I received the news yesterday that an amazing former student lost her life to cancer. The message wasn’t a shock, as I had known about the particularly brutal illness, but advance knowledge of death only softens the blow as much as tacking a blanket to brick wall before a car slams into it.
It still takes your breath away.
I’m numbed right now, as the names and faces of all of the students and former students gone too soon keep tumbling through my brain. I grieve for their families, grappling with accepting the impossible. I grieve for their friends, trying to figure out how to assimilate this into their life script, balancing loss at the same time they’re ready to step foot into independent life.
I relate so much to these kids because I lost too many friends at a young age. By the time I left high school, the death toll had reached eleven. Eleven. Some were suicides, many accidents. One was a homicide committed by another friend. Yet I still managed to hold onto that sense of optimism that permeates youth.
Until that one October day when I called a high school friend from the hallway of my university only to learn of two more deaths.
It was simply too much. I remember quietly weeping while on the phone. And then, after hanging up, wiping my eyes and deciding that I was done. Not with the tears, but with letting myself be hurt. In that moment, I made the very deliberate choice to create distance from the friends in my life, only allowing my boyfriend (and future husband) to have access to my heart.
It made sense, I reasoned. After all, letting in these people caused pain. So I would head it off at the pass.
No love, therefore no loss. A simple calculation with unexpected results.
Years passed. I made new friends, unattached to high school and untouched by the curse that seemed to befall my alums. Yet I still remained guarded, feeling protected in my little bubble where only my husband resided.
And then I lost him.
The bubble burst. The walls cracked open. I realized that by striving to avoid loss, I had been avoiding life. It’s like protecting a smart phone with a case so padded that the device isn’t fully operational. It may not crack if dropped. But at what cost?
Again, I made a conscious decision. Only this time, my choice was to never again run away from connection because of the fear of loss. This time, I vowed to stay open, to be in the hard moments, even when they take my breath away.
So now, when I have to say goodbye too soon to another student, I feel grateful that I had the honor of knowing them and I try to help their friends make a different choice than I did all those years ago.
Loss is a high price to pay. But it’s the price of living.