I went to high school in a different Newtown (Pennsylvania). During my junior year, five sudden deaths cracked our confidence that tomorrow wouldn't be more horrific than today. The explosion of extinction was impossible to comprehend in our bucolic, privileged boarding-school world.
In November, President Kennedy was assassinated.
Three weeks later, my close friend Katie's mother died of a brain hemorrhage.
Eight weeks after that, my father died of a massive heart attack.
A month after that, the school librarian committed suicide.
A week after that, the 28-year-old wife of our favorite teacher also died of a brain hemorrhage.
In our 16-year-old way, we cleverly covered our bottomless grief with sarcasm, irony, and humor. I returned from my father's funeral to find a note that Katie had left on my pillow.
"Welcome to The Club," it said, inviting me to join her and her roommate, Lee, whose father had committed suicide a few years earlier, in a cynical game: We would ferret out the parental status of every student and give awards for people with the worst family situation--like the boy whose parents died and whose adoptive parents then got divorced. We "presented" the accolades secretly, of course, because those not in The Club didn't understand our pathetic, yet for us, life-sustaining "research." We named the school librarian "President-in-Absentia" of The Club.
Oh. I almost forgot. In June of that year, the three civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi. The younger brother of one of them became a lifelong friend when he and I, and the following year, Katie, all went to Antioch College.
Nearly half a century has gone by since the founding of The Club and I still think about that string of deaths, especially my father's, almost every day.
It made me a first-responder to grief, showing up when friends have had to face the ultimate disappearing act, which I thought would make it easier when I had to confront the monumental loss of my husband, Jeff Stamps, eighteen months ago. I knew about death, I thought. I understood its dimensions, its contours, what to expect. I didn't. Each death leads into its own labyrinth of grief and I've had moments when I've thought I'd never find my way out.
Yet Jeff's death was so different from that string of deaths -- and the unspeakable agony of last Friday in Connecticut's Newtown--that it's nearly impossible to label them all as "death." Jeff's death was anticipated, not sudden, natural in the sense that it was cancer, not brain hemorrhages or suicides or, it's so hard to even type, the gunning down of little bundles of potential and joy, six and seven-year-olds (and the six adults, we can't forget them) who only went to school, not Mississippi.
Yet...and this is the reason for this post...the lifelong effect of these deaths, all of these deaths, can't be captured in a blog post or a memoir or a church service like the one I went to yesterday where the minister (like President Obama last night) read the names of all who died.
Living through the grief is a moment by moment thing, especially at the beginning, when those who survive are only barely present, only barely eating, only barely sleeping. It's a bit like they way people describe an Everest climb, I think -- after great struggle, you make it to base camp and think you can breathe, then have to drop down to catch your breath. You try to ascend again, then have to drop down even lower, gasping, thinking you'll never really breathe again.
People, trying to help, say stupid things to you like "it takes time" but the time-taking is precisely what is so excruciating. Here I'm reporting on my most recent experience. The beginning was indescribable, really, even if I appeared to be functioning, going to meetings, working, giving presentations. But when I was alone... I'll leave it there for now.
All of our hearts are in splinters for the families and friends of the murdered in Newtown--and there are some of us, too many of us, who know how long, steep, arduous, and sometimes hopeless the journey ahead is for the survivors. We, those of us not directly connected to Newtown, will remember but the magnitude of what's happened there is beyond measure for the families. Just one death, just five were gargantuan and everlasting.
As so many before me have said, you never get over such loss; you just get a bit more used to it. But that takes a very very very long time.
Don't leave them alone. Not now. Not a year from now. Not ever.