Just Because it’s Inevitable Doesn’t Mean I Have to Carry it Around

I've had death on my mind again lately and I'm sick of thinking about it.

It doesn't help that I went to a conference last week on "Helping Parents Through the Loss of a Child." Ugh. I sat in horror with my hand over my mouth for the entire 5 hours I was there, just thinking about how unbearable it would be if we lost Veronica.

And then a couple of different people recommended this blog to me, and while it's beautifully written and I can't help reading it, it also just shoots me through with icicles of fear and sadness and leaves me lying awake at 3am when I'm nursing V, thinking about what it would be like if she were suddenly gone.

I know Greg thinks I'm crazy for dwelling on these thoughts. "Just don't think about stuff like that," he says, and while it's good advice, it's different for someone who is intimately familiar with loss. I still have friends who have never lost anyone significant in their lives and that's hard for me to wrap my head around. I became familiar with death at an early age and have continued to experience the death of close loved ones throughout my life. It's easy, at this point, for me to imagine what it would like if someone else I loved were gone.

I must have only been 5 or 6 when the first person in my life died. My parents were quite wealthy when I was growing up in Atlanta, and during my early years we had a nanny/housekeeper named Johnny who worked 5 days a week in our home. Johnny was lovely. She was in her 5os, African-American, and came from an old Southern family. She had a soft voice and gentle demeanor. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on her lap by the window in my room as she read stories to me. 

Johnny had been working for us for several years when she died, and by then I had become very close to her. I didn't learn the real story about her death until I was older. Back then, in the days surrounding her death, my parents took me for a drive in my father's big, black Lincoln Towncar. This is definitively one of my clearest, early memories. I can picture the smooth black leather of the backseat, the shiny pate of my father's bald head, and my mother swiveled around in her seat as we wound through the old, Atlanta neighborhoods.

"Johnny died and she isn't coming back," my mother said. "She went to sleep and didn't wake up," she said. There is no easy way to explain death to a child. They are literally incapable of fully grasping it until they are closer to the age of 10. The more concrete, the better. Telling a child something like, "she died in her sleep," can make a kid afraid of sleep. They might wonder if they themselves could die in their sleep. But again, there's no easy way to help them understand it. Honesty and direct answers to the copious amounts of questions children are bound to ask about the death are the best route. 

The real story definitely would have been more frightening for me to learn. My mother came home one afternoon that week to find the house quiet. She called out to Johnny as she set down her purse, her keys, removed her coat. There was no answer. My mother tip-toed up the stairs, her heart pounding, and pushed open the door to my room. I was in my bed deeply asleep in my afternoon nap. She pulled the door closed and began to peek into the other rooms, looking for Johnny.

In her bedroom the bed was neatly made and the carpet recently vacuumed. She noticed that the lights in the adjoining bathroom were on, and it was as she approached that she saw Johnny sprawled across the tile floor, an arm twisted beneath her, her body eerily still. She'd had a heart attack, the paramedics told my mother, before they wheeled her out of the room. I continued to nap soundly until after the house was quiet again, until after Johnny gone.

Johnny had a few old house dresses that she kept and wore when she worked in our home. After she died I slept with one of them, a faded, blue one, soft at its edges, and my mother let me take it with me to school for a while. I still think about Johnny some days, still remember her place in my life, and her absence.

I've given so much thought to death in my life. What it means. What it is. What I believe about it. What I know about it. Sometimes it seems like the most banal thing in the world. Some days I think I totally get it and it seems preposterous to view it as anything but a simple and inevitable thing. Other days it destroys me.

Whatever the case with it though, I'd like to stop thinking about it so much. As I write this, I'm one week away from finishing a class at Adler School of Psychology and I'm one month away from completing 2 years at my hospice job. The completion of both of these things mean that I'll be eligible to take the Illinois state exam for my professional counseling license. And THIS means that I can move away from hospice and towards a private practice where I can see a broad range of clients.And hopefully that means I can stop thinking about death so much.

I've actually loved my hospice job and I'm grateful for the experience. And I'm also appreciative of the person I've become in the face of so much loss. But I'm ready to move on from it all, ready to let go of the shroud of sadness and seriousness that I wear so often. I don't want to think about Veronica's death, just her life.


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