Dealing With Loss In Front Of Family

I've been going through a bit of an existential crisis of late, focused specifically on mortality. If I had to pick a precipitating event, it'd be the unexpected death of a coworker a little over a year ago. I didn't know it at first, but she'd been a childhood friend of my sister.

I’ve been going through a bit of an existential crisis of late, focused specifically on mortality.

If I had to pick a precipitating event, it’d be the unexpected death of a coworker a little over a year ago. I didn’t know it at first, but she’d been a childhood friend of my sister.

I’d known her less than a year, and actually hadn’t worked on many projects together. She left my team, accepting a job in a new group, a great potential opportunity for her. As she was leaving I wished her luck and, knowing that she’d struggled with confidence, told her that I felt like her work was capable but she could really impress people if they could see her confidence in her own ability.

A month later, in her new position, she wrote me an email telling me that it was the nicest thing anyone had ever said to her.

And that’s heartbreaking. Heartbreaking!

That? That dumb, insignificant piece of career advice was the nicest thing anyone ever said to her? I was floored by that, but those words would come back to haunt me months later when I unexpectedly received word from a colleague on her team that she’d passed away over the weekend. I don’t know the exact circumstances of her death, but she and her boyfriend were found together in what either had to have been an overdose or double suicide.

The nicest thing anyone had ever said to her? How heartbreaking. She wasn’t even 30.

When I heard the news the first thing I thought was “Could I have prevented this?” Had she lived a life so empty of any sort of kindness that a simple piece of career advice was a high point. I actually started my personal blog not too long after that. Being a father and a husband, and always wanting to write, I needed a creative outlet. I’d attempted several works of fiction which were promising conceptually but went nowhere, and maybe, maybe, I could be dedicated enough to keep a short form blog alive.

I’m not. A summer hiatus for a Disney trip became 5 months of neglect.

Anyway, back to my thesis

.So the death of this colleague really made me confront my own mortality, and here’s the thing: I’m not so much scared of death as I am of leaving my family. I can’t imagine how my wife and daughters will feel when I die. I should say that I’m not sad or depressed, as I’m sure some might think when they read this. I’m just thinking about a reality of life that, until my early-mid 30s I hadn’t really dealt with before. It’s an eventuality we’re all going to deal with through loved ones and then ourselves.

So let me tell you a couple of things that have helped me on my emotional journey. There’s a wonderful graphic novel called Daytripper by Brazilian twin brothers Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon. The story, broken into individual vignettes, tells the life of an everyman writer wanna-be who ends up becoming an obituary writer.

Through each vignette we see a chapter in his life and how he could have ultimately died.

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I admit, I didn’t know what to expect when reading this, not knowing its subject matter and hearing only that it was beautiful and excellent. In reading through the life of the protagonist Bas, I saw love and loss, and hope, and sorrow. I saw a real person and all the dumb ways, noble and ignoble that life ends. It was heavy. But I felt joy too.

Bas has failed relationships, gets married, has children, experiences family, and it’s beautiful. Beauty in the mundane. It’s the things we all miss in everyday life when we’re thinking about what we could be doing. When I’m sitting in the pitch black baby’s room and I wish that I could be reading, or watching a movie or talking with my wife.

That moment is sacred. It’s what life is all about!

Day Of The Dead

Bookending this thought, I attended a Dia de los Muertos party this year. The Mexican Day of the Dead is a fascinating party. As a typical Caucasian guy, I celebrate Halloween. We dress up, eat too much candy, and sometimes get some cheap scares. But it doesn’t really mean anything. It’s a safe haunted house, a thrill ride, a horror movie. There’s no lesson to be learned and we all just get a little chubbier at the end.

Day of the Dead celebrates life through the lens of death. It’s brightly lit and colorful, contrasting with the elaborate desk mask sugar skull makeup attendees wear. The centerpiece of the party is a display of family photos, favorite food and drink, memories.

Through Dia de los Muertos I saw an expression of celebration that I just don’t see in my culture. Rather than just mourn when someone passes, there’s an annual celebration of those family members and friends who have moved on in their spiritual life. You laugh, sing, dance, eat their favorite foods, remember them.

Last week, my friend Jim died after a brief but awful battle with cancer. Only in his early 60s, he left behind a loving wife, children, and grandchildren.

The morning when I got the call at work that Jim had died, I was floored. He was a truly great man. Kind and loving, generous with his heart, time, money. A great role model.

I had lunch meetings so I ate late, and sitting in my car in the parking garage, tears involuntarily filled my eyes. Realizing I had to help interview a candidate at work, I wiped my eyes and trudged across the parking lot, feeling drained. I felt like I wore Jim’s death on my face and knew everyone could see.

I thought of Dia de los Muertos and the sugar skull face paint. Is that what they’re saying? That we all wear the lives of those we’ve loved and lost on our faces, that they define us? I don’t know. But I know the world is at a loss for having lost Jim Martin.

See you again someday, friend.

Zach Bowders is a father of 2, husband of 1, marketing analyst for a childrens healthcare nonprofit, and blogger. He lives in Memphis, TN. Read more attalkdaddytome.com

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