Sometimes I look at old family photographs and count how many people are gone. The number is significant. I am only 32. How have I lost so many people in such a short time? My family has dwindled. Even recent pictures show people who should be here but aren’t.
I feel this loss most acutely at the end of the year. The family holidays of my childhood were large affairs. They were never extravagant or glamorous. I was born into a proud middle-class family in New York – lower middle-class by some definitions. Work was a virtue, not a burden. No one had the money or desire for hors d’oeuvres that weren’t simple pretzels or supermarket cheeses on crackers. No one drank very much. Our meals were hearty and plentiful but basic, often eaten off paper plates.
Those gatherings seem far away. I picture them as black-and-white archival footage: I am watching a silent newsreel of another person’s life.
Now I have one grandmother left. Her 95th birthday approaches. She’s in good health, but is beginning to show some signs of decline. Of course, one expects one’s grandparents to pass away. There is something honourable and noble about living into the eighth or ninth decade and then departing the earth. It feels just and natural.
Other deaths feel like violations, as if some shady repo man had rifled your private things and taken a family heirloom. He took my cousin Marion, whom I thought of as an aunt because she was decades older than me. She died a few years ago, after a long illness. I can still hear her voice; it reminds me of my childhood. She was older, yes, but not old enough.
The repo man also took my first cousin and close friend Michael, who committed suicide in 2013 aged 40. He did it not long after we had a bad argument, which we never resolved.
On to this ledger, the latest and most searing entry: in November 2014, my older brother Matt was diagnosed with brain cancer. He died in August 2016. He was only 38 and left behind three young daughters.
If you’ve never lost a member of your immediate family, I can’t quite tell you how it feels. And if you have experienced it, well, this isn’t a contest to see who has faced the most tragedy in his or her life. I would lose that contest as surely as I would a one-handed pole-vaulting competition.
But here’s what I can muster: everything feels smaller. Not just the family gatherings. Your life itself feels shrivelled, desiccated. The world remains a big and imposing place, but you have, in a real way, been diminished inside it.
And shall I introduce you to my new friend? His name is guilt. Why am I still here, celebrating holidays, drinking red wine, enjoying shoddy horror films, playing with my nieces, when my brother is not?
I’m not trying to be depressing: this is reality. People die. More of my family will eventually die. There, I said it. Life is both beautiful and terrifying.
So learn from it. If you find yourself faced with unimaginable grief or tragedy, how should you deal with this?
I know only one thing for sure: life is not about finding some “bright side of things”, which I was always told to seek out as a child. You’ll realise, usually much too slowly, that there never was a dark or bright side. Life isn’t a polygon, with discrete “sides”.
It’s more like a vast field without any signposts, over which a fog is continually descending and lifting. There is no state of “happiness” – a condition of undisturbed, blissful stasis, in which you’ve finally reached some Hegelian plane of your full potential.
You’ll never get there, because it’s a mirage. You’ll always be interrupted by everyday existence, which is a mixture of fleeting happiness and fleeting sadness.
Knowing this, you can lead a better life in general, not just in painful times. You’ll stop seeking perfection. You won’t think of “happiness” as some remote destination, which you’ll only reach after crossing one of life’s distant thresholds – getting rich, retiring or reading enough self-help literature. You’ll begin to see happiness as something you can gain, and lose, any day of the week.
As for grief, well, he’s another of your new unwanted friends.
I’ve begun to understand that he’ll stick around longer than most, because grief is a form of uncertainty that no amount of learning can vanquish. For instance, I have a feeling I’ll see my loved ones again one day. I do feel there is some kind of heaven. But it’s only a feeling. There’s always doubt, and in that doubt lies grief.
Robert Wargas is the Catholic Herald’s foreign correspondent