“Obits,” as obituaries are called in newspaper land, are not part of my domain as a reporter, but they do get talked about in the news room. Usually that’s the older staff members noting people who’ve died that they knew for one reason or another. Last week, one of my younger co-workers was working on an obits page and commented that one woman seemed pretty young. I asked the age, and the co-worker determined that the woman had been 50 when she died.
50 is young to die, but hearing that didn’t faze or surprise me. Sunday will mark two years since one of my best friends died at age 23, and the way I experience the world has been forever altered by that loss. The real possibility of my own or my loved ones’ death is present in my mind in a way it never could be before—when I cross the street, when a sibling goes on a trip, or when I hear friends vow to love each other till death do they part, I’m sharply aware that we never know how long we have together, and that our best-laid plans may never happen.
After a truck hit Andrew on a bicycle trip, I saw the pain of his death cut across a wide web of people. Although I’ve been told by grief counselors that my experience is rare for someone my age, I’ve become keenly attuned to how many people have been touched by untimely deaths. Now, when I hear about people I didn’t know that died young, it’s easy for me to imagine the waves of impact that is having on their family and friends.
This new depth of empathy motivated me to volunteer at a grief camp for children this summer. Camp Chimaqua is run by Hospice of Lancaster County. About 25 children who have lost a close family member attend for one weekend each summer. They are paired with an adult buddy, and therapeutic activities are guided by counseling professionals. The adult volunteers have typically experienced the loss of a relative or close friend, enabling them to relate to the child’s experience. Children often feel isolated in their grief and “my” camper clearly craved the opportunity to be around other children and adults who could talk about and understand their loss. Within five minutes of meeting me, she asked me to tell her about the person I knew who died. Throughout the weekend I listened to her stories of times spent with her mother.
I would change what happened September 16, 2010 in a heartbeat if I could. Knowing that’s impossible, however, I’ve learned that death offers some gifts. In mourning the loss of one friend, I formed closer friendships with others touched by the tragedy. I was able to be a friend to a young child grieving the loss of her mom. And when not overwhelmed by sadness at the possibility and reality of people’s lives ending, I remember that Andrew lived in a way we should all strive to emulate: loving those around him, appreciating the sunshine, and acting on his dreams.