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Grieving the Death of a Near Stranger, Who Was Once a Friend

By ndtamblyn 2 years ago

Most deaths we hear about must pass by like some remote thing – the latest sad news in the daily if now hourly round of it, a friend of a friend, and older people in loved ones’ extended circles for whom death has become expected, and yet when our own nearest loved ones die, at any age and in any condition, our natural grieving can be so close as to be near to suffocating.

I was devastated to learn today of the death of an acquaintance – my former government colleague who, with her rare compassion as well as the sincere rapport of a fellow introvert, was also my friend – in her mid-thirties from bowel cancer.

The thing is or was, I had not seen her for ten years, but had followed her journey through her online articles and blog and the occasional news stories they generated. She was, to take the line from The Killing of Georgie (adapting gender), “the kindest girl I ever knew” (before I met my wife).

As her condition worsened throughout the past year, I drafted a couple of emails, saying, “We used to work near each other (as you well know – and we were even social on occasions now and then outside of the office!), and I’m so deeply sad about what you’re going through because you’re so incredibly kind, and it all is so totally unfair.”

As time went by, the email got shorter, as I honed it to being less strangely out of the blue and, I hoped, gentler without offering fake hope at the most traumatic and last period of her life (the pain was, she wrote, at times barely endurable), and less focused on perhaps my own latent compulsion to analyse all earthly things through the lens of death (as I think they ought to be), and, looking down at so many new comments appearing on her Facebook posts, I knew that there were countless others saying what I was intending to say, and I put it off till after Christmas (a sad time for her), her birthday (a happy time for her), and then her most recent operation – but it turned out to be her last.

I am filled with sadness at the situation, and know that she was loved and cared for by many others, who said everything that I had wanted to say and more and I am glad that they did so while she was alive. It is a death very separate to me, after so much time having passed from the years of our working acquaintance, and I was reluctant to create any strange feeling about my abrupt appearance after so much time (though her social media, and various passionate and heartbreakingly honest articles she wrote, aimed to bring greater awareness to bowel screening and better diet in aid of preventing bowel cancer, and ways to speak to cancer sufferers – which has genuinely struck home with me).

“It’s chaos. Be kind,” says Patton Oswalt giving voice to his wife Michelle McNamara, who passed away suddenly and cruelly as she neared the end of writing I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. In our nonbelieving and temporal world, this is all but the only truth we cling to, knowing injustice lurks in every moment of both strangers’ and our lives – and if not injustice, we always sense the coming inhumanity, sadness, and pain.

I will miss the woman who was once my friend, even though I did not send her the words I had wanted to send, and even though, as if she were more a public figure than the lady I knew that was always kind to everyone, she would not have thought of me in years. I remember her friendly smile, her boldness and positivity in spite of health challenges she faced over many years prior to and then during her two debilitating bouts of bowel cancer, and her saying once in a more casual work email, “I love Adam Sandler – he always cracks me up!”

When some people die, the world loses the light of a kind and positive nature, and the world is that much darker today. I am sad and angry that she never got to shake off the worry of various illnesses, and then be able to meet a partner with whom she could grow old or older and have the children that she desired to. I am heartbroken at the depth of the loss for her parents, and the endless grieving that her closest friends and family must live with now that disease has taken her from them forever. Some people barely yield a reason and rationale for occupying their place on the Earth, and not a few make the world a worse place. When I see the smiling but pained photographs of her in the final and hardest months, I can barely keep myself from slamming my fist down on the table to express my fury at the years and the possibilities for happiness that illnesses deprived her of, others unable to do anything then and now do nothing but remember – so I am left to feel numbly sad and hopelessly angry instead.

She suffered through many of the years of her life and, as sickness finally coerced her away to her eternal rest, freed from pain, losing her unique and youthful spirit still hurts in a profound way. In spite of our distance of time as well as place, my world is worse today with my old friend’s death, and, as meaningful as her legacy has been to me and others, I feel the world today is dark and dispirited in ways too miserable and unkind for words with her being gone.


  Grieving, Mortality
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