My friends Rhonda and Steve lost their son, David, nine years ago. He died suddenly of cardiac arrest. It was a tragic loss that shook the community much the way an unexpected earth quake does. We were all - David’s friends and peers, Rhonda and Steve’s friends, and every parent who knew them and who ever uttered that fervent prayer, please God, don’t let it be my kid - engulfed in the aftershocks of disbelief. We struggled to get our heads around how this could possibly have happened. David was a great kid, a gifted baseball player, a likely professional baseball draft, and would have been, in a week or so, on his way to a full ride at Seton Hall University. To say that his death was the reversal of everyone’s expectations, is an understatement, to say the least.
Almost immediately, family and friends did whatever they could to memorialize this kid. David’s friends organized a baseball game in his honor. All the players wore shirts that had Bachner with his jersey number printed on the back. It was a surreal experience walking up to the field, seeing nine players, all dressed in black shirts with David’s name on the back, as though his spirit had returned from the dead and was now masquerading as nine grim reapers who had come to finish this last baseball game. This was the first of many memorial games that would happen over the years.
David’s sister, Kelly, posted a Facebook collage with pictures of the two of them. That heart wrenching collage featured photo after photo of David through the years, playful as a kid, blond with a huge smile that would melt your heart, but then also the incredible young man he had grown up to be. David’s older step-brother, Rhett, gave the eulogy and there was not a dry eye in the place. As I said, his death was a horrifying shock, a cruel reminder to all who had children that Death could always show up unexpectedly, none of us were safe. That whole first year was surreal. It was this strange juxtaposition where we all went on with our “normal” lives, until someone remembered or mentioned David, at which point we all slipped back into this weird paralyzing and disorienting fog.
Early on I can remember Rhonda saying that her biggest fear was that people would forget David. Honestly, when she first said that to me, I couldn’t get it. I remember thinking that it was a silly fear. Silly was the adjective that came immediately to my mind. Thank God I had the presence of mind not to actually say that I thought it was a silly fear. I mean, you don’t exactly tell the grieving mother that anything she says or thinks is silly, but, really, I thought it was a silly fear. After all, the kid had an apparel line (Unhittable) created in his memory, a memorial fund to finance little league baseball teams in less affluent areas, a scholarship in his memory, a Facebook page where people would post pictures of themselves in various places across the globe wearing their Unhittable apparel, and there was standing room only at both the one year and two-year remembrance ceremonies.
As it turns out, Rhonda’s fear was not silly. A year or so ago, I received a hysterical call from Rhonda over the very issue of David being forgotten. As I said, it is nine years since David passed away. Nine years of holidays without David, nine years of birthdays he wasn’t here to celebrate, nine years of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day that were never quite right because no matter what the other children do, there is one child missing and the missing is what shows up. But this is just the beginning. David’s friends are all now graduating from college, getting engaged and finding jobs and moving to new and exciting areas of the country. They are pursuing their dreams. The number of people who reach out to the Bachners has dropped dramatically. The people who were like family to them have gone on to have lives that are not available to Rhonda and Steve. They have been busy celebrating graduations and engagements, weddings and the births of their first grandchildren, all things that Rhonda and Steve will never celebrate. In some senses, those people who knew David from the time he was in grade school to the day he died are now, much like David himself, just a beloved memory, collateral damage accrued in the wake of David’s death.
And it isn’t just David’s friends or the people who were like family to the Bachners that have drifted away, but the rest of the Bachner family has changed since David’s death. Many of the family have created lives that now leave David out, as though in his death his life became invisible. For instance, about a year ago, David’s step-brother, Rhett, and his fiancé were planning their wedding. It was a destination wedding in Mexico and, like many engaged couples, they were attending to every detail, both large and small, to have their wedding be a total reflection of who they are and the future they wanted to create together. In relaying their plans to Rhonda and Steve, they made it clear that that David’s name should not be mentioned at the wedding. Now, to be fair, Rhett’s mother, who had passed away, was also not being remembered in any way at their wedding, so excluding David was not personal. Except, that’s the thing. The not including him IS personal to Rhonda and Steve. They know the boys were close. Rhonda and Steve have no way of pretending that the boys were not close. They imagine that David might have even been Rhett’s Best Man, and the vision of both boys standing together on such a special day haunts them. They can see how it might have been had David not died, and they can’t un-see it. How it cannot be personal makes no sense to Rhonda and Steve. What’s personal about it is that David has now been relegated to a sort of limbo where there is no defined place in the family for him, so he is left out.
If I were a betting girl, I would bet that the reason Rhett and his fiancé did not include those who have predeceased them is because, like many people, they felt that including family members who have passed would be sad or would bring a sadness to the event. I think it is typical that we want those days, those precious days that mark milestones in our lives to be filled with happiness and joy. It is a pretty common belief that including the family members who have passed casts a gloomy shadow over what should be an otherwise happy day. I would assert that the exact opposite is true. By including the dead, we create an environment that is a much more accurate representation of who we are, more inclusive, honoring that we are who we are becauseof the relationships we had with those who have gone before us. I can imagine that Rhett’s mother would be thrilled to see him so happy on this day. I can imagine David would be the biggest goof-ball on the planet at his brother’s wedding.
Somewhere along the way, as a culture, we began to tell ourselves the lie that when we lose someone close to us that we are first sad, then we grieve and then we get over the loss and get on with our lives. There are books and articles written about the Stages of Grief and how we are supposed to pass through those stages on our way to “healing”. Well, here is a heads-up. We never get over the loss of someone we love. We may move beyond the initial shock and numbness and disbelief that tears through us and leaves us raw, but we never get over the loss. In fact, I am not sure why we would even want to “get over” the loss. Why would we want to have lives where we don’t remember people we loved and lost? Is there some benefit to that? Are we less sad if we don’t talk about and include those who have passed away? I have seen no evidence that this is true and, in fact, I would argue that whatever moving on or healing that happens is a direct result of remembering and honoring those we have lost.
Why is it that we frequently honor people we define as heroes, people we never knew, authors, activists, artists, athletes, yet we do not include those we knew and loved intimately in our day-to-day lives? Perhaps it is because we are impacted by the lives of famous heroes, but we are not devasted by their deaths. Of course, that may be the case only because we have not practiced honoring and including those whose deaths devastated us. We could just as easily celebrate and include our own beloved and have the sadness and devastation give way to their spirit and soul. I also assert that when we seek to “get over”, to not include our loved ones that have passed, that we lose not only what was precious about them, but we lose a piece of ourselves. We are who we are because we have loved, because we have had those relationships, because of all that we experienced before Death comes to claim them. We are who we are because of their deaths and the enormous loss we feel. To pretend otherwise is ridiculous.
The memories of those we love are precious and sharing them is a way to stay connected not only to the person but to all who knew the person. This would take a contextual shift in our view of how we treat our dead, for sure, but it is one worth making. It is a shift that might ultimately serve to apply a salve to relieve some of the pain of a wound that will never heal. Including them allows us to be who we are – our past, our present and our future all woven together like a unique quilt. Contemporary dancer and choreographer, Martha Graham says “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.” When we not only bury the dead, but then also cut them out of our lives, we block their unique expression that cannot exist through any other medium. We lose them, we lose the piece of ourselves that is unique because we loved them. Both those who we have lost, along with precious pieces of ourselves that loved them, are no longer accessible - forgotten, put away, like the good silver and fine china to be brought out once or twice a year, but not to be included in who we are today.
And, as for people like my friends, Rhonda and Steve, my heart breaks. I imagine that their experience of life is as though a wide net was cast and that net includes a lot of people, places and things, but it does not include them. They are on the outside of the net looking in, smiling, chatting with the people inside the net, attending weddings and showers and parties with people inside the net, but they will never be inside the net again. They are the parents of a dead child. That’s the net they now really belong in, and people not in that particular net, hold them at an arm’s distance. They would rather exchange pleasantries and pretend that that one little defining factor – being a parent to a dead kid - didn’t exist, which is exactly why David is both gone and forgotten. It is also why it is very personal.