My 13-year-old daughter wore black to school today. When we pulled into the circular drop-off point at school, she said, "Look at everyone. We look like a bunch of Goths." (For those over 30: Goths, short for Gothic, are the adolescents who wear black clothes and black lipstick, resign themselves to a glass-half-empty worldview, write spooky poetry and shop at Hot Topic.) Then she got out of the car with a heart as heavy as a Goth’s. She wasn’t sad because it was Monday. And she isn’t a Goth. But over the weekend, a fellow eighth grader, whose family had stopped at the Poppy Reserve after a day of shopping, had been struck by a car and killed. Just like that, her life had ended, the glory of the springtime poppies turned to funeral floral arrangements, a normal day of errands turned to a calendar date of never-forgotten tragedy.
This is my daughter’s first death. She has known about great-grandparents dying, of course, and the deaths of old folks in the community and of celebrities and soldiers. But this is the first death that has filled her with disbelief as much as grief. I can’t believe it, she kept saying. I can’t believe she won’t be at school. I can’t believe she’s just dead.
We always remember our first death, the one that touches too close to home and really rocks our understanding of life. My first death was my cousin who, at age 10, was killed while riding his bike to school. I was 11. The huge truck ran over his head: his parents were not permitted to identify his body. For several years after his death, I inwardly talked to his soul at bedtime. Looking back, I was a loopy kid. Maybe it was a weird kind of self-therapy, but I thought it was important to keep Richard involved in and informed about all that was going on without him, all that he was missingbecause it was just so hard to believe he was gone.
My husband’s first death was a boy who fell out of a tree and severed his jugular vein. My husband remembers being grounded at the time, and thinking that his resentment of his friend’s freedom to play while he was restricted had somehow jinxed his friend into an early, tragic death. One of our older daughters lost a friend to a rare brain tumor. While the shock of that passing was drawn out over months of failed treatments and the gradual giving out of her friend’s body, it was nevertheless her first death. Another daughter lost a friend to a car accident. Over her friend’s open casket, my grieving daughter was upset with the mortuary beautician. She would never have worn that color lipstick, she said through her tears. When you are 16, the color lipstick you wear to your own funeral matters.
As her disbelief subsides, my youngest daughter asks the hardest questions: Why? What is God thinking? Why would God take her friend from her family in front of their very eyes? Doesn’t God know that eighth graders aren’t supposed to die?
These are questions that we parents need to answer, even though we don’t have the answers. We go through life clutching at straws, says Tom Stoppard’s ill-fated Rosencrantz, and I know the feeling. We cannot know the mind of God. We do not understand the point of a young life, radiating potential, cut tragically short. But answer we must, even if our only reply is the offer of a shoulder to cry on, and even if we only teach our children that sometimes just being present is what we need to give to someone who is grieving.
Eighth graders aren’t supposed to have to deal with those terminal regrets, such as, Why did I maybe treat her like she wasn’t all that cool? Why didn’t I get to know her better? Why didn’t I appreciate the way she smiled so completely and inclusively?
And mostly, why can’t I keep in mind that every day of every person’s life is a holy gift that may not survive until tomorrow? Why do I worry about the meaningless things and take the precious things for granted?
That last question, actually, is mine.
I did not know the girl whose life ended this past weekend. But my heart breaks for her parents, her siblings, her relatives, her friends. Because I know that we are all guilty of assuming we have another day to express our love or to treasure what matters or to make our apologies or to right our wrongs. No matter how many times we learn the very final lesson of death the hard way, we slip back into our life-assuming habit, which we pass on to our children when we model the way to get caught up in the trivial and to miss the big opportunities with which God presents us daily.
At the end of the school day, my daughter is somber and exhausted by the outpouring of adolescent emotion. She says that the normally noisy hallways at school were quiet. People hugged each other more and went out of their way to bring peace to any eighth grade wars. They began healing.
My daughter will wear black again soon, to a funeral. Her first death will always color her reaction to subsequent deaths in her life, as well as her own evolving view of life and life’s author. She will remember the girl who taught her about mourning. She will think of her friend when she turns 14, and 17, when she graduates from high school, when she marks all the occasions that her young, forever-13 friend never will know. She will mostly not think of her as time continues to flit and weave. But she will always know she has a friend in spirit in the communion of saints.