Spring is a time for renewal, yet the headlines for the past few weeks have been filled with the news of death and dying. As politicians wrestled over the fate of Terri Schiavo, and the world mourned the passing of Pope John Paul II, my own small circle of acquaintances experienced sadness, confusion and loss.
Two weeks ago I received news that my friend Elaine’s son, Brad, had died in his sleep. A husband and father of two small toddlers, his death was an unexpected shock to all who knew him. Vibrant and happy, he’d been in a minor car accident in February and subsequently experienced dizziness and mild head pain. But an otherwise healthy 35-year-old man thinks, as most of us do, that he’s invincible. He’d just completed his MBA, and he’d moved with his young family to a new city to start a new job. One evening he went to bed early, complaining of a headache. The next day he was dead.
A week later I learned that my friend Karen’s sister had died in an avalanche in the Eastern Sierra. An extreme skier and kayaker, (she’d paddled Siberia’s north coast as well as Baffin Island and Ellesmere), 57-year-old Christina Seashore was the victim of a massive slide on the slopes of Mt. Tom. Karen and Christina were closer than twins. Only a year apart in age, they had lived, worked, traveled and played together. Kayaking, knitting, games of Royalty and Scrabble—they were constantly busy, always gabbing, continually laughing.
Strolling along 51st Street and Telegraph Avenue last Tuesday, I ran into my friend Panzy, who sits most weekday mornings on the hard, cold cement wall in front of Walgreens, handing out The Watchtower and other literature for the Jehovah Witnesses. Panzy and her husband of 45 years, Nevil, have been stationed on that corner for over ten years, but on Tuesday, Nevil wasn’t there. Panzy told me he’d passed on. “Six months of hospice,” she said softly. “In the end he suffered greatly, but the people from the hospice were there for him, and they are still there for me. They’ll be stopping by the house sometime this afternoon to check in and chat. They’re a wonderful help.”
How do we comfort those who are left behind? What do we say and do for friends who experience a death or tragic accident?
Although I’d sent them both cards, I knew I had to call Elaine and Karen. But what was I going to say and how was I going to say it? I thought back to 11 years ago, when my husband Ralph had a near fatal accident. We were comforted by friends and acquaintances with cards, letters, and phone calls; visits to the hospital and rehab, deliveries of meals and groceries, and most importantly, follow-up calls and visits six month, ten months, eight years later.
What didn’t help were the clichés and unwanted advice. Comments such as “It must be God’s will,” “At least he was doing something he loved,” and “What goes around comes around,” were not comforting. Stories about the callers own trials and tribulations weren’t often appreciated even though they were said with the best of intentions. I thought about this as I dialed Elaine’s and Karen’s phone numbers, half hoping they wouldn’t be home and that I could leave messages on their answering machines. But both picked up on the first ring, and just the sound of their voices made me realize I’d done the right thing. I didn’t have to say much. They spoke of their grief and pain, anger and frustrations. I was a sounding board and silent therapist.
Last Tuesday Panzy and I held hands and sat quietly in front of Walgreens. The number 40 bus roared by, shoppers came and went, a jetliner circled overhead. Even though our butts were cold, the sun shone brightly, reminding us that it was spring and that life goes on.ª