The email popped up on my Mama Says So phone from the High School Principal. It was one of those you don’t want to read because it starts out “ It is with the deepest sorrow and regret that I inform you…. “ . At that point, you have to scroll down, and you are praying that the death is no one you know. In this case, it is someone we know – a friend and neighbor. A freak car accident claimed the life of a sophomore boy who was known and loved by the community. It is one thing to know the child, it is even worse to know the mother.
I live in a tightly knit Midwestern neighborhood. We have a particular way of dealing with tragedies like this. First, we all receive the email within the same 4 hours. Then we all cry. We cry privately and together. And then we cry some more. Those closest to the family flock to the house, and the rest of us pour our grief into casseroles. Yes. Casseroles. The thing about death is that it requires ceremonies and gatherings. Gathering draw people and people need to be fed. So those of us who are thanking God that it was not our own tragedy this time create a memorial of Tupperware and Pyrex since it is all we can do. We deliver the food to the house, and then to their neighbor’s house when it is obvious that there is no more capacity for the food offerings of condolence.
The next phase of our communal grieving is the wake at the funeral home. This is an ordeal where the family stands by the casket of their dead son, and greets mourners from 3:00 to 9:00. But there are 1,000 people at any given time with a line that reaches outside of the funeral home and down the block. From the time we joined the line, it was 3 hours until we reached the family. With that kind of attendance, the family, the Mom, Dad and two brothers stayed at their post until 11:00 that night. I kept thinking “How is she managing to get through this? How can she come to terms with the worst thing that can happen to a mother?” But when the reception line brought me in the same room with the mother, my friend, I saw that she and her husband were up there hugging and comforting all of us. I was stunned! The brothers were shouldering through the ordeal as thousands of Jack’s team mates, neighbors, friends, teachers, wept and paid respects. Likewise, hundreds of neighbors, family and friend of the parents trudged through. We hoped to have some words of comfort for Mike and Susan, and were amazed to find that they were preparing words and hugs of comfort for us. Their faith was getting them through the worst of the events as they firmly believe that their son was an angel on loan to us, and it was just his time to return “Home”.
The next phase of the collective grief is the funeral, which is too sad to even recount. In the ceremony the family extends their love and absolution to their son’s best friend who was driving the car at the time of the accident. The whole community then openly sobs together as we realize how many live are affected so profoundly by this freak accident. Again, everyone hopes that if put in a similar situation, they can be as magnanimous and loving as this grieving family.
We all know that this is the initial phase of grief and loss of an amazing kid from our midst. It seems cliché to say it could not have happened to a nicer kid or a nicer family – but it is true. But the consistency to our neighborhood’s mid western grief is that we show up to bear witness to the loss and pain. Even those of us who did not know the child have an innate sense of obligation to help carry the loss. We are all so thankful that this Principal’s email, this tragedy was not our own. We will pour our sorrow and condolence into Pyrex containers, and offer whatever help we can so they know that Jack will always be remembered and that they are not suffering alone. This is not the first loss to befall our little neighborhood. Unfortunately, we know what to do.