On the strangeness of death

My BFF Becky is the best. And one of the (many) reasons that she’s the best is that she has this knack for saying really adorably dorky things that delight me beyond measure. Or, more accurately, she says things in an adorably dorky way which are actually goddamn truth bombs.

A few weeks ago, when she was at my place as we were getting ready  for a Christmas party we were headed to, out of nowhere, apropos of nothing, she said to me “you know, it’s really strange when people die,” to which, the words barley out of her mouth, we both burst into a fit of uncontainable laughter. Perhaps the hilarity of the moment is lost on the page here, or you would have to know Becky or understand our friendship and bond in order to appreciate how funny this statement was. Trust me, it was hilarious. She went on to explain, after we had collected ourselves, that what she meant was that, when you really think about it, when someone in your life dies, objectively, it’s a strange thing. One day they’re there, and the next, they’re just…not anymore. It’s a weird thing to wrap your head around. See? Truth bomb. Because, of course, your life goes on, as do the lives of everyone else in that person’s life. Just without them. We adjust, we cope and our lives take a slightly different shape without that person in them. But it goes on.

Death is the one thing that every single person on earth has in common. We are all going to die. There’s no way around it, there is no magical fountain of youth. Immorality isn’t real, and we will all die. I will die. One day. And for most of us, (thankfully, in my opinion) we have no idea when that day will come.

When a family member or loved one dies, we sort of know how to feel. Not that the feelings we feel aren’t authentic, I don’t mean that at all. What I mean is that culturally, there are staid truths and expected (and accepted) behaviours when we lose someone so close to us, so integral to our existence. What’s a little less clear, in terms of expected behaviour, is when someone in our lives dies who doesn’t fall into that succinct category of “loved one.” They are the people on the periphery of our lives; in our orbit, people we have or have had real relationships with, but whose emotional connection to us kind of defies definition.

Grief

When I found out that an ex-boyfriend of mine had died just over a year ago, it was a strange thing to comprehend and to process. Because when I say “boyfriend” that’s not really accurate. We dated off and on over the course of a few years. We spent time together, we shared intimacy (mostly of a physical nature, but some real emotional intimacy as well), but we weren’t really a part of each other’s lives, outside of each other; what we shared was private. So, when I found out that he had died suddenly, I had all kinds of feelings, sadness, shock and disbelief chief among them. But then I felt confused about what I was supposed to be feeling and how I should be acting. I spiraled into an emotional state where I was feeling great loss and heartache for this man with whom I had shared so much, but simultaneous guilt and self-consciousness for feeling so strongly about the death of a person who I hadn’t even spoken to in a year and half. In the end, I decided that whatever I was feeling was okay, because they were my feelings, and regardless of what our relationship was in life, in the end, he meant something to me, and so whatever my grief looked like, it was okay. But it took me a while to come to that.

This week, I learned of the death of a colleague. She was someone I have known for close to ten years, and someone with whom I worked very closely for four and a half of those years. She was someone I talked to every day, someone I laughed with, commiserated with, shared inside jokes with, sought advice from, and at times, gleaned tremendous comfort. She asked me thoughtful questions about my life and really listened to me when I was dealing with challenges, offering her perspective and most importantly, her support. Aside from the occasional team lunch, or holiday staff party though, she was someone I didn’t interact with outside of work. I didn’t really know much about her personal life, except that she loved her family fiercely, she was funny, (especially when she wasn’t trying to be), she had a pretty rad shoe collection and loved to give me dating advise. I also know that her smile would light up a room, she took things in stride and was deeply and widely loved around our office.

Colleagues take up an interesting space in our lives. They aren’t our family or loved ones, and in most cases, they aren’t what we would consider our “close friends,” but in a lot of ways, they are more a part of our everyday lives and routines and realities than our family and friends are. They see a side of us that others in our lives don’t necessarily get to, and if you’re lucky, they provide an emotional connection not found in other relationships.

Eventually, her desk will be cleaned out, its contents dispersed and purged and the personal effects sent to her family. Her role will be filled (or not) and work-life will, for all intents and purposes, go on. But, there will always be a hole where she left us.

That is the strangeness of death. One day a person is here, in your life, occupying a specific, and often important space, and the next, they’re gone. Just not there anymore. I think the important thing is to recognize that they meant something to us, to grieve in whatever way seems right to us individually, and carry their spirit with us.

Andrew, I think of you often, and when I experience those moments when, for a split second, I think I see you walking towards me on the sidewalk, or I randomly conjure in my mind’s eye a certain look you would give me when I would say something clever or cute, or I feel your phantom body (all 6’5″ of it) beside me in my bed when I’m in that semi-conscious, not quite asleep, not quite awake, dream-like state, I remember what you meant to me. And I smile.

Sharon, I will miss you, and as I try to get used to the strangeness of your absence, I’ll try to carry your spirit with me, and remember that you meant something to me. And that means something.

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