Death's Survivors

This column was published Sunday, May 5, 2019, in The Manhattan Mercury.


Later this morning, my wife and I will journey east by south, descend a couple hundred feet in elevation and end up in the Marais des Cygne valley of Osage County. There, in a high school gymnasium-cum-hallowed space, the friends and family of Jill Casten will celebrate her life.

Felled by cancer at 38.

One of the dynamics of the forward march of time is it seems like people die more often. They don’t, really. It’s just that as nature takes its course and as the circles of life move inexorably forward, I’m at the point in my own cosmic chronology when it seems like it happens more frequently.

Dying, I mean.

We buried my wife’s brother-in-law last weekend in Neosho County. Killed in an accident clearing trees on the farm where he grew up, Mark Neely was 63. He had just retired from his day job, and like many rural Kansans of his generation, intended to spend more time with his family and cattle.

I don’t offer these personal obits to elicit sympathy. I do it, because it dawns on me that death forces introspection and introspection forces just the opposite: Thoughts, feelings and actions about and toward others.

Mark’s daughter, our 27-year old niece, will spend the rest of her life without her father. There will always be a hole in my niece’s life where her father once lived. I can’t fill that void, but I can take her to dinner a couple times a month.

Jill was a close, personal friend of my wife, who had known her for two decades. What started as mentor-mentee evolved into something much more symbiotic. When she learned of Jill’s death, my wife told me she sat down on our living room floor and cried. Our dogs, who sense sadness more acutely than some humans, came over and licked away her tears.

Jill touched lives all over Kansas and the country. So many, that her high school gym was the only venue big enough.

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For me, Jill was a professional colleague. Her office was next to mine and we would routinely invade each other’s space to brainstorm. Jill had this knack, an innate talent to make others’ ideas better. I walk by her empty office and wonder who will fill my idea improvement void. Then I realize that’s a pretty self-centered thought and my second thought is better. I can be sympathetic to my colleagues whom Jill mentored and within our system, I can offer to shoulder some of her load.

It strikes me that the depth of an individual human beings’ grief lines up in direct proportion to the depth of their relationship with the one who died. I will miss Jill Casten and Mark Neely, but their losses will be so much harder on my loved ones. The voids created are massive. When I plumb their depths, I can see no bottom. It is infinite. The loss cannot be measured or defined.

The essence of my spiritual awareness is that through belief in and acceptance of the death and resurrection of the son of God, the rest of us can be reconciled, and the end game is salvation and eternal life. Put me down for that, please.

If I do the right thing on Earth, I’ll get to Heaven. Which is infinite. It cannot be measured or defined. Hence, spiritual. There, but for the grace of God, go I.

Because I love my wife and my niece, I will always try to do right by them. All that I can. It won’t come close to filling their voids, but that’s not the point. The point is that death offers the opportunity for the living to do just a little bit more. Death and void bring emotional political cover to do what we should be doing anyway.

So, the tears will flow. The sadness will linger, but eventually abate. We will deal with the grief and loss. In the throes of it, perhaps just on the far side of the Marais des Cygne valley, will come a deep and meaningful recognition that some voids will never be filled. That we loved and lost for a reason. That there is a plan for each of us. That Jill and Mark have gained that which we cannot define.

And that for those of us who survive, those of us closer to the surface, in the heart of this Kansas spring, our task is certain and just. To make things a little bit better for those still struggling in the void.