We Are Never Alone

The other day I was rolling through my Facebook News Feed and came across a beautiful photo of some pink rocks arranged in a heart shape around some purple flowers.

My friend’s little girl had arranged the rocks and flowers. Apparently my friend, her mother and her daughter had once spent an afternoon searching for all the pink rocks in the yard with Grandma. Weeks later, the little girl’s grandmother passed away suddenly. My friend and her daughter still handle those rocks and talk about how Grandma is still with them. Her daughter was 2 then. Now she’s 7. This sweet child arranged the rocks and photographed them. I thought it was really beautiful.

My heart ached so much as I looked at that picture. (I’m hoping to get her permission to share that photo with you here.)

I know how it feels to grieve someone you love. My father died when I was 19.

My father, James Edmund Hampton, a few weeks before he died. This photo was taken at a co-worker's wedding in June 1994.
My father, James Edmund Hampton, a few weeks before he died. This photo was taken at a co-worker’s wedding in June 1994.

I had just returned from a 3-month study abroad program in France, where I lived with a host family. Of all the observations I made in France, the most poignant was just watching my host family. They were going through an excruciating time in their lives. I lived with Elli and Paulette Teissiers, who were in their sixties at the time. Their 2 daughters were both grown and living in other cities. Their youngest daughter, Evangeline, who was probably about 29 at the time, also had 2 children, a 4-year old boy named Florian and a 9-month old baby named Serena. I loved those children SO much but it was almost impossible for me to even look at their mother.

Eva was a widow and her story terrified me. She had been 7-months pregnant with their second child when her husband, Olivier, was killed in a motorcycle accident.

I lived with the Teissiers family for 3 months and it took me most of that time to really understand what had happened to Olivier. All I really knew was that their daughter was a sad single mom whose older child spent a lot of time in our house.

At that time and throughout my high school years, my mother was an Oncology nurse and my dad was a Hospice volunteer so I had seen grief. I’d held the hands of adult daughters whose mothers had just died. I’d lost my own paternal grandmother to a heart attack. The difference between those experiences and Eva’s was that, to me, those other losses had been “natural.” It made sense to me that an older person would die. While sad, it makes sense for a grandparent to pass on, followed by their children, followed by their grandchildren. Olivier’s death did not make sense to me. A young man enjoying a fun afternoon ride through the countryside with his best friend – that person should not die.

While in nursing school, my mom had done rotations through each hospital department. I remember when she was working in the ER that the doctors sometimes referred to motorcycle riders as “organ donors.” This sounded sick to me, but my mom explained that when viral young men die in motorcycle accidents they make great donors because they’re young and healthy. I think there is something beautiful and almost holy in organ donation. I never want to lose another person I love, but if I do, I hope they can be an organ donor. Knowing the person I loved lives on in another person is a magical idea.

I don’t know if Olivier was an organ donor but I do know that his death left a very long wake of grief, including a widow who had no idea how to continue, 2 children who would never know their father, in-laws who wanted to make everyone all better and a foreign exchange student with her mouth gaping. I could not comprehend their grief.

And then…just 2 days after my return from France, my father died in a car accident. He was 49.

The depth of my grief knew no bottom. I wanted to shout. I wanted to curse. I wanted to break things. I wanted to make someone else hurt A. LOT. I wanted to cast the shadow of my loss across the bright June sun so that it would stop shining and give my heart a moment to reconcile my dad-less reality.

But the thing about grief is that it’s not an entirely solitary experience. Like it or not, you have to share your grief with the other people. For example, my friend’s husband died in a sailing accident a few years ago. Crazy life circumstances had happened such that I had not yet met him. Knowing we had tons of good times ahead, it didn’t seem like a big deal when one or the other couple missed a dinner or a party – we would connect next time. When he died, there was no more opportunity for a next time and yet, I grieved him at her side. I grieved a man I never met.

That’s the thing – you share your grief with everyone around you. I never knew Olivier but his life and death changed my life. I never knew my friend’s husband but I grieved his death with buckets of tears. I shared my own grief with my widowed mother, devastated brother and sister and many, many other people.

The church was full at my father’s funeral. As I looked around during the mass, I kept wondering what all those people were even doing there. Why did they come because they didn’t even know him?

Now I understand. Grief is like an earthquake. Near the epicenter, the force is strong enough to cause massive destruction and irreparable harm. But as the plates move and the ground shakes, the waves continue, weakened. Not all damage caused by an earthquake is disastrous but every person who is alert feels something.

Losing my dad was the worst thing I’ve ever experienced. Watching my friend’s body shake as she thought through the details of her husband’s watery death was excruciating and yet I learned so much from her in those early days of her widowhood. She told me over and over again that her husband died on a perfect day. Their love was secure and they had no regrets. She told me so many times that there was nothing left unsaid between them. I love that. I replay those words in my mind all the time because I want to love without regret and leave nothing unsaid.

When my Facebook friend lost her mother, I imagine she was consumed with grief. Apparently her young daughter was too. But my friend was not alone because her daughter is there to arrange the pink rocks in a beautiful memorial to the woman they both loved.



Sunday seemed like a normal enough day, except for a few things: 1) I ran half of a half marathon in SF with my sister (2) Northern California finally got a bit of the rain we so desperately need and (3) it was Super Bowl Sunday – a game most Northern Californians only watched for commercials.

It was a super long day for me, starting at 5am to get out to the race. Neither of us was trained up for a half marathon so we knew going in that we would only be doing about half of it. I’m proud to say that we sucked up the weather and ran it. We skipped the finish line but enjoyed the post race food expo!

My family watched the Super Bowl with some good friends and left after the 3rd quarter when it was clear that the Seahawks were going to win.

During the drive home, I checked my Facebook to see what was happening out there and learned some tragic news. A wonderful former colleague of mine, Eric, whom I didn’t know well but respected very deeply, had died of cancer that morning. Eric was quite a guy. French through and through, but so happy in San Francisco with his beautiful French wife. They had 3 children.

Since I learned that news, I’ve been changed. Sadly, my life has been dotted with stories of both close family friends and acquaintances dying of cancer. My mother was an Oncology nurse and my father was a Hospice volunteer. Both nurturers of the sick, my parents taught me a deep sense of empathy. I visited many of their patients. I even brought VHS movies to the hospital to watch with some patients. I was a part of their patients’ lives and grieved each loss along with them.

Sunday night I was so tired I could have slept on a dining room chair. But last night, I couldn’t get Eric out of my mind. I tossed and turned thinking about him, remembering his smiling face. Early this morning, as my husband got up and reached for his glasses, I thought about Eric’s glasses. I thought about the Facebook photos of him I studied last night trying to figure out how the cancer could have possibly chosen him. Eric was different from other people – he smiled all the time, he looked you straight in the eye and his spirit was purely positive. He was so bright, charming and kind. Why? He was my age. His children are my children’s ages…his 3 to my 2. His wife must feel so lost. His children must feel so confused and alone without their daddy.

After having lost my father at 19 (not to cancer), I’ve been in constant fear of losing the people closest to me. Every time I hear the story of someone near me dying or losing their closest loves, I feel cold and terrified. Almost 2 years ago and within 2 weeks of one another, one of my best friends lost her husband in a sailing accident and another friend lost her 4 year old daughter to brain cancer. The world is scary and unpredictable. I can’t control it. I can’t protect my loves from what could come.

I don’t know how to end this post other than to say that I’m sad. I’m sad for Eric and his beautiful family. I’m shocked that he’s gone. It just doesn’t seem possible that the world should lose such a wonderful person so early in life.