardless of whether you believe in an afterlife or not, those shattering losses make life in the here and now unbearable.
At a time when so much of my life was a heart-wrenching blur, that late night phone call remains crystal clear in my memory. How honored I felt that Mary trusted me to hold her pain. Her belief that I could do it in the first place. Her vulnerability and honesty. How much it meant to sit with another mother who understood what it meant to lose a child.
It would another ten months before my friend Heather Jackson taught me that the universe does in fact give you more than you can handle. And that the best thing you can do for someone who has lost a loved one they can’t live without is to let the death matter instead of trying to soften or diminish it.
Life is as much awful as it is beautiful, and the worst can and will happen even to those who least deserve it. It’s an honor to sit at the jagged edge of someone’s pain. To witness how much they love the person who was taken from them. To hear the stories that conjure them back to life and watch them take shape like a Kodachrome ghost. Pulsing with light and color. Remembered. Beloved. Here.