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A child's death, the worst grief

My boy returned from school in a foul mood, all anger and impatience. He slammed doors, sassed back, wouldn't meet my gaze. I demanded an explanation.

''Bobby -- '' he finally blurted, and burst into tears.

I collapsed in the closest chair and buried my face in my hands. He didn't have to say more. I knew. A baseball pal, a classmate since elementary school, had lost his battle to cancer. He was 15.

Death is always but an arm's length away, isn't it?

For days, I remained perpetually close to tears. I talked to other parents whose children had shared teams or classrooms with Bobby, to kids who had gone on to high school while cancer had pilfered his childhood.

The reaction was always the same: that sucker-punch gasp, that raw intake of breath. But there was something else, something unspoken, something close to relief and apprehension: There but for the grace of God go I.

Despite a full load of work and start-of-school chores, or maybe because of all that, I have not stopped thinking of Bobby's parents, of the long, dark moments that await them. I try to remember them in better times. By the baseball field. At team parties. On the back-to-school circuit.

Life turns on a dime, doesn't it?

The viewing was a celebration of life to the extent that anything like that can ever be. Images of Bobby flashed on a screen. A table displayed his school awards. There was a flower arrangement in the colors of his beloved University of Miami Hurricanes.

But for those who had gotten to know him on the playground and in the lunchroom, the images of long- gone health and vigor were too much to bear. Some fled to the parking lot and, under a full moon and cloudless sky, they sobbed. It was the plaintive sound of growing up, of boys turning, in the most difficult way imaginable, into men. Boys who had shot up past their mothers, who now shaved in the morning, who had learned to hide emotions with a smirk and a swagger. Together and alone they were coming to terms with mortality.

''They don't think it can happen to somebody they know,'' a mother said.

But oh, how well they know now, don't they?

During services the following morning, the pastor reminded us that God's timing doesn't always coincide with our own. So we cried for the family, yes, for the awful timing, but I suspect we also wept for ourselves, for our children, for the loss of innocence and the recognition of the inevitable. It is impossible to live without befriending grief.

In the span of nine years, I was forced to bury a husband, a nephew, my mother, a sister and brother-in-law. Each death felt like a betrayal. For months, probably longer, words of comfort, however eloquent or heartfelt, rang hollow. Eventually, though, I made peace, I found solace, I learned to harbor the pain in a secret place.

But there are things that should not happen to me, to you, to anybody -- events that test our faith and our mettle. Surely the death of a child tops that list. I cannot fathom it.