Of love and loss

In recent months, I've been helping to support my good friend Jennette through the end of life process, as she watched her father Jim transition to his next life after a lengthy battle with heart disease and cancer.

It's been a tough road for Jennette who lost her husband Roger just two years ago, also in the month of May. She's also battled oral cancer, and has had to live with disfigurement to her face, and mouth.

She's a tough cookie, our Jennette. She faced down the doctors who wanted her to have radiation which would have meant further disfigurement and the loss of her entire set of teeth. They wanted to do radiation to be absolutely sure the cancer would not return but, as they say, the cure would have been worse than the cancer, so she passed on it.

Jennette and I have been friends for more than 30 years. She and Roger helped me through the debilitating loss of both my own mother, and my marriage. I lost both within a year and it nearly killed me.

Like Jennette, I lost the two loves of my life in a short period of time. Like Jennette, I felt helpless and alone, with people telling me to buck up, get over it, get on with life. Sure, life is hard, people said, but you have so much going for you -- three kids, a fantastic career, money.

But I was literally disintegrating from within. I lost 30 pounds in two weeks and I was thrown into a period of madness, living in a rabbit hole from which there seemed no escape.

This all came back to me the other night when I was talking to Jennette, after Jim's funeral. It's a time of life I know well, when all the cards and wishes have been filed, as all the fresh flowers begin to die, after all the canapes have been eaten.

In the end, in the moments after a loss, you believe you are truly alone in the world. It is, I believe, not unlike the dying process. In the end, we die alone. Bereavement is just the other side of the death coin.

I should have been sympathetic to Jennette, but instead, I got angry, really angry. I found myself actually yelling at her when she told me that she was sitting amidst the funeral flowers and pictures of her Dad.

"He's gone, God damn it," I shouted. "He's not coming back!"

What a terrible friend I was in that moment, and I startled myself with my own rage.

But then I realized that I wasn't talking to Jennette, I was yelling at myself.

It's been 20 odd years since my mother passed and my husband left, and I'm still not over it, and I don't think I'll ever get over it.

Every time I'm thrown into a loss experience, it opens the wound like the cut I once got on my eyeball that has never quite healed. There is scar tissue there, and occasionally the wound reopens.

It's that way for Jennette, too. And for all of us.

What I should have said -- okay I'm a better writer than a talker -- is that experiencing loss is a gift of sorts. It reminds us that we are alive, and that we need to keep living for our children, for our friends and for ourselves.

As we stand in the presence of loss, we are reminded that we are loved and cherished by others, and that we need to keep up those connections if we are to have a full life. At the moment of loss, we see who our real friends are, and we see, in stark contrast, the ones who are not our friends -- but who are merely there for the free food and flowers. We see the posers for who they really are.

And at the moment of loss, we feel weak, fragile, unlike ourselves.

Loss presents one of life's great challenges. We can buckle under, or we can rise above it, stare it down.

Bereavement is not for sissies.

No one chooses the path we travel but us.

I should have said that to her the other night. Okay, I'm saying it now.


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