“Death doesn’t break the connection to someone you love; the believer’s mind does.”
My downstairs neighbor’s son died a while ago. I immediately went just to hug her and see if I could do anything. Then I took her a couple of sweets from the bakery, Viennese pastry, and a container of vegetable soup I had made. Sorrow wants for sugar and something warm and comforting like soup.
I did not know her son, had never met him. At that time I had lived here for 6 years and I had seen her daughter every year, but never her son. My neighbor doesn’t go away very much either, so I don’t think she visited often. I don’t know if they spoke by phone. Another neighbor who is also her friend told me that she didn’t speak to her other son at all, or perhaps that he doesn’t speak to her: they had a falling out.
After taking her soup for two days, I gave it a rest. Then, a few days later, on coming back from my walk with Salomé, I decided to stop by and see how she was doing. She looked worse than a week before, when the news was fresh. I could see the suffering was weighing her down. Gently I suggested it might be good to start doing something, begin getting back to her routine. “After all,” I said, “it isn’t as if you saw him every day.”
She shook her head: “It is not even his death,” she said, “but the fact that it could have been avoided if they had done what they should have done; it was negligence; that is what keeps running over and over through my head.”
I couldn’t say what jumped to the tip of my tongue (“Is that true? They could have done it differently, is that true?”), but instead I mumbled some platitude like ‘Maybe he would have suffered more if he hadn’t died,’ that she fortunately ignored. But I could see how her mind had reached out, instinctively, for anger as a defense against the pain of loss, and how it was precisely that anger that, ironically, kept her going back over and over again to what she considered his ‘unnecessary’ death. Her mind killed him over and over again, as it contemplated the possibility that he might not have died if he had received the adequate treatment. It was a catch 22.
That same evening, when I came home I read the above quote from Byron Katie. How true: our loved ones only die once, and then we kill them over and over again in our minds. If we believe that death separates them from us, we will push them away when their memory comes, remembering the only thing we keep of them: their death. We won’t let them ever live again, shutting ourselves down to their visits and to the love we could still keep feeling for them until the day we join them. As we believe that their death is painful, when the thought of them comes, instead of feeling the love we always felt when we thought of them, we feel the pain of their supposed separation, and we push them away.
So far the deaths I have lived through have been the normal ones we all face: grandparents, parents; never a child or grandchild. When my husband of 30 years died, we had already been separated for 20. When I received the message from my daughter with the news I was at a retreat in California. I read the words, simple words: My father died today, it said, and a strange thing began to happen. A weird and horrifying howl emerged from deep inside, from somewhere below my stomach, down in the abdomen and came out of my mouth. My eyes weren’t crying, there was no pain in my heart, no conscious sorrow, but it was as if an animal were trying to escape from within emitting the most horrid sounds. My two roommates come over immediately, but I gestured to them that I was all right, not to worry, and continued to produce the inhuman wails that had nothing to do with me and that were like nothing I had ever experienced before.
After about ten minutes, the animal inside me quieted down and I began to breathe normally again. I thanked my roommates for their patience and understanding, and simply said that what had come out didn’t seem to have much to do with me. The following day I was very quiet, filled with love as if the presence of the father of my children were there with me. I didn’t feel sad; I felt no need to cry. I was grateful for what we had shared and grateful that he had been released from the cancer that was claiming his body. He was closer to me in that moment than in any previous moment since our divorce. What the animal inside was and why it had to bring out all those strange sounds, even today I have no idea.
I don’t often get visits from my ex-husband or my grandmother or even my father, but my mother, who died in 2007, is with me constantly and I love her so much and am so grateful for her company.
At the time when my neighbor lost her son, I remember wishing there were something more I could do, and finding nothing else I simply continued to take her sweets and soup until she began to heal in her own way.