The shock. The suddenness of a loss that blots out your entire universe. I read a couple of weeks ago that only 20% of deaths in the United States today are completely unanticipated. I was surprised, since my personal experience has been so different. My 28-year-old mother and year-old brother killed in a car accident. My 48-year-old stepmother killed in a fall. My 49-year-old aunt dead almost instantly of a stroke or heart attack. My 24-year-old son, dead by suicide.
There is, of course, a sense of shock even when the death has been expected, even when its imminence has been the focus of life. That reality first became apparent to me when I was in law school and my husband's uncle died of cancer. He was at home, where his family had cared for him during the last weeks of his life, and his wife's response was one of such overwhelming anguish and agitation that I realized that even when you know what is going to happen, you can't quite accommodate it until it does. I saw the same thing over and over again during my CPE experience at Giant Famous Hospital last summer. Probably close to 75, maybe many more, of my patients died while I was actually there on the campus, usually with them. I can't think of a single survivor who wasn't visibly shaken, heartbroken, devastated ~ and it made no difference whether their loved ones had been in the hospital a matter of hours or a matter of months. The completeness of death startles and undoes us no matter the circumstances.
As far as I can piece together, in the first hour or so after learning of my son's death, which had happened the night before while while I was four hours from home at a retreat center, I talked by telephone to my husband who was at home and called to tell me, to my daughter's college advisor and then to my daughter in Oregon, to my brother and son en route to our house from the southern part of the state, to a detective in Chicago, to my spiritual director who was at home, to my son's girlfriend in Chicago, to our pastors who were at church, and to a good friend at home. Some of those calls I can remember, some I only know must have taken place because of information I seem to have acquired in the first hours. The only person I knew at the retreat center, where I had been for a little more than a day, was the Jesuit who was my director for the week I had planned there, and so I talked to him off and on through the late afternoon and early evening, as I waited for friends to come for me. He offered his office and computer, and so I sent a few emails to others to whom I am close, knowing that within another few hours I would be unable to manage anything of the sort.
I felt encased in some kind of impermeable shell, into which the faintest knowledge of an ominous reality had somehow seeped, a reality that was gathering the steam that would enable it to crash its way into every corner of our lives and explode that shell into thousands of pieces.
It feels as if that explosion is still reverberating. I guess it will always feel that way.