On August 16, 1996, an ordinary day became extraordinary. I was in Naples, Maine, where my grandparents retired. My first day of high school was just two weeks away, and I knew it was a day to savor before one chapter of my childhood ended and a new one began.
August in Maine is a telling time. The seasons tell you what they want you to know — the sunlight and air are reminiscent of departures and arrivals. Sunlight suddenly falls through the trees with an ease that is unlike its constant glaring and burning in July. The air hints of fall as it fluctuates between thickly humid and crisp. These are subtle signs to Northeasterners that summer and fall are rubbing up against each other. I did not realize that this August day was about to tell me something I could not have imagined.
Just before lunch some aunts and uncles arrived from Massachusetts. I knew fun was ahead. With more adults around, my grandfather would entertain us with his blues organ-playing and inappropriate humor.
There was no fun to be had. Chaos erupted during lunch.
Without warning, my aunt died at the table while we ate our tuna melts and salad. Right before my eyes I watched life suddenly leave a person. And at the age of fourteen, I saw terror in the faces of adults like I had never seen before.
The impact of those first few years of grief felt like a deconstruction — a full dismantling of my life — but looking back I see it was a reconstruction, a rebuilding of an identity that would be grounded in empathy.
Two weeks later, I started high school. I desperately wanted to talk about what had happened, what I saw, and how I felt. But my peers did not understand, and the adults in my life were ill-equipped to create a safe environment for me to process this experience. As a result, I became chronically ill from the mounting stress and anxiety. My first year of high school was an academic and social nightmare. I was profoundly alone.
The impact of those first few years of grief felt like a deconstruction — a full dismantling of my life — but looking back I see it was a reconstruction, a rebuilding of an identity that would be grounded in empathy. That August afternoon shaped my life in ways I did not imagine, could not have imagined. The days that followed led to who I would become.
The loneliness I felt is what enabled me to be present to someone’s suffering. What I experienced gifted me with the ability to step into the proverbial fire with another human being without batting an eye. That day influenced my work for the next twenty years as a hospice chaplain and children’s bereavement advocate. And I’m confident that without this experience, my work would have been less effective.
Gratefulness is not just a present moment condition. It can be found in abundance when we reflect back on our lives and see how life carried and shaped us, even when it felt like it was failing us.
In August 1996, life put something before me that I did not want to see or experience. I certainly did not trust that I would persevere, and I did not envision that August day shaping my life’s work. But from that day came many days spent with thousands of dying patients and later children and families who were living days I knew — days where life and death rub up against each other.
Gratefulness is not just a present moment condition. It can be found in abundance when we reflect back on our lives and see how life carried and shaped us, even when it felt like it was failing us. Today, if given the option to show up to that lunch in 1996 or take a pass, I can say with gratefulness that I would be there and I would eat that tuna melt.
Photo by Yaroslav Muzychenko