That is how it goes when you are stunned with news of a loss that is not to be. In fact, in Jewish law, that is how it goes, when you are confronted with any loss. People wonder what to say to try to comfort someone whose loved one has died. In fact, some hesitate to reach out at all, for fear of doing so improperly i.e.. saying the wrong thing. The traditional Jewish response is to say nothing, nothing for as long as the first three days in the process of comforting the bereft during the seven day period of loss called “Shiva” (from the word seven). And that is how it went when I received the call that Meghan Campbell’s heart had stopped as Heather and John tried to get her to the hospital. All I could do, when I reached the ICU waiting room, was to wrap my arms around Heather and hold tight, silently, as she wept, and as tears streamed down my face.
The loss is incomprehensible. The shock, as I write these words, palpable and paralyzing. To lose one’s child, as every parent knows, is incomprehensible, and there is no solace to be found, at least not in any foreseeable future.
The day they were making plans to lay Meghan to rest, with the loving support of Dan Mandel, I was in Palo Alto at the fourth anniversary celebration of life of Jessica Saal, who had died on January 16, 2004, her birthday, at the age of 34, of complications from Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis. Like, Meghan, Jessica never said no to a challenge, especially a life challenge. ( I have written about Jessica: www.sipoflife.com
It also brought back memories of Andy Bonapart, 20 year old family friend, who one moment reported being at the top of the world in Nepal, having the time of his life in his travels, and the next moment, reported through a young woman fellow traveler, the family did not know, as being near death from Hepatitis C. That report came in on December 25, hours after the family had shared with friends slides of his joyous journey that had come in the mail. We buried Andy on January 1, in a sealed bag, due to contagion, and life for the Bonaparts, she a family therapist, ,who had devoted her life to helping people respond to trauma and stress, was never as happy as it had been. That was in 1983, two months after my father had died, at 75, from Prostate Cancer. Andy’s death eclipsed my father’s.
The irony of covenant in Judaism is that it makes no mention of any guarantee of quantity of life. The covenantal focus is on how we fill the moments that we do have, hopefully learning to take none of them for granted. In the case of all three of these young people, they had managed to fill their lives with a lot of goodness, many moments to cull through, after their deaths, to be of some continuity in the memories, and to be as a lesson, that we dare not take anything or anyone for granted.
After my father had died, I continued to keep an eye on an elderly lady, the last remaining sister of three siblings, who had never married, and used their resources to support children’s education. One couple, non-Jewish, that kept the closest eye on Paula Phillips lived far from her, yet they took care of the shopping and her every need. One day, after we had celebrated Paula’s 92nd birthday with lunch at Fisherman’s Wharf, the lady took me aside to clarify that, if and when Miss Paula should pass, I would officiate at the service. Two weeks later I was visiting Paula and noticed she was in flagging spirits; I asked her what was wrong. She responded how sad she was about her friend. Had I not asked, I might not have learned that the lady, while walking along the sidewalk in her neighborhood, a few days after our conversation, had been struck by a car and killed. The sadness of the tragedy was blurred by the irony, even as Miss Paula lived another few years before we laid to her rest.
Through it all, the traumas and tragedies of deaths that are not to be, let alone those that are more the way of the world, one truth prevails. Those stricken with loss will not be comforted by any words, nor should a would-be comforter be scared off by not knowing what to say. There is nothing to say, and little to do. Hugs will do, and letting it be known that you will not shy away from being “there” in whatever way the mourner could feel less alone.
In the case of Meghan, we are confronting concentric circles of shock and grief, with the family at the center. We are all in this grief cycle, in varying waves, because of who Meghan was, someone we all treasured, and who her family is, people we cherish deeply and want to hug no end. That hug is and will be the best, if not the only, response. Don’t be afraid of it; it will be good for you, as well, as we each try to process what has happened, and what it means about the uncertainty in life that we all face.
God comfort the Campbells; God comfort us all.