When someone we love dies, it hurts. Period.
So what are we to do with that pain? Do we become bitter? Afraid to love again? Do we close ourselves off from life? Do we stop loving the people closest to us?
I have known people who have been hurt by life again and again, with everything most dearly loved taken away from them, who keep coming back, each time more alive than ever. More loving. More caring. More compassionate.
I have also seen people who have been hurt through the untimely death of someone very close – a child, a mate – who become bitter, hostile, and uncaring of others. They treat the people closest to them as though those who are alive mean less than those who are dead. They seem to have jumped into the grave or scattered themselves with the ashes. This is especially sad when a child has died and the parent becomes so focused on the dead child that they seem to forget to love the children who are still alive. It is as though the pain of the child’s death becomes more important than the reality that this child ever lived and brought them joy.
When Bill Cosby’s son, Ennis, was tragically killed, I heard Rev. Jesse Jackson talking about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s father. Jackson related that King, Sr., said when Martin died, he was so busy being sad about Martin’s death that he stopped paying attention to everyone else in his family. Cherished family members continued to die. Each time his pain would cause him to close off to those who were still alive, until finally, one day it dawned on him that he better start paying attention to people who were there before they, too, were gone.
In 1997, I had the privilege of hearing a speech given by Yvonne Ameche, wife of pro-football player and Heisman Trophy winner, Alan Ameche. After their son was killed suddenly in a car accident, she was so bereft and in pain that she basically stopped living and only went through the motions. One night, a few years after her son’s death, Alan gave her flowers and took her to a beautiful restaurant to celebrate their anniversary. All she could do was sit listlessly lost in her sadness. Finally, Alan said, “Is there a time when I will ever be enough for you again?” Yvonne told us that had she known Alan would be dead within six months, she would have paid more attention to him.
After the death of many people I loved – my father when I was 12, many close relatives, close friends, an unborn child, and a beloved stepson – I finally came to realize that the best thing I could do to honor their lives was to live mine better. As a child, I believed that staying sad forever was the best way to show I cared. Now I know that living better is the highest and best tribute I can pay to those I have loved. They don’t have the privilege of being alive, but I do. And I can take the love we shared, incorporate it into my life and heart, and reach out to others with compassion.
It doesn’t take the pain away, but I feel better knowing that I have not wasted their lives by forgetting to live mine.
©Virginia A. Simpson, Ph.D., 1999