When there is a death in the family there is inevitably a hefty conglomerate of emotions that accompany the loss. The first wave is disbelief, then frantic and desperate efforts to comprehend the depth of your sorrow. And there is denial and anger and, finally, acceptance. I've reached an age where my list of losses has become long and sorrowful, the most difficult being the loss of a son, something that no parent should ever experience, and for which no answers are ever sufficient. But, as I said, there exists a solidity to your grief when a love one is lost.
Far more ephemeral are the deaths of those who are merely "life pedestrians"; folks you meet in passing, or perhaps a little more substantial if it's someone you've worked rather closely with for a time.
So, this afternoon, my mind wondered, as it often does, to times in my life when people died whom I knew only casually. One of them especially sticks in my craw even today....puts an itch somewhere in my soul where one questions what they might have done to alter events.
When I was on my second tour of Korea we had a young man who clerked for the 1st Sergeant. He was about thirty years old, a mid-level career Technical Sergeant, mild of manner, quiet and polite at all times. Since I shared a community coffee pot with the 1st Shirt's people I was in and out of the clerk's office all day. And during those visits I might offer up a comment about a sports score, or the weather, or complain about slow mail delivery. The young clerk had sufficient social skills to interact with anyone he met but, somehow, we never got around to talking about anything personal.
So one morning I report to work and the office is in grievous turmoil. The young clerk had gone back to his barracks the previous afternoon and promptly killed himself. That was in 1983 and, to this day, I still think about what I might have done to steer him to a happier place in his life. Why didn't I share something personal with him, thus encouraging him to open up a bit more and perhaps help him find an outlet for whatever was tormenting him? Was my life so busy, was I so important that I could not have taken a few minutes each day and given this young man just a bit more of myself? It still haunts me to this day and probably will for the rest of my life. I've lost a few of my comrades while they were still in the full bloom of youth, and many more who passed far too early, but the senseless loss of that young man bothers me just a bit more because I will always wonder if an ounce of extra kindness might have prevented it.
The only salvation I can find from this experience is that, hopefully, I've become a little more sensitive to the human condition, a bit more empathetic to those who are really hurting. Since that incident I've had occasion to help some people "steady the boat" and resume the art of living. And I like to think that sometimes I've served as a conduit to those who just needed to talk. I guess you can't ever tell if any kindness you offered up did any good but, at least you try.
The poet Rod McCuen had a beautiful line in one of his poems; "I stand at the door and hear footsteps, and even if they do pass my door, at least they came my way." Maybe that'a all it takes, maybe not.