Is there a Right Way to Handle Death and Loss?
It could have only been death
It was a Friday afternoon in mid-November. The sunlight had already dipped beneath the clouds giving way to a vaporous curtain of darkness — a winter’s night that begins before 5:00 p.m.
I was racing against the clock. My guests would be arriving in three hours and I had nothing prepared, only bookmarked recipes and a shopping list scribbled on the back of a torn envelope. As I hurried home clutching unwieldy bags of produce and wine, I mentally rehearsed the next few hours of prep. I’d start by plating all the vegetables, spooning the eggplant caviar and tapenade into small bowls and dressing the table before moving onto the brown butter financiers and pumpkin dip that required at least 45 minutes.
So lost in this plan, which I repeated to feel less anxious about playing host to new friends for the first time, I walked a block past my street. Toddlers raced by me as I whipped around to return home, their mothers bellowing for them to wait before crossing. “Attendez-nous les enfants!” The cacophony of cars at the start of rush hour along with the “it’s the weekend” cries of joy jostled me out of my orchestrated fog. I needed to get home immediately to start.
I reached my building, punched in the code and pushed open the wooden door with my elbow after I heard the click to release. I shifted my weight for a tighter grasp on my shopping bags and felt sweat bubble on my chin from racing about.
As the door slammed shut behind me, I fumbled for my keys to retrieve the mail and raised my gaze ahead once I felt them slide between my fingers.
My eyes landed on the sweet, fifty-something Portuguese woman who cleans the building and takes out the trash bins for the Friday night collect. She lives nearby, about a block away, with her husband and two teenage children who occasionally drop by to give her a hand. She’s smartly dressed and kind, railing only against ill-mannered tenants who leave their trash bags outside their door expecting her to dispose of them like their personal maid.
Though always eager to chat when I pass through the foyer, she has the subdued tone of someone evidently bred on discretion; her voice never rises above a sharp whisper.
On this day, however, the tidings she conveyed were of the dark variety that sent my stomach into knots the moment I saw her. Her body was inert and her shoulders slumped uncomfortably. She gripped the broom in her right hand, as the ritual required, and propped her other arm against the block of mailboxes for support. Her head hung low and her eyes were almost gelatinous, as if she had been weeping for hours.
Seized by a cold dread, I nervously asked if everything was all right. My initial thought was that someone in the building had been in an accident or died (there are several elderly tenants teetering on the edge) and she had the misfortune of witnessing the incident. But the words that escaped her revealed a much more personal anguish.
Her mother had died suddenly, she whispered. In one swift swoop, the foyer seemed to shrink to the size of a bathroom stall. I edged forward to hear the rest.
“I just got back to Paris. It’s jut not fair. It’s just not right”
No matter our beliefs, faith or knowledge of life and death, we all tend to pass loss through a prism of fair vs. unfair. I’ve always found this fascinating as it seems like a poor attempt at reason and self-healing. The fact is, one can’t be held to keeping their equanimity when faced with death. The rulebook becomes obsolete. Fairness is the only way to make sense of what is insupportable misfortune.
She spoke in disjointed phrases about her father, who had suffered more than one stroke in the last several years. If anyone was to go, she whimpered, everyone in the family accepted that it would likely be him. But never her mother. She was too young (I never learned how old) and in good health.
“Was it an accident?”
I asked cautiously, the only cogent thing I could think to ask and unsure of how she would react to probing. She nodded but offered little else. Her eyes remained fixed on the floor, as if inspecting the tiles for smudges and grime to wipe away but without the energy to move through the motions.
It was an impossibly dramatic moment, not unlike scenes in films that leave us feeling empathetic if uneasy. I waited for the moment when she’d break the silence, wipe away her tears and press on with a “thank you for your concern, I’ll be fine.” But that’s what social conventions expect of us, even at our nadir. She’s not fine. Not two weeks after this encounter, nor in the months that followed.
In that moment, she was a helpless child peering up at me, mining for answers I couldn’t offer. I rubbed her shoulder, which seemed to ease the awkwardness hovering over us, and insisted she forget about the cleaning and head home to be with her family. They needed to be together.
This fifty-year-old woman with round chocolate eyes maintained a solemn stare, hollering silently for her mother and radiating a dull ache that seeped right into my chest. I didn’t know whether to cry, stare or run. I was a powerless spectator of pain and acutely aware of the death knell that would someday ring on my own door and pry open my heart just the same.
Even today, I wonder how long she had been frozen in that position, waiting to tell her story in vague fragments. Her suffering was a reminder of how tenuous life is, to be sure, but also how ill-prepared I feel to experience loss. The rare moments I allow my mind to drift toward death, to concentrating my imagination on what it must feel like as both the person dying and as the person left behind, I halt midway in a state of breathless panic. A series of reflections follows — don’t be scared, just be grateful for the moments you have with the people in your life. Seize opportunities now because you never know! Be kinder to everyone because, well, you never know.
And that state of mind lingers for an hour, maybe half a day, before I organically slip back into frivolous worry about life, career and that thing I can barely recall that my best friend said but really burned me up. The trivial finds its way back to untidy all these newfound life priorities and detach us from our fleeting, uncomfortable grasp on mortality.
Since this encounter, I have crossed paths with her only once. Locking up my fifth-floor apartment one morning, I could hear rustling in the foyer immediately followed by the sound of water draining from a mop reverberating through the courtyard. Unable to bear the agonizing status update I knew would follow, I snatched my phone from my purse and barreled down the first few flights of stairs with an audible tramp. By the second floor, I pretended to be on the phone. “Oui c’est ça,” I continued as I arrived on the ground floor. As she looked at me with a half-smile, I mouthed “ça va?” and offered my own warm smile — it was genuine.
This experience should have motivated me to extend myself — send her flowers or a note to convey my sympathies. Instead I was squirrelly and deliberately avoided her. These reactions bear examination.
Our capacity for digesting and deciphering the unknown has limitations; limitations that are undoubtedly in place so that we can make the most of our time alive. And so when confronted with unwanted reminders of our own impermanence, we run and run afoul of the kind and polite ways to handle the strife of others. Confronting death and loss head on isn’t only marginally inconvenient or uncomfortable. It shines a garish light on dwindling time, on our fears of what happens or doesn’t happen at the end and on our collective pursuit to be remembered. But will courting death help us reach acceptance?