My bosses 19 year old son died at 4:33 today. He suffered severe cerebral palsy from birth, and his past 3 years had been particularly cruel. He had 4 major surgeries, each resulting in major complications. Yesterday he suffered cardiac arrest. Today they made the decision to remove the ventilator keeping him alive, and he passed in his mother’s arms.
I’ve known this family for about 20 years. My two older sons each graduated with a member of this family. They live in the same neighborhood as my ex and his GF – the “cool kids” neighborhood: The partiers, who’s best days are well behind them.
When the children were young one of my “friends” (one of the “cool kids”) started complaining about my boss. She complained because my boss asked her to have a play date with her children and her son. She expressed disdain that this mother could be so “insensitive” to her children’s needs. “After all” she said, “what on earth were they supposed to do with him? He’s basically a vegetable in a wheel chair”. I felt dirty and ugly listening to her speak those words, and I’m ashamed now that I did not speak up as loudly as I should have. I quietly suggested that this might be a great opportunity for her children to learn compassion and empathy, to develop a greater understanding of the human condition and those who suffer. I said it quietly though. I said it to only one other mother, one of my BFF’s who quietly agreed. I never discussed it again and, when the topic came up I quietly excused myself. How I wish I hadn’t.
In the years that followed I often saw this “vegetable” out with his family. I was always struck by the fact that when people said “hello” to him, he broke out in a huge smile. If feelings were a color he radiated gold. In the past two years I’ve experienced that joy on several occasions and frankly, it makes me feel shame.
I think about all of the good things in my life and how much I take them for granted, and I feel shame. I think of my 3 beautiful children, each alive, healthy, fully functioning, and I see how I have taken this for granted. I think of the times I’ve seen this family at school and community events, soaking in every ounce of joy available to them, and I feel shame.
This morning I had started a different blog. It was this:
I feel like all we see on the news these days is anger. Personally I find it terrifying, especially since it seems to be getting worse by the day.
I was talking about anger with one of my favorite yoga teachers. This teacher has traveled to many remote places on our earth to learn from spiritual leaders of indigenous populations. They believe that anger is unprocessed grief. She said they share the belief that until someone wails and sobs over their losses they will not be whole. Eventually this unfelt grief turns to anger.
This makes sense to me. If you read my blog you know I had a huge falling out with my parents a few weeks ago. I am not proud of how I handled the situation. I am, however, relieved that I got some things off my chest. I remained puzzled though about the magnitude of my response. They anger was so intense, unrelenting and abrasive, and I knew it was out of proportion to the moment at hand.
If I look at my reaction in terms of grief it becomes clear to me.
That is where I stopped. I think I’ll finish in a different way than I had intended.
Perhaps this sheds new light on the connection between anger and grief. What if you have led a life relatively unscathed. You’ve been brought up in a world of privelage, you’ve had all the advantages life has to offer and you have little to complain about. What then?
As my teacher proposed, being human is traumatic. The trauma this family has endured is obvious to all. Clearly they have reason to grieve the pain of their humanity, and in that grieving they find solace from anger.
What about those who have never experienced “trauma” in the sense we see here? Perhaps these people, those filled with such rage right now, are mired in anger because there has been no obvious channel with which to process the grief of living. Take, for example, my father. He was born into a family of substance. The youngest of 4 he attended an ivy league school, later earning his MA degree from there. He lost his father at an acceptable age. His mother lived a wonderful life, living well into her 90’s, passing in a normal, age related way. What is he to grieve? What can he wail and cry about?
We all have grief. We grieve the passing of our favorite pet, our grandmother, or aunt or uncle. Yet as a society we are told “they had a good life, don’t grieve for them”. How can we not though? And, when we accept the common adage of “buck up” and “you have nothing to cry, about”, we are taking all of those little things that happen every day that make us sad, or hurt, or scared, and we’re stuffing them into the core of our being.
Is it less sad, the passing of my father’s sister at the age of 65, than the passing of this boy at age 19? Our culture tells us Yes, it is less sad. In doing so, we allow the family of this tragic young boy the gift of grief, while denying it to others. So in a terribly perverse way, I can make the case that the family of the “vegetable” got a better deal than did some with less obvious trauma. They were forced to look at their grief, every single day. They were forced to feel the pain that is inevitable if we choose to live. More importantly, the were allowed the space to grieve. Our society said to them “it is ok to be sad, and angry and fearful”. What a gift.
Maybe this all sounds crazy, but there is one thing I know for certain: this family, the one dealt this terrible hand in life, is one of the most joyous families I’ve ever met. He was a beautiful, gracious soul, who gave them the gift of clarity.
The last significant time I shared with her and her son was at a Kirtan. A Kirtan is a crazy chanting, singing, dancing festival. I almost didn’t attend. I am so thankful I did, because it transformed my understanding of the human spirit, or soul. It was at the Kirtan that my boss danced with her son in his wheelchair. As she spun him around, his smile radiated such joy it was as if they had created a forcefield that only they could penetrate. That moment, in it’s simplicity and totality, held everything for them. It was one of the most magical moments I’ve ever seen.
So I sign off tonight knowing that this family, this group of 4 where there used to be 5, will wail and sob and experience their grief to it’s fullest. And in the years to come they will offer great things to our world because they’ve done so.
And I will try to wail, and sob, and rage for the pain of being human.