Life, Loss, Love

Recently Chris Yeh, my friend and business school classmate, and I both lost someone very dear to us.  My 94 year old grandfather died in August and Chris’s beloved 12 year-old dog passed away in September.  What they had in common were long, full lives and relatively short illnesses at the end.

Chris and I didn’t know each other that well at HBS.  We have developed a friendship since then that I prize highly, and it occasionally produces thoughtful exchanges like the one we had almost two years ago about optimism, the underrated virtues of melancholy, and the conundrum of memory.

Our recent conversation, about grief, the way it can derail even the most prepared people, and how we talk to our children about death, began when I commented on Chris’s thoughtful post about Kobe’s death.  Chris and I are the same age, 38 (Chris is still 37 for another three weeks, he wanted me to note!), and I think that’s relevant here, as we both careen into middle age and towards the inevitable passing of the generation(s) above us.  Our conversation was a powerful reminder that try as we may to prepare, life’s losses will startle and destabilize us.  Here’s what we shared:


So sorry, Chris. I love the way you describe Kobe, and in particular how you enriched these last few months. Xo


Thanks Lindsey!  As you know yourself, I find writing therapeutic.  Writing out my thoughts helps me get them out of my head.  It’s going to be a tough conversation with the kids tonight.


Oh, wow.  Yes, it is.

Talking to Grace and Whit about Pops’ passing was difficult because this is their first real experience of death.  I found they were interested in both the enormously granular details: what does the urn look like?  Do the bones burn when you cremate someone?  What happens to his clothes? And in the biggest of the big picture questions, also: where does Pops go?  Is he able to see Gaga (my deceased grandmother) now?

I love how you said that no matter what walls of rationality we erect, the experience of losing someone dear smashes through them.  I had this experience with my grandfather’s death last month.  Yes, he was 94.  And of course it was not a surprise, at least intellectually.  But it was still a loss, and still sad, and though I know people mean well when they point out what a wonderful and full life he had it somehow feels like they are denying the loss.  I hope that you aren’t feeling that way when people comment on how marvelous Kobe’s time here was.


It’s funny how kids fixate on the specific details.  Marissa, for example, saw one of those Discovery Channel specials on one of those services that stuffs your pets after they pass away.  She asked me if we could get Kobe stuffed.  In the end, I decided I didn’t even want her ashes.  I have many wonderful things to remind me of Kobe, including a host of photos and videos.  I don’t need some carbon atoms that happened to be in her body at the end.

I do appreciate all the well wishes from friends—it’s amazing how much you hear from folks on Twitter and Facebook as well.  The thing is, the people who point out what a wonderful life she had are right—she did have a wonderful life, a fact which I’m sure I’ll appreciate much more in a few weeks.

I remember writing about this at some point in time—like many people, I deceive myself into believing that I can fix anything.  Whatever the problem, I can pull some strings, or talk to someone, and I can make it go away.  But when cancer comes knocking, there’s no insider you can turn to, no secret treatments.  It doesn’t matter how much money you have, or how many people you know.

And that’s scary as hell, especially for folks who are used to thinking of themselves as bulletproof.

Life has a way of reminding us that we’re not, and that’s something we just have to accept.


I so utterly, absolutely agree.  And maybe this is just a classic thing to happen in your late 30s, this reminder.  I look ahead and I see so much mortality and stuff we can’t control ahead, just as I had started feeling like I have a vague handle on it.  And now I am newly aware that I certainly do not.


This year has been one long message from the world.  From Kobe’s death, to my friend Don’s successful fight with cancer, to my having to walk with a cane for two months because of my own misadventure.  While I’ve adamantly insisted that these are just freak occurrences, and not the signs of age, I’m starting to lose that conviction.

When I’m focused on other things, I can pretend that Kobe’s death was just a dream, and that she’ll return from a trip, same as ever.  But whenever I really think about it, I can’t escape the images and memories.  I notoriously hate hospitals.  And no matter how kind and helpful the doctors were, all I can remember is Kobe getting weaker and weaker until finally she couldn’t even stand.  That’s a concrete reality that changed how I look at the world.

I knew that Kobe would die someday, just like I know that my parents will die someday, just like I know that I will die someday.  But until a week or two ago, that was an abstract, far-off knowledge.  Now it’s all too real.

I’ll admit that in the past week I’ve thought about how it will feel when my parents die.  I’ve even thought about my own death.  I imagine that I’ll fight to the end, but if I lose consciousness, death may take me unawares.

But I’ve also learned a lot about grief and grieving.  Kobe was a daily part of our lives, which means we’re surrounded by reminders of her.  I decided that the best thing to do was to face them head on, and focus on the happy memories.

I placed a canvas print of Kobe above our kitchen table, so that we all see her at every meal.  Quite coincidentally, I had just ordered a photobook of Kobe’s pictures—the most recent was taken the week before her death—Marissa had dressed her in a bikini top and grass skirt, and she’s looking at the camera with the same expression of patience she always had with Marissa.  Both Alisha and I have taken to looking at the book every day.  While it brings up the pangs of grief, seeing all those happy pictures pushes those hospital images out of my mind and lets me focus on happy memories.


What you say about death being abstract until, suddenly, horrifyingly, it is concrete resonates with me.  I know that a large part of my grief about my grandfather’s death was my anxiety about advancing another step on the big board game of life.  Now my parents are the only generation above me.  And of course this has implications for them that scare me: thinking about my parents being ill or – devastatingly – passing away absolutely cripples me.  I can’t even begin to fathom what that will be like.  Some of it is more selfish, I suspect, too.  We grow ever closer to the top of that ferris wheel, as I often think of it.  Before we know it, it will be us and just us.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about moving into midlife, into the afternoon of life (as Jung called it), and how my children are coming into full bloom just as I begin to sense those ahead of me fading.  Not my parents, yet (and what a blessing that is) but others around me.  It’s a multi-layered thing.  It’s teaching my children about death.  It’s watching them deal with it for the first time.  It’s realizing that I can be distracted from my own grief because I’m so busy taking care of theirs.  It’s learning to sink into my role as the center of a family, and accepting the sometimes-heavy responsibilities that go with that.  It’s not easy, and sometimes – often – I just want to curl up on my grandparents’ couch, fall asleep, and have my young, vibrant father scoop me up and carry me to the twin bed upstairs that used to be my mother’s when she was a girl.


One memory that has always stuck with me is the day my grandfather died.  It was 1986, so I think I was 11 going on 12.  My grandfather passed away quite suddenly of a heart attack while undergoing dental surgery.  I was sad when my mother told me, of course, but what I always remember is when she told my father.  This was before cell phones, so he had no idea that his father had passed away until my mother told him.  She pulled him aside to their bedroom for privacy, so I didn’t see when she told him.  When I next saw him, it was clear that he had been weeping.   In my entire life, I had never seen my father cry until that day.  I’m sure that he knew his father would die someday, but it was still a terrible blow.

As we rise up that Ferris wheel, I think the greatest comfort we can have is our children, and our children’s children.  Think of the Bible, and its endless droning litany of descendants.  Yet as I get older, I begin to appreciate the power of that litany.

Scientists tell us that as we get older, time passes ever more quickly for us.   By the time we reach age 13, we’ve lived half of our subjective life (your 80th year passes a lot more quickly than your 5th).  Kind of depressing.  But life gives us a way to fight that passage.  When I’m with Jason and Marissa, time passes much more slowly (this isn’t always a good thing!).  As parents, I think we get great joy and benefit out of seeing the world through our children’s eyes.  Then, as the wheel continues to turn, we see the world through our grandchildren’s eyes, and if we’re lucky like your grandfather, our great-grandchildren.

When I talk to people about parenting, I tell them, “There is no substitute for having children.”  I always meant it in the economic sense of substitution, i.e. there is no equivalent experience.  But now I see that having children is probably the most common yet fundamental way we have of defying the passage of time, aging, and the inevitability of death.  To create life, however transitory, is the strongest statement we can make about our existence.

Nostalgia like an undertow

I can’t explain exactly why our now-annual trip to Legoland is so special, but it is.  A light veil of magic that descends on the three of us the minute we walk out of the airport in California and it floats around our shoulders until we get home.  On the taxi to the airport in Boston, as we set out on a long day of travel, Grace announced that she looked forward to this trip as much as she did to Christmas.  And on the second day, as we discussed the new Lego-themed hotel that is going to open this year and whether we should consider staying there, Whit brought tears to my eyes when he said,  “Well, it would be cool, probably, but I really like our tradition the way it is.”

They are as sentimental as I am, these two, and as wedded to ritual.  One of my firmest beliefs about parenting is that traditions, large and small, have huge power to ground children.  This trip is now one of the central rituals around which our family year spins.

Cruelly, the days of our short visit to California seem to accelerate every year.  This summer they passed in a blinding blaze of ice cream and swimming pool jumps and rides and laughter.  Our final day in the park I could not get Colin Hay singing just be here now (from his beautiful song, Waiting for my Real Life to Begin) out of my head.  I rode behind the children on the safari ride, watching them more than I did the incredibly detailed Lego animals, fighting to stay inside my own experience.  Nostalgia pulled at me like an undertow, and I struggled not to slide into full-blown grief for a trip that wasn’t even over yet.

This is a familiar pattern for me, and it was a part of my time at Legoland this year more keenly than ever.  It is so easy for me to slip into anticipatory grief about a moment being over even as I inhabit it.  My awareness of time’s passage grows more and more acute, and it is often an effort not to let the s0rrow of that unavoidable reality overwhelm me.  I remind myself that my days are short here, and that I risk squandering them by surrendering to a morass of relentless missing and sadness.  At the same time, I thank the universe for my own particular emotional wiring, because the truth is that being able to sense the throb of time under every minute makes my experience, while often painfully bittersweet, tremendously rich.

And I blink back my tears and smile when Grace and Whit barrage me with how they noticed for the first time that the giraffe’s head swivels, and then follow them as they run to the next ride.  Looking around as I try to keep up with them, drinking in with my eyes and nose and ears – with my whole self – this magic place.  This golden moment in my life.  Yes, it is about to end.  As hard as I try, I cannot get around that.  So the best I can do is be here now.


Closing a door

Last Thursday were Grace and Whit’s school closing ceremonies.  As he leaves 1st grade, Whit leaves the Morse Building, the part of the school for the very youngest children.  It’s where both of our children started at this school, at age 4, as Beginners.  The Morse Building will always be the first place I dropped my first baby off for her first day of school, and its halls, lined with large bright drawings and full of the clamor of small children, will always bring nostalgic tears to my eyes.

I sat in Whit’s closing ceremony, my husband on one side of me and one of my very dearest friends on the other, fighting tears as small voices songs from Free to Be You and Me and the theme from Greatest American Hero.  It was just moments ago that Whit was cross-legged on the mats on the floor while Grace sat on the stage, a member of the 1st grade, the “big kids” of the Morse Building.  Again, as it does so often lately, time collapsed and the radiance and sorrow of everyday life collided, sparks flying.  I fought to be here now as the past exerted itself like a riptide, dragging me down the disorienting corridors of memory.

Then the Morse Building children sang their traditional last song, Now It’s Time to Go, and I began to cry in earnest.  This year has not been any more full of lasts than any other, but my last child leaving this deeply special place has made them feel especially poignant.  The last Morse Building holiday concert, with a child curled on my lap on the floor as we all belt Snow Pants and I Am a Latke.  The last 1st grade assembly.  The last harvest festival.  I remembered Grace’s observation that she gets the firsts and Whit gets the lasts.  I swam in a morass of lasts, of endings, of farewells.

Once more, in that same small gym where so many transitions have been made and celebrated, the air was thick with both wonder and loss.  Wonder and loss, which are inextricably wound around each other, are the central notes of my life.

Then Grace celebrated the end her school year with the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grades.  Grace’s music teacher, who was also my music teacher, rushed over to me before the ceremony began and showed me a mimeographed page of the 1982 class lists.  My name appeared there, under IIS, with a star next to it to show I had been new that year.  The past clanged in my head and I held the back of the metal folding chair to keep my balance as that dizzying, familiar vertigo rose up: between past and present, between my daughter and myself, that this moment somehow contains all the moments that have come before.

And then it was over and we left.  We walked out through the Morse Building, through the doors I’ve pushed open with one hand so many hundreds of times, the other hand clasped by a small child.  Through the lobby where I’ve sat for hours, waiting for classrooms to open in the morning and for lines of children to emerge in the afternoon.  Past the nurse’s office where I’ve picked up children with strep, with stitches that have reopened, with mono, with sore collarbones.  Into the sunshine, blinking, through the playground where we’ve spent countless hours playing.  I can squint and see 4 year old Grace propelling herself around on the push tricycles, smiling at me across the yard while I sat on the faded wooden bench trying to restrain a wiggly toddler Whit from hurling himself into the fray.  The memories blinked in my mind like fireflies; they were brilliantly bright but I couldn’t make them stay.

And the heavy green door clicked shut behind us.  And we followed them out of the gate, which Whit is finally tall enough to open himself, and down the street.  My children leading me home and simultaneously walking away.

Radiance and sorrow.  Wonder and loss.  This one precious, devastating life.

20 years

Recently I went back to my high school 20th reunion.  And, again, I experienced that collapse of time, where years fold in on themselves and and a lifetime and a minute twist together in an disorienting spiral of memory and emotion.  It’s not a secret that I wasn’t particularly happy while I was at boarding school, but it’s also true that with every year that passes I respect my alma mater more.  I respect it for giving children credit, for holding them to an incredibly high standard, for asking a lot of young people because it knows that they are able to deliver it.

My memories of my time there are few, but vivid.  They revolve around cold, dark mornings and nights, running in the snowy woods, wet hair at late afternoon classes frozen into icicles, hours upon hours of homework, the senior play, and oval mahogany Harkness tables.

It was wonderful to be back.  Perhaps because my time on campus was not marked by particularly strong social bonds, returning is mostly devoid of the anxiety that revisiting this time in life holds for many.  There were, absolutely, joyful reunions with friends I hadn’t seen in a long time.  And happy conversations with people I didn’t know on campus but have come to since.  Perhaps most of all, it was powerful to watch my children with the children of my friends, all so much closer than we are to the age we were when we met, a fact that is dizzying, unbelievable, and irrefutable in equal measure.

There were a couple of places I was disappointed not to be able to get into, like Phillips Chapel and the indoors of the English classroom building, so I missed seeing them.  But otherwise, the day was jammed with special moments.

For instance, my daughter standing in front of the building where my love for words caught fire.  Those first two windows to the right of the front steps were where my favorite teacher taught.  It was in Mr. Valhouli’s classroom, and in the light of his kind, probing pedagogy that I first sensed my passion for reading and writing throb inside of me.  My daughter standing in the intersection of the quad across which I ran, holding my acceptance letter from Princeton (the first line of which said only, in bold all-caps, “YES!”) to hug my dear friend who was also going to Princeton.  The friend who is now Whit’s godmother, a true friend of my heart.

The new science center is downright awe-inspiring, and we wandered around it, agape, aghast, awe-struck.  The whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling, the large, professional-looking labs filled with shiny equipment, the walls filled with photographs, equations, and samples of bridge-building projects all drew Grace and Whit’s attention.  Mine was captured by this piece of paper, a photocopy of one of Mary Oliver’s poems, stuck on the wall of a Physics lab.  That right there tells you a lot about my high school.  And a lot about why I respect it so.  There’s a place for poetry even inside the world of Physics.  This is how I grew up, and it remains how I see the world.

The Academy Building in full sunshine, against a cornflower blue sky, reminds me most of all of my graduation day from this place.  It was a hot, early June day in 1992, and all four of my grandparents, my two parents, my sister, and my two godmothers were all there.  I am bewildered now to fathom the depth of this showing of support, and while I know I basked in love and family, I wish I could return there to look each of those people in the eye (three of them now gone) and tell them how much I love them, how often I thought of their counsel, how much I valued the ways they had shaped me as I grew into a young adult.

It has been 20 years since that day.  It feels like these 20 years flew by in a heartbeat, but I know that each year was lived thoroughly, to its depth and its width.  As I grow into my  middle-aged skin, inhabiting these years at the top of the ferris wheel, these years in the early afternoon of life, I reflect with nostalgia on a time when I was so young, so mutable, so filled with both promise and sorrow.  I feel deep compassion for my long-haired, confused, emotional adolescent self.  With the perspective of years, it is simple to identify those two years in New Hampshire as the ones where I learned how to learn, where my intellectual self took flight, where my passion for all the central cerebral interests of my life began.  And it is impossible to convey my gratitude for that gift.