I went to a funeral today. Not just any funeral; I knew the departed. I worked with her and her husband. She was young. Not a lot older than I am.
This came on the heels of attending a conference on Hospice and Palliative Care last week, at which I heard a mother speak of the journey she and her family have travelled before and since the death of their young daughter, who I remember from my time in oncology nursing.
It has been a fairly unsettling few days.
One of the keynote speakers at the conference was an applied philsopher (who knew there was such a thing?) named Tom Attig, who spoke so eloquently of breathing through the pain of grief and learning to love in separation, to love in a world that will never be the same.
I’ve thought hard about his words over the last few days. They have sparked the desire to write again. I’m trying to capitalize on the motivation.
Back to this funeral today. It was sad, of course. Funerals are always sad. It was a struggle not to cry, but I worked at it, mostly because the sadness for me, a relative stranger who barely knew this woman, couldn’t approach even a fraction of the pain her family must be feeling. To cry for her somehow seemed disrespectful to those who looked simply lost without her. Even though I never saw her together with her husband and children, when they turned to leave the church sanctuary, there was something… absent. It was her.
I often feel what seems disproportionately sad about death. The tears come far more easily than they somehow should for people whose absence will not affect my day to day life in the way it will affect their loved ones. My body wants to cry when somehow it seems almost hyperbolic.
If I’m honest, I must admit that always in the back of my mind is the idea that there but for the grace of Someone go I… Maybe I feel others’ pain because I realize that it could be me breathing through that grief. That someday, it will be me. Or it will be my family grieving my loss. It doesn’t matter. Whichever way you look at it, it’s just. so. sad.
Tom Attig talked about loving in separation, a concept which I can’t imagine having to try and practice. Actively engaging with the pain of loss to get to a point where you can enjoy positive memories sounds like impossible work that comes at exactly the time when work is the hardest. How do you not feel like an incision is ripped open every time you go to tell that person something, only to remember that it is impossible? I’m crying just writing this, and it’s all in the abstract. Pretty sure I will need serious therapy when it actually happens in my life (and it will).
Yet I keep torturing myself. I follow the blog of a woman whose four year old son died of cancer (the same kind that also took the young patient I mentioned above, incidentally). She’s an excellent writer, and her blog is an almost voyeuristic portrait of grief, so much that I have felt at times like I was there in her home, with her family-minus-one.
I think this odd preoccupation means I am supposed to write about loss and grief. I wonder what would happen if I just let myself cry? I don’t think I ever have just opened up the floodgates. I can’t even imagine finding a way past that pain to the good memories, to loving in separation, but maybe crying is the answer. How can you do anything else? How else can you get up and carry on?
And maybe not. Maybe time is the answer. Maybe just breathing, putting one foot in front of the other and finding new rhythms, repairing the broken webs of relating and carrying on in separation is all you can do.
In any case, my thoughts tonight are with the family of that work colleague. She is buried, the attention is past, and now they are together, alone, learning to put one foot in front of the other again in a world that will never be the same. I am thinking about them tonight.