When did you realize that it can happen to you?
Bad things do happen to good people. All the time. But until it happens to you, it’s not a very real or pressing possibility.
Most people start off life thinking that nothing bad can happen to them or their families. It’s not conscious thought, usually. We realize something could happen, but in our day-to-day lives we operate on the belief that terrible, unexpected things happen to other people. Those other people are not us. We feel terrible for those other people and try to help however we can, but we don’t expect to find ourselves in their shoes.
Sadly, for many of us, there comes a time when we experience a tragedy that teaches us that it can, in fact, happen to us. The unexpected death of a loved one, either by illness, accident, or act of violence, changes our world forever to a place where anything could happen at any time. We become morbid, both in our fears but also in our humour.
Others in our shoes understand this morbidity. They understand why it’s okay to joke about death like this; because we’ve been through the dark fog of grief and we know how absolutely crucial it is to laugh in the face of death or risk slipping under the surface at any time. People who have never lived through a family tragedy might find our attitude toward death unnerving, unhealthy or disturbing. We generally learn who gets our dark jokes and who shoots us a worried glance when we make one.
This doesn’t necessarily translate into a life of worry and fear, although it does for some. For the rest of us, it simply means knowing that death can come suddenly, unexpectedly, and being prepared for our loved ones to die at almost any moment or thinking often about our own potentially impending death. For many of us, this comes with a strange peace, knowing that every day is precious.
There is a strange, uncomfortable feeling of kinship when we learn of someone else’s loss, whether it’s someone we know or something we see on the news; specifically if the incident is similar to how we lost our own loved one. When I pass a car accident or hear about a serious accident on the news, I immediately think of the family. Deaths in vehicles are so common, I’m sure most of us knew someone who died in a car accident. My sister ran a yield sign when she was 19, was struck by a car and died instantly.
When we hear someone has died suddenly, we know that their family is passing into the world where we’ve been living for so long. We regret not only their death, but that the surviving loved ones are joining us here in this place.
We are familiar with grief, while there are others our age who don’t know this place yet. When we find ourselves grieving again because of a new tragedy or loss, grief feels familiar. Stifling, and terrible, but almost comfortable, like a big, grey blanket that is actually far too heavy. It’s not as scary, though, as that first time, when we might have thought there was something wrong with us, or that we weren’t doing it “right,” or that perhaps we were losing our minds. Each time we have to journey through grief now, we know that there is no normal course to take. Grief winds and dips and takes you to unexpected places that might not seem right, like laughing after the burial, or suddenly experiencing bouts of sleeplessness months later, or not being able to focus at work long after we feel like we should have been fine.
Our old grief, also, is strangely comforting. After a while the harsh edges get worn off and when we find ourselves crying unexpectedly at a stoplight because something random on the radio reminds us of the one we lost, we welcome the ache, because it’s the piece that we have left.
I also think we look at statistics and risk differently. Yes, we know that heart disease is the leading killer of adults in North America, and we know that there is a chance of someone we know dying as a victim of violence. But we also know that statistics mean nothing to us personally at the end of the day. We can’t know the time or cause of the death of anyone we love before it happens. So, for the most part, we make decisions based on risk but we don’t dwell on those risks. We love the ones who are special to us, knowing that our time is precious.
If you’re here in this place, fist bumps and solidarity. I almost wish I could pick you all out of a crowd when I see you in person, whether as a stranger or a friend. If you’re not here, please don’t let this frighten you. It’s an inescapable fact that we’ll all experience tragedy at some point in life, some of us far more than others. One day, when you unexpectedly find yourself here, know that there are many, many of us who are already here and that you don’t have to walk the road alone. And find yourself someone who is already here, so that if you need to make a morbid joke you don’t have to deal with the weird looks.