My family and I lost two friends recently. For the sake of protecting their identities, I’ll call them Cheryl and Paul. They died rather young—Cheryl after a drawn-out battle with cancer, and Paul went suddenly, his heart failing while he slept. Both losses spurred stinging tears and frowning hearts, as family and friends wondered, yet again, why bad things happen to good people.
Cheryl had been a part-time sitter for my children, as winter melted into the spring of 2016. She cared for Noah and Syma while I finished the final chapters of my first book, helping them with their homework, taking them to Chic-fil-A, and on outings to parks and the zoo. All the while, she stared down the menace of cancer, not once complaining. “Do everything with love,” she would say when I shared with her the challenges of motherhood.
She’d often text me pictures of the kids at play. They rarely left her house without a sweet treat for the ride home. Several times she tucked letters into their bags, detailing what they did during the day and thanking me for the chance to spend time with them. On days when we didn’t see her, she’d send them fun videos or pictures. They shared inside jokes and memories that fortified a friendship gone too soon.
We met Paul when I was pregnant with Syma, in 2011. He lived across the street, and was a semi-retired corporate executive and veteran of the Vietnam War. As it turns out, Paul could repair, improve and remodel anything related to houses and cars. He quickly became our handyman—and, as my husband called him, our domestic angel. He painted parts of our house inside and out, and fixed sump-pump and roof issues. When our washing machine broke down, he was over within an hour. And it was Paul to our rescue when Noah and Syma flooded their upstairs bathroom and damaged half of our living-room ceiling.
He was efficient at work, jovial and kind. He showered the kids with toys and treats, remembering Syma’s love of animals and Noah’s Lego expertise. They’d seek him out on warmer days, showcasing their bike and scooter skills. Even on frigid days, Syma unrolled her window as we drove off to preschool, waving and calling to Paul in his garage. They delighted in each other.
Loss isn’t new to my family. My children know that two of their grandparents, my mom and my husband’s dad, and their uncle Jim have all been in heaven for some time. Noah has only vague memories of Jim. Syma doesn’t remember him at all. He exists for them mostly as a character in stories and photographs–though Noah prays each night that “Uncle Jim is safe in heaven.” Perhaps he understands more than I realize.
Still, Cheryl and Paul represent something different. Noah and Syma spent more time with them. They remember them well, at least right now. These losses marked the first time I had to sit down with my children and explain that people we loved were gone. Their reaction has been a mix of questions and recalling, of sadness and gratitude. “I wish Cheryl was still here,” Syma says at least once a week, especially on finding toys and other items from her.
A few days after Paul passed away, Noah said, “Is his wife a widow now?
“Yes,” I said.
“Well, she’s all alone. That’s why I don’t want to get married. What if my wife dies and leaves me?” he reasoned.
The longer we live and the more people we love, I explained, the greater the chances are that we’ll lose someone. It’s better to have that love, for whatever amount of time, than to never experience it. I’m not sure he bought the explanation. But I’m glad we’re having these conversations. They’re good reminders to me that while we’ve lost, we’ve also gained. Cheryl and Paul offered us separate glimpses of how God works love into the world through people. Noah and Syma were on the receiving end of that love, and whether they’re conscious of it or not, they’ll be better for knowing them.
I dread the unnatural separation of death. It’s a severing of the human heart. It’s difficult to watch in my children, even as I know their hearts will regenerate. When I lost my mom as a teenager, it was that same unnatural sensation that stirred in me a desire to get to know God better. The desire remains, but I don’t claim to know more or better understand the mystery of death. It still bothers me.
In his book Grace Notes, Philip Yancey writes, “Nature treats death as a normal, everyday occurrence. Only we humans treat it with shock and revulsion, as though we can’t get used to the reality, universal though it may be.” Yancey points to C.S. Lewis, who “suggests that these anomalies (like the more commonly cited human conscience) betray a permanent state of disunity within human beings. An individual person is a spirit made in the image of God but merged with a body of flesh. … We should feel dissonance; we are, after all, immortal beings in mortal surroundings.” The uneasiness we feel after someone dies, Yancey says, “may be our most accurate human sensation, reminding us we are not quite ‘at home’ here.”
I may never get comfortable with the discomfort. But at least there’s an explanation for it, one that I believe—and I pray my children grow to believe it, too.