Death makes most of us uncomfortable. We don’t like to talk about it. We might talk through scenarios of what we would do if death came knocking on our door. And we’re comfortable enough writing condolences on a Facebook post or clicking on the sad face icon after reading about the passing of a friend’s loved one. But once death actually effects someone we know, we often find ourselves at a loss for words when we come face-to-face with the people who lost a loved one.
“Dying in your thirties or forties? “Tragic.” Fifties? “Such a shame.” Sixties? “Too soon.” Seventies? “A good run.” Eighties? “A life well lived.” Nineties? “Hell of a ride.” Those words were spoken by the characters Axe and Wags (Damian Lewis and David Costabile) in Showtime’s series “Billions,” as the two characters wrestle with thoughts of life and death. Their point is well made. The younger a person is at the time of their death, the more tragic it feels. The older they are, while still painful, is accepted as the inevitable conclusion to life.
I got to thinking about this topic as I was taking a walk around the neighborhood where I grew up. It was the night of the Summer Solstice, the longest night of the year. I was enjoying an evening walk, powered by my favorite playlist, when I almost stopped myself in my tracks. I saw something ahead that I wanted to avoid. For a moment, I thought about changing direction and leaving unspoken, uncomfortable emotions behind me. But that wasn’t the right thing to do. The right thing to do was to take ten more steps forward, look into the eyes of someone I knew for most of my life, and put words together even though I didn’t know the right words to say. It was going to be a heartbreaking and difficult conversation as my memories took me back to almost thirty years ago.
My childhood in Ohio was idyllic. Summers were spent chasing fireflies. And winters spent making snow angels and drinking hot cocoa, with marshmallows, by the fireplace. I grew up in a small neighborhood filled with many children, we were a diverse group. My street was a small spec in the universe, but it was so representative of the world and what America looks like today; we had families who were Egyptian, Filipino, Indian, African-American, and we were all connected to our ethnic heritage. We were a unit, and we all had fun together playing kickball, basketball, Ghost-in-the-graveyard, and anything that got our adrenaline rushing and our lungs screaming with laughter. It was widely accepted among all of the neighborhood parents that the kids could play outdoors until the streetlights came on. When that time came, we had to disperse and go home. Every child was included in the fun, from ages six to sixteen. Those neighborhood kids – they were a part of my foundation, my childhood, and my happy memories.
This past spring, I received a text message that felt like a punch in the gut that took the air from my lungs. It was from my sister and it read, “Ragu Dacha died. I can’t breath. My heart feels broken.” And then she called me. I could barely understand her words between the heavy tears. I thought there must be some mistake. He was only 35 years old, and still a child in my mind. Ragu was one of the younger kids in our playgroup. And while he was not as athletic as some of the older kids, what he lacked in kickball skills, he made up for in smiles and laughter! If I could use one word to describe this boy, it would be ‘joyful.’ I think that’s one of the most beautiful things you can be as a human being – joyful. I can still vividly remember him as a young boy running down the street, trying to catch up to his older siblings and friends. He had a huge smile on his face that said, “Hey everybody, wait for me!”
And now, almost three decades later, I was walking down that same street, approaching the driveway that young Ragu walked up and down many times. I saw his father, in the shadows between the trees. I hadn’t seen the boy’s parents since his passing. For a moment I thought that maybe I should mind my own business and keep to myself. But I knew better. I had to be better than my fear of not knowing what to say. No parent should have to bury their child. His child was a part of my history. And I’ve come to learn that when you don’t know what to say in these moments, “I’m sorry” and a hug is a good place to start.
No one likes to talk about death. And speaking to a parent about the death of their child is a conversation you never want to have in life. It’s awful. It’s painful. And it’s okay to admit that it’s uncomfortable. There are no right words to say. And when we don’t know what to say, sometimes we think it’s better not to say anything at all. But when a person loses someone they love, they’re in pain. When human beings are in pain, they need to be comforted. Not avoided. Not ignored. Not forgotten. Not isolated. And we certainly don’t have to be afraid of them. We need to show compassion. We need to be brave. We need to find words. And even if you don’t have the right words, you can never be wrong when you show love and kindness.