Sometimes a series of events seizes you, shakes you hard, bewilders you. You search for words to comfort those who have lost a loved one, but words sound hollow. Like a snake chasing its tail, your thoughts circle, with no resolution and little rest.
It started with a pet, a sweet, companionable, blue-eyed cat who was losing weight. No problem, I’ll intensify my efforts, take him back to the vet, try this, try that; I’ll nurse him back to health.
I know how to give TLC to a cat.
Instead, he continued to decline over weeks before my disbelieving eyes. On a Friday another trip to the vet reassured us that his blood work was okay, but over the weekend he spiraled downhill. By Monday we tearfully made the decision to end his struggle.
Helpless. I was sure I could mend him, but I was powerless to save him. Some would say he was just a cat, but when he looked into your face, there seemed to be a soul behind those eyes. I stroked him for the last time as the vet put the needle in Blue’s leg, and his big round blue eyes closed.
A friend of over 15 years, Jim, who sometimes picks up a day’s work with my husband, dug Blue’s grave while we took the kitty for his last trip to the doctor. Jim is empathetic that way, and was glad to help out.
Days later, Jim’s wife, Lillian, took her own life with a shotgun blast to her head. The scene was so awful that seasoned police officers cried. Lillian left behind children, grandchildren, and a shell-shocked husband.
Words come out of your mouth, but you know they are no comfort. Or pitifully inadequate comfort. But you say them anyway. Jim’s previous wife had died of cancer, and now this.
A few more days passed, and a neighbor, 36, went out alone on her paddleboard in the afternoon. Extremely physically fit, she somehow met with an accident. Sheriff’s deputies and another neighbor in his boat found her body floating in the creek hours later. She had drowned. A phys-ed teacher, she was a wife and a mother of two children under six-years of age.
A week passed, and a former student, Frank, who visits about once a year, stopped by to see me. He’d lost a lot of weight, and told me he had bad news. Oh, no, the cancer, I thought, knowing from his last visit that he’d had a biopsy. But the shocking news was that he had lost his wife of 35 years to a botched routine surgery at the end of June.
“It wasn’t supposed to happen like this,” he said. “I was supposed to go first. Why am I still here?”
We chatted for a while, and as we talked about religion and the possibility of life after death, Frank mentioned that he’d read Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, by Eben Alexander.
Strangely enough, I had also purchased that same title, but hadn’t worked up the courage to read it—I thought it would undoubtedly make me cry, thinking about my own lost loved ones, even if it gave me hope to think that a formerly disbelieving doctor had experienced death and returned convinced of an afterlife.
I did my best to comfort Frank—he’s a “no b.s.” kind of guy, so the normal platitudes were quickly dispensed with as we talked about death, and how a healthy woman can die with a careless slip of a surgeon’s blade for the simplest of procedures. Frank blames himself, too, for not listening when his wife said she didn’t like the doctor.
Frank has grown children and a couple of grandchildren who have rallied around and give him emotional support. I was impressed that he had come to school to tell me what had happened; it seemed to be a difficult mission he’d worked himself up to perform. Perhaps it was a station on his road of grief.
My heart ached for him in his sorrow, but after all the other recent deaths, I was also somewhat numb. My midlife wisdom, often a comfort, let me down. My efforts to understand why all these tragedies were happening to people in our circle were futile.
Intellectually I know that difficulties do converge at times, but it’s hard not to feel broken when so many are suffering in every direction. Just like when I was trying to nurse Blue back to health, I want to make it all better, to mend the broken friends, to mend myself. I used to have much more confidence that I could make it all better. Part of the lesson here seems to be that not even a smart, capable midlife lady with all the good will and determination a woman can muster, has the power to fix broken hearts. The owner of each heart must fix his or her own.
No one else can do the work.And it can be slow, hard, messy, lengthy work.