I wish I could press reverse on my life’s video recorder and help my now deceased mother with her complicated grief.
I don’t know. It’s been almost four months since my mom died. And this week, another gut punch via telephone. This time it was news that my wife’s former campus pastor who through three decades of friendship became a second, spiritual father of sorts to her, had died.
We are especially fortunate to have a foundation of friendship at times like this. After listening to and empathizing with my wife, she asked how I was adjusting to my mom’s death.
I told her I’m failing miserably at striking any kind of balance because it seems like I can either regularly stop and think about the permanence of my loss and be overcome with sadness or succumb to avoidance by filling my day with activities that distract me from thinking about her passing almost entirely. There has to be a large middle ground, I just haven’t found it.
Meanwhile, last Wednesday night I was sitting alone at an outside table at Vic’s Pizza while my wife went to the bathroom and gathered silverware and napkins. A three year-old boy at the table right next to me sized me up and then pointed right at me and said to his mom, “Does he have a mommy?” “Don’t point,” she curtly replied. When my wife joined me a few minutes later, he said to his mom, “He does have a mommy.”
Carol Byrnes and JSwanson would’ve laughed heartily at that and I love the image of them laughing together even though they didn’t know each other.
Besides a lighthearted story, I have one grief-related insight to share. More accurately, I have one end-of-life-related insight from Richard Rohr’s book Falling Upward: a Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. “Death,” Rohr writes, “is largely a threat to those who have not yet lived their life.”
Carol Byrnes and JSwanson lived full lives. May you and I do the same.
Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, with its discussion of Stoicism, has me thinking about the Newtown parents. Burkeman and the heartbreaking portraits of the dead first graders. With their beautiful, innocent smiles, and future promise.
It’s difficult to imagine anything more difficult to overcome than a parent having to bury their six or seven year old child. Friends of ours watched helplessly for a year as their eight year old son died from leukemia. I tried to empathize, but probably failed to scratch the surface of their heartbreak.
The Newtown parents didn’t have any reason to take a little extra time the fateful morning of the shooting to be especially present and loving. One wonders, how will they survive the shooting? Right now, their sadness is bound to overwhelm ancient Greek wisdom and everyone’s best intentions. The best way to support them is to respect their privacy and make sure our representatives enact meaningful gun control.
But what if we shift things a bit to think about Stoicism and our lives, and the people we’re closest too, and their eventual deaths. And the essential dilemma of human intimacy—the closer and more meaningful the friendship, the greater one’s vulnerability, the greater one’s vulnerability, the more intense the pain upon death.
There is a way to minimize the probability of intense grief, keep friendships superficial. But who wants to compromise the quality of their life that way? So what are we to do? Being intimate and dependent upon others doesn’t mean we’re doomed to debilitating sadness upon each of our close friends’ or family members’ deaths.
The ancient Greeks wrote about the impermanence of everything and encouraged people to reflect on the worst things that could happen to them. The result being greater appreciation for their material well-being, their health, their work, and their family and friends. Taking time to think about worse case scenarios, or negative visualization, also mentally prepares one for inevitable changes in life, including especially sad ones such as the death of a loved one.
The ancient Greeks also emphasized living in the present, an “easier said than done” cliche if not developed more fully. Think about how different birthday celebrations might be if everyone committed to living more in the present. Instead of giving the birthday person gifts (kind of an odd practice if you think about it, “Hey congrats on being born!”), and asking him or her to make a wish for the upcoming year, the party would be a celebration of the previous year. The message being that life is fragile and isn’t it wonderful that we had another year to enjoy the birthday boy’s or girl’s friendship. Each person could reflect on the birthday person’s previous year and share what has been most memorable and what they most appreciate about them. And yes, of course we can keep the cake and ice cream.
My dad died suddenly at age 69. I was 33. I was devastated in part because it wasn’t until my mid 20’s that we started to understand and appreciate one another. I thought we had the luxury of time for our friendship to flourish. But shortly afterwards, I started to think like a Stoic before knowing anything about Stoicism. I realized I could be upset that our friendship didn’t get to mature or I could be thankful that we enjoyed a positive and more personal 5-10 years. I’ve chosen the later. And that decision informs the way I try to live. I want to love boldly, fully appreciate my friends and family, and celebrate each passing year as an undeserved gift.
My hope is that with the passing of time the Newtown parents can make a similar switch from understandable anger at the time they won’t get to spend with their sons and daughters to appreciating the six or seven years they did get with them.
That math and psychology will be tough. Godspeed Newtown parents.