I'm pretty sure that the last time I felt deep racking sadness over a death was when I was about eight. We were staying for an extended time at my grandma’s house in Saginaw, probably on our way to my dad’s next assignment. I can’t remember exactly how I came to have it, but I had brought home a small snapping turtle, perhaps from the lake where my grandpa Spear had his cabin.
(I have to give my parents some credit, for I would never allow any of my kids to have such a potentially harmful critter as a pet. It was neat how much leeway I had as a child, to explore and delve into the world around me. Things were different back then; that’s for sure.)
Anyway, someone had left the wooden gate open to the back yard. My juvenile 7 inch snapper proceeded to make a break for it. I knew this only after spotting the aftermath of this “jail break” from the upstairs dormer window overlooking the street. There below me I saw that my turtle was now mashed into the pavement—the shell flattened and cracked, head and four limbs sprawled, forming a five-pointed dead turtle star, and worse, massive amounts of spurted blood and gore.
I have never been more devastated. The sense of loss was crushing. I sobbed and sobbed as if this turtle had been the most important thing in my life, ever, which funny enough, it wasn’t. I had only had it for a couple of days, yet I was overcome by its demise.
Flash forward to more deaths. My Great Aunt Helen died when I was about 12 or 13. I was more uneasy with having to see her dead in her casket than I was sad. Not long after that my wonderful Grandpa Spear died. I was sad, but never cried. I really loved that man, but not even a single tear did I shed. I remember feeling confused about myself at seeing my other cousins crying and freely shedding tears.
Over the years I lost other friends and relatives and it was always the same, although I missed them I did not feel profound melancholy. This was true even when my beloved Grandma Haley died in 1987, and I was closer to her than even to either of my parents. We were great pals, having literally spent thousands of hours together, conversing and learning about each other; yet, when I learned that she was gone at 85 I felt next to nothing.
My brother warned me many years before my father finally passed that his kidney condition would likely end in his death. Sure enough, about 18 years later, that’s pretty much what happened. I had always figured that when he died that I would be as distraught as when my turtle was killed, but again, nothing.
I’m still trying to figure this out. I’m the kind that hates going to poignant movies because I tend to cry at the parts meant to elicit that response. I actually sobbed out loud during Schindler’s List, you know, the part where Oscar Schindler loses it at the end and laments that he could have saved more. Even now, thinking of that damn scene I feel pressure in my chest and tears welling. Cripes! So why do I feel no sadness when people I love die?
I spent a lot of time talking with my mom about Dad’s passing, how we felt about him and how we feel about him. Every so often she would cry, not uncontrollably, but for a minute or so, and I would ask her afterwards what brought on that particular episode of emotion. There were two primary reasons: one, she felt so bad that she could not do more to save him, to make him eat, to make the doctors want to do more to make him well; and two, the memory of his suffering, his yearlong crumbling into death, during which he lost his appetite, lost weight, lost interest, and finally lost his ability to keep breathing. It was a slow process that very nearly took her along with him.
One thing that both my mother and I have in common concerning the after effects of all this: We both feel some level of guilt over not feeling “bad enough” over his demise. She feels awful that in spite of herself she feels a level of relief. When he finally left this world her life instantly became easier. Intellectually, she knows that he is in a “better place,” yet, she feels guilt, thinking that maybe she could have done more, and now that he's gone, that she SHOULD feel worse.
I made an argument for her, trying to put into words against her continuing irrational self-reproach over “not feeling bad enough” over his passing.
“Mom, literally thanks to you, Dad LIVED 80 years. No other woman would have put up with him over the entire course of that 50 year marriage. YOU were God’s gift to him, from start to finish, because I can’t think of any other woman that would NOT have divorced him. He needed a kidney and YOU gave him one. Then, you made sure he took his dozens of pills per day, that he ate what he needed to eat, that he did what he needed to do. It was all YOU! No one could have done more for another human being, especially someone so difficult at times, NO one. Because of YOU, he lived LONGER than most. YOU did that.”
I went on, as I CAN do:
“Besides, how long should anyone live? For instance, do you want to live long enough to have to see your own children die? I think that alone would kill me, to see one of my kids go. There is a natural order of things. We live, hopefully into old age, and then we die. 80 seems to be just about right. Besides, we all end up where Dad is now. I think that’s why I haven’t cried or felt any deep sadness since that snapping turtle died in the street in front of Grandma Haley’s house. None of us are here for all that long. We all end up dead, and hopefully, together again with God on the other side. That’s the hope, right?”