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Death's 'gossamer blanket' doesn't cover loss

In the pre-dawn quiet three years ago this May 30, after my father told me over the phone that my mother had just died, I cried tears of relief. They were also tears of sadness, but mostly relief, because she was finally free of the sickness that had ravaged her body and mind for the better part of a decade. Also, she’d reached an age when people at funerals gather in corners and tell each other the person they’re remembering had lived a full life, whether they really had or not, without defining what a full life might actually look like.

Last Friday would have been her 85th birthday, and I miss her every day.

Mom raised three children and spoiled nine grandchildren. She had a career in nursing. She survived breast cancer. She traveled widely, laughed frequently and — until Alzheimer’s disease took her voice, her ability to reason and her memories — experienced an abundance of the sometimes contradictory circumstances that visit us all if we live the 70 or 80 years the psalmist tells us we might, if we are strong. Then, each of us flies away.

Sometimes death comes like a gossamer blanket, light and soft, to seamlessly spirit an ailing or elderly person to the next dimension. We take great comfort in the belief that a loved one was ready to go, or needed or wanted to go. That kind of death is intellectually, if not emotionally, acceptable. But other times it comes abruptly and cruelly, and it’s shocking and jarring and cataclysmic. We don’t want it to happen, don’t expect it to happen, and we are not prepared.

That’s the way it is with the sudden death of a child, a monumental loss too many in my very small circle have had to bear. Every single one of us who’s a parent knows deep down that it’s possible we could lose our child — but we mostly don’t think about it, or we shake it off as improbable paranoia. And yet it happens. My husband Gregg’s son Jared died in 2012 at age 32. My friend Michele’s son Ryan died in 2013 at age 28. My high school buddy Chuck lost his only son Cameron, 26, a year ago April 27.

And recently I had to live through the trauma again while reporting on Samantha Cadd, a thoughtful, fun-loving 14-year-old Forest Grove girl who died in a car crash April 6.

For a very long time after Jared fell from Mt. Hood, every morning when Gregg woke up his first conscious thought was that his son was dead. He’d make tea, shower and get dressed, then face his own personal Groundhog Day as best he could. He felt guilty, as if he should have been able to prevent his boy’s death. He felt lost, as one does when one enters a familiar room in which all the furniture has been rearranged. The dynamics of his life had irrevocably shifted, dividing into black-and-white sections of Before and After. Now, four years later, his sorrow is less of a constant and more of a sharp pang whenever Jared falls into view — literally, as when a photograph drops from between the pages of a favorite book, or subconsciously, when he comes to his dad in a dream.

Gregg hasn’t been able to reach the place where happy memories replace deep grief, where remembering is reliably better than forgetting. Maybe he never will.

There are no words that can salve this kind of pain. There is no blueprint for how to go on without a beloved child except to just do it. One foot in front of the other, pausing to clear the mist from the eyes when the path is obscured. “How often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty?” C.S. Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed. “The same leg is cut off time after time.”

Getting over it is not an option. There is nothing a parent can do with such suffering, Lewis said, “except to suffer it.”

A Chinese nobleman, the story goes, once asked a philosopher to give his household a blessing. “Grandfather dies ... father dies ... son dies,” the wise man said, insisting that sequence represented true prosperity. The scholar knew there was nothing redemptive about the passing of a child. It’s entirely out of order.

All death is surprising and awful and hard. The simple truth of our mortality, something each of us recognizes before we’re out of grammar school, doesn’t keep us from mourning the absence of every person we have loved who has exited this world. Sometimes there’s nothing left but the missing.

But are some deaths easier to navigate than others? I have wondered that a hundred times, and I believe the answer is yes.

Nancy Townsley is managing editor of the News-Times and the Hillsboro Tribune.