Life, Death, and the Every Day

By Eric Segall

I am 58 years old and in the last two years have experienced more death and serious disease among my friends and family than in my previous 56 years combined. My family and I have lost close ones ranging in age from five (a friend of my two youngest daughters) to eighty-five (my Mom). One friend’s spouse, a perfectly healthy and fit 40ish mother of two small children went swimming and a few hours later developed strange severe symptoms and then died just a few weeks later from unknown causes. A 58 year old friend had a heart attack in her sleep and never woke up (she had never had heart issues before). Last weekend, I visited a dear friend who recently learned he has ALS. He has a hard time walking or using his hands despite just 18 months ago being physically fit and athletically active. I could go on and on with other examples but you get the idea.

So all of this has made me think a lot about life and death recently. In light of the Supreme Court’s summer recess, the absolute dearth of any news about Judge Garland’s nomination, and the depressing federal election, I thought I would exploit the word “More” in Mike’s Blog title above to share a few thoughts and ask a few questions about our time here and how we deal with it. I have fears this essay may be too maudlin for many but also hope that maybe it might provide something a tad helpful to folks who have recently suffered serious loss.

One on-the-surface emotion I have felt is to try to be mindful every day that tomorrow could look quite different than yesterday in ways that I can’t possibly imagine. The lessons would be to appreciate all we have, focus on the positive, and minimize the small annoyances of everyday life that won’t matter in a week or a month. I really want to feel this way. But, what I have found, is that, like all aspirations, those perspectives are extremely hard to maintain.

Sometimes the grief is so overwhelming that it is hard to feel grateful for the positive aspects of our lives. How can a perfectly healthy five-year-old develop brain cancer, suffer for over a year, then pass from us before her life really even begins? I hugged and loved my children a lot during the days between her death and her funeral, but I felt as much sadness for her family as appreciation for mine.

Since my Mom passed at Christmas, my major emotion has been that it is surreal and awful that I can’t pick up the phone and call her to discuss my small daily anxieties. I love my Dad and I am grateful that at 87 he is still with us playing cards and as smart as ever, but my positive feelings about that are intertwined a bit with the grief over my Mom (they were married for over 60 years). And my friend’s ALS, and the way it has impacted his life and his family’s lives, makes me much more scared about the randomness of disease than happy about my wife’s and my children’s good health today.

I have never been a person of faith, though I am much more agnostic than atheist. These last two years have raised profound questions for me about how people of strong faith get along and has made me just a little jealous of their ability to process death through the lens of an ever-after. I have never understand how an all-powerful and all-good God squares with so much pain and suffering here on Earth. When people of faith start talking about free will, I tune out. If there’s a heaven, why can’t it be heaven all the time? If our fallen five-year-old friend is there right now, and I so badly want to believe that she is, then why did she (and so many others) have to suffer so much first?

On the other hand, the enormous spirit and resilience I have observed over the last 24 months have at times filled me with awe and love. In this new social media world, it is easier than ever for people to respond to tragedy with kindness and generosity and that is exactly what I have seen. From donations to yard sales to internet prayers those I know who have suffered great loss have also experienced how the acts of others can bring solace and healing. I have seen communities come together to provide love and support to those left behind. I have personally observed, over and over, how people who have lost family members and close friends have tried to make others feel better, have tried not to be a burden, and have committed themselves to making the world a better place for others who might experience a similar loss. And, at funeral after funeral, I have heard inspiring stories of the wonderful lives of those who left us too soon but who affected so many while they were here. These stories have made me, and I am sure others, want to do better in the here and now, and that is a significant silver lining to these tragedies.

So, even after we experience great loss, we go on with our days and raise our families, see our friends, do our work. My kids just started school, my own classes began, and soon the Court will be back in session. I know now more than ever that during my first 56 years of life, I was amazingly lucky. And that feeling lasts for a while but then I think about those not so lucky or my friend with ALS or the five year old whose parents called her their little angel. And all I can do is my best to appreciate my life now, my wife, my children, my friends and my work. Some days that feels good enough and some days it feels like not nearly good enough. And then, with some luck and the kindness of others, and watching the spirit of those less fortunate than I am, it feels good again.