Part of being human, of making friends and belonging to a community means we must occasionally do what we dread. We must face our fears and pretend that deep inside, where all hope dwells, we’re not a quivering mess.
I did that last week. And so did others just like me, simple people trying to forge a life and nurture a family as best we can.
I attended the funeral of a 25-year-old girl. In a large photograph of her beautiful face, I could not trace a wrinkle or a worry, not even regret. Her eyes, staring right into the camera, revealed nothing more than the eternal optimism of youth. A certainty that day would follow day would follow day, until who knows when. She never knew different. She never suspected. And maybe that’s the bit of good in this vastness of heartbreak.
Much can be said about her grieving parents, about her stunned younger sisters, about the friends and family who filled the neighborhood funeral home with the quiet qualms we bring to such events. But I will dare to be selfish here and write about something else instead.
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About the randomness of tragedy. The capriciousness of pain. The lack of control over what we hold dearest, over what we can’t always protect.
The most arbitrary of calamities, I think, is outliving your own child. It’s the surrender of all those hopes you cherished and the future you envisioned when you held her as a baby. It’s also an admission that the threat of loss is never far from our conscious thoughts.
I’ve always considered worry, both the mild and virulent strains, as part of the job of mothering — and it doesn’t matter how old my kids get or how successful they become. I nag about exercise, nutritional choices, work hours, the children they now have. But anxiety has its limits. If I worried about them dying, I wouldn’t be able to function.
We have a name for those who lose a spouse. Widow, widower. And for those without a parent. Orphan. The sorrow that accompanies these losses borders on misery, true, yet for a measure of comfort we can at least put a name to the absence forced upon us.
But what do you call a parent who buries a child? There is no name, no label and, worse, no explanation — only that lingering feeling of utter disbelief. It’s unnatural, unimaginable, surely the most difficult act a parent will ever be asked to endure.
For those who witness the anguish of friends, our empathy is accompanied by unease: the realization that this horror can happen to us, to anyone.
About seven years ago, my youngest son’s friend died of cancer. The boy was 15, a sweet kid. Though not unexpected, the death was still shocking. An affront, really. Not that death is ever kind but it seems a particularly violent violation when it steals the young, when it upsets the order we take for granted.
I often think of those parents and their two daughters, who drew strength from their faith. Do they mark time in a special way? 2010, the year he would’ve applied to college. 2015, the year he would’ve graduated. 2020, the year he might’ve married.
Experience tells me people manage to survive even the most devastating loss. But it doesn’t stop me from asking: Why? Why? Whywhywhywhy?
Follow Ana on Twitter @AnaVeciana.