It's been quiet around here this week. And by here I mean my mind. The deaths of two children of people I know and have had significant relationships with has quieted me. And that's an odd thing. People die every day. People of every age from infant to ancient and most of the time it doesn't touch us personally. We watch the news and are overwhelmed by tragedy, but we can turn that off--turn off the TV, the radio, the computer. Those deaths don't touch, don't have the power to penetrate very deeply.
But now and then someone dies that does change things. A little girl gets into the car with her mother to drive home from Daycare and never reaches her front door. A boy helps pack his family's van to drive over the border and through the mountains to grandparents' house, and a freak wind on the freeway causes a series of events that ends his life. And suddenly for those families, it doesn't matter that earthquakes have taken thousands of lives in one fell swoop across the world, or that the news covers such things every single day. This is different. This is the life that counts. This life leaves a hole in the middle of my family, and that makes all the difference.
This is true for all of us, of course. It's the single lives of those we lose that change the world. Even when the lost lives come several at a time, we don't miss them in plural. If an earthquake takes my husband and children, the loss isn't one but multiplies by four. At least.
And I don't always get all this. I'm pretty caught up in living. I think we all are. And in this country we aren't very good at allowing people to grieve and hurt as long as it takes. It's like we think there's an expiration date on grieving our best beloveds. But there isn't. When Beve's mother died, Grampie seemed to move on very quickly. This was troubling to Beve and his siblings. And to me, I admit. I remember sitting in the back bedroom at Grampie's house, crying with Glo and another sister-in-law because we couldn't believe he'd moved on so quickly, was already planning to remarry. Grampie made the mistake of sticking his head in that afternoon, and Glo just about bit his head off. Grampie high-tailed it out of there very fast and we didn't see him again until dinner. A week later, Beve and I invited him over and asked him some very pointed questions. And Grampie told us he'd been grieving the whole last year of Grammie's life. That whole cancer-filled, bed and couch-laying year, when she lost weight, lost energy, lost the heart-of-the-home quality we'd all counted on all her life. Of course, Beve and I thought. He'd been living with her, caring for her, watching her die for a year. Losing her by inches while her children were still begging for her to get better, stop taking those pain meds, because after all she might get addicted (like that was the most important thing, when she was dying). Yes, her children were refusing to see what Grampie'd had to see, so when she died, he was ready. He'd let go, he'd said his slow goodbye.
And that's what we all need, the chance to say our slow goodbyes. If not before, certainly after someone dies. No matter how long it takes. No matter what it takes. I remember thinking that my grieving for my dad was, in a way, the relationship I had with him then--me alive, him dead--me learning to live with the difference. And growing into a new kind of relationship always, always takes time.
This is what I've been thinking about for my two sets of friends who are facing loss right now. For me, it's removed, for them, it's up-close and personal. As I read on one of the sympathy cards we got after Dad's death, and it's still my favorite phrase about such a season, they are learning to "live in the presence of their absence."
Such living is sacred work. Absolutely sacred work. If it's sacred for a person to come into this world, it is no less when they leave. And no less to live without them. Done with God, done with an eye toward God. Even if that doing with and toward is sometimes with screams and anger. And fear and trembling. And sometimes hysterical laughter. Yes, the hard, sacred work of learning to live in the presence of the absence of loved ones. The hardest work we ever have to do.