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The Detritus of Death

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A friend died of cancer a few weeks ago.

That, of course, in itself is unsettling, heartbreaking, emotional. But I knew almost immediately that it wasn't just his death that swallowed me instantly into a fog, made me want to curl up in a ball, flung me into the dark depths.

Recognition does not mean realization though. After all, recognition is sometimes no more than a nod of the head, a spark in the eye, a distant wave. It can be slight, tiny, barely perceptible and in no way related to or even hinting at realization.

Realization is a different animal entirely. Realization is understanding. Realization is comprehending. Realization is knowing. Realization is hard -- it can be one of the most difficult things in life. Especially when it comes to death.

Realization is having to come to terms with the fact that someone you love is gone. Poof. You can't talk to them again, write them, text them. You can't hold their hand, hug them. You can't share an event, a time, a moment with them. The sun will rise and set, beauty will dawn, darkness will fall, life will continue... And you won't be able to share any of this with them again.

I thought of this fact -- stark, unrelenting, harsh -- as I watched the news of the Navy Yard shooting, and processed that too many people had just lost ones that they loved, senselessly, sadly, horribly. But of course, isn't all death that way when it comes down to it? That no matter what, death is a realization of loss.

But realization is not final: Call it a process, a dawning, a path. It is not complete. It is never finished. Especially when it come to death.

When I heard that morning about my friend's death, the impact was profound, shattering, devastating. Yet something felt off, deeper, stronger, darker. It took me the entire day to finally put my finger on it: It was a few days before the anniversary of my mother's death.


I used to think that because I was blessed enough to have my mother for most of my life, and that she was blessed enough to live a full life, that her death would not be that hard -- would not really be that big of a deal. That once I got through the first initial moments, days, weeks, months, year -- it would get better.

And it does. To a certain extent. Grief and mourning are definitely a process, a dawning, a path. Each moment, day, week, month, year -- it does get a bit better. A bit less acute. A bit less intense. A bit.

Yet realization is also a process. And as those moments, days, weeks, months, years pass, the realization gets more acute, more intense. That knowledge -- profound, shattering, devastating -- that this person you loved is gone. This person who played a role in your life, no matter what that role was, has stepped off stage. Stage right, lights dim, curtain falls.

But it is not intermission.

And therein lies the rub.

It is the one lesson I can (humbly) offer those facing loss now: The grief and mourning over the actual death lessen. The pain of human loss lessens, becomes a bit less sharp; the ache lessens, becomes a bit less choking. But the realization of the entirety of the loss only increases. It is no longer about the person themselves -- it is about the events, the moments, that they are missing. That you cannot share with them.

It is about the lack of their presence in every moment of your life going forward.

Even the most joyous of moments are tinged irrevocably. A smear of grey, a whiff of sorrow, a shadow of despair. A brief sense of loss, of something -- someone -- missing. Of incompleteness.

My father once explained love in the sense that looking at a sunset is made more beautiful by sharing it with someone else, being able to discuss it right then, as well as later -- so that the sunset lives on in your minds, and you can share it again and again. Shared experiences; shared memory. One plus one does not equal two. It equals two squared. And removing one from the equation creates zero.

Death is not as simple as a curtain falling, a door closing, a book coming to its end. It is not as simple as turning the page, locking the door, exiting the stage. It is simply not simple. It is complicated and difficult and demanding. It does not go gently into that good night. Perhaps for the dying, but for the living, it is not sweet, nor brings blessed rest. Death is ongoing and never-ending. The body may no longer be present, but the absence of that body is always present.

I always thought death was a "yes" or "no" question. I have realized it is a "present" or "not present" question.

And the "not present" is unsettling, heartbreaking, emotional. It is profound, shattering, devastating. It is incredibly present in its absence. People talk about the sound of silence, but the silence of absence is overwhelming. The absence is overwhelming. It fills, sifting into the cracks and crevices. The loose material that is the direct result of disintegration. The pieces, small and large, that are left behind when something breaks, falls apart, is destroyed, is gone.

The detritus of death. Which is never absent. Which is always present.

Hello detritus, my old friend...