past homepages

"Seeing Loss in a New Light"

A few weeks ago I received a phone call at my office. It was my brother calling me to tell me about Mrs. Smith (name changed) who just passed away early that morning. Mrs. Smith is survived by her six children, most of whom are teens. Unfortunately, the father hasn't been in the picture for years. In fact most of the kids never met their father, so basically these teenagers are on their own. The eldest brother who is 21 will now take responsibility for his younger siblings. What made this situation even more difficult to swallow was that the family had to leave their existing place of residence at the end of the month which was only a few days away.

For me there was a certain personal connection with the family, particularly with two of the children. In 1999 my brothers and I led a youth work camp trip for the church we were involved with that summer. It was an unbelievable experience for all those who participated. Even now, whenever I "bump" into some of those who attended the camp (who are now young adults), each one shares how that week changed their life.

Pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until in our despair there comes wisdom through the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

After I finished my conversation with my brother, I immediately drove over to the Smith's home. The two oldest siblings, who were surrounded by a group of adults, were standing in their front yard which made the scene look as if there was a fire or medical emergency. The front door was wide open. As I approached the two eldest children, I could see they were in shock. With tears in their eyes, they stood in front of me as if to convey that their world had just fallen apart. Their mother was everything to them. She was the only consistent piece in their lives, even though they didn't have much financially. Now, she's gone and they're left to fend for themselves.

Obviously, with the loss of my father, I could relate to some degree to what they were experiencing. I still remember the day as if it were yesterday when my father passed away and what that was like. But these children don't have a surviving parent in their lives; they're now orphans in a very real sense. When I got the children alone, I spent some time talking with them, not as one with clinical or professional expertise in grief counseling, but as one who lost a parent also. No schooling or specific training could have prepared me for such a time.

As I panned the room and looked into each of their eyes, it was clear they were traumatized by this experience. They shared that they were with their mother the evening before. She appeared quite lucid and was apparently in a good mood. Perhaps that's why this came as a such a great shock to them, at least that she passed so early. They were very aware of their mother's illness - Hodgkin's Disease, a cancer of the lymphatic system. But, the cancer finally took hold of the mother some time during her sleep. Thankfully (and I say that respectfully), she died in her sleep.

The youngest (16 years of age) daughter shared with me that she slept right next to her mother the evening before her mother passed away. The following day, she went to school, thinking her mother was sound asleep as she exited her mother's room. Little did she know that her mother died some time in the early morning hours. She was already feeling the pangs of guilt which, of course, had nothing to do with her. The two brothers were quite. Their affect was flat and their emotions were hidden behind a dazed grin. Who could blame them? In just one day, their lives had changed dramatically and they would never be the same as they once saw life.

For most of that day, I was with the children even though I felt helpless in what I could offer in regards to comforting words or consoling actions. You would think after experiencing the loss of my father, I would have something better to offer this family. I didn't. I've learned that when someone dies, there isn't much any one can say to the surviving loved ones in their moment of intense grief. The fact is - the road ahead for these six will be much harder than it was the day their mother died.

There's no question the day was long for all who were present. About 3:30 p.m., I decided to step away with a friend to get something to drink. We drove about 5 miles from the Smith's home and I randomly pulled into a small shopping center which had a small delicatessen. The only apparent parking spot available was right in front of an animal hospital. So I pulled up and shut the car off. I had to make a very important phone call before I went into the deli, so I proceeded to make my call.

I was put on hold and thankful for the wait because right in front of my car, I noticed something which broke my heart. There was a grown man (about late 40's) holding his dog within his arms. With one arm undergirding the dog's entire body and the other nervously stroking the dog's back, he leaned over and whispered loving words into her ear. Unashamedly, this man wept like a baby. It was almost as if he was holding his own child, his own flesh and blood. With each loving stroke, I could hear the father say with a reticent voice, "Don't worry, mommy is coming soon." Even before I heard him mention a word, I intuitively knew this dog was dying and that they were probably going to put her to sleep. Every 2-3 minutes, the husband would pull out his cell phone and call his wife, trying to see how far away she was from the hospital. On top of that, you could hear this precious animal yelp with resounding pain. (We found out later on the dog was suffering from congestive heart failure.)

As I waited for my receiving party to pick up the phone, I just sat there amazed at this sight. Even though I knew neither this man nor his dog, tears swelled-up in my eyes. I couldn't believe what was happening to me. I quickly wiped away my tears, probably out of shear embarrassment, but something touched me as I watched this man frantically pace back and forth on the sidewalk. I don't know if it was this man's great love for his dog or that the dog was suffering and in great pain. Whatever it was, I had some form of connection. About 15 minutes later, the mother came rushing up to her husband and dog. She bent down and placed her face right in front of her dog's nose, telling her everything was going to be ok and that "mommy loved her." Once again, I sat there in the car wiping my eyes as I watched these two openly express their affection and love as they said their last goodbyes.

Right there, I quickly thought about the entire day. That day was filled with sadness as I watched two different families experience two different types of losses. Both were significant, each one very real. The value of the one that passed was no less greater than the other. I was sure that the mother and the dog exuberated a unique kind of love which was evident by the expression of tears and sorry. It was also very clear that both surviving parties were hurting very much.

What does this have to do with my father's memorials website. It has a lot to do with it. I originally developed this site to remember my father and to continue growing from his life. Part of my growth has been learning how to live life without him now, and of learning how to be aware of others who experience bereavement. I know I've mentioned in an earlier posting that my father would be embarrassed to know that a site was created just for him. But I felt I needed to create this site. I wanted others to know about him and see the person only a few really knew. At the same time the site has served a very selfish purpose. It has been a place for me to process and gather my thoughts. Through this, I've had to grow and gain a new sensibility, especially to the cries of others. I needed to listen to others better. I needed to have my eyes awakened to the pains that people display in their lives. If my father hadn't passed away, I don't believe I would have the strong sensitivity to those who've lost of a parent or sibling. So in many ways, God had to break me in order to weave this into my life, and I believe he will continue to work this into my life so it becomes a very real part of me.

This incident taught me that even on that very day where I watched six young people lose their mother, just a few miles away there was another family hurting as they said their last goodbyes to another precious one, a dog. Yes, that's right. She was a small little canine who powerfully conveyed a love that was ten times her body weight. She touched that husband and wife far beyond what some of us do in a lifetime. Dogs know how to demonstrate a loyalty and love through their actions.

As I thought about this experience, I was reminded that our ability to touch lives, especially those grieving difficult loses, is not far from where you and I live. You don't have to turn on the news to see the horrible challenges people face. They're our neighbors, our co-workers, and our close friends. As we learn to listen, we will see the many sides of people. Losses don't make people different or awkward (even though you're certainly treated differently at times); they only make them more real. Losing loved ones is part of life, unfortunately. I wish it were different, but it's not.

In light of this , I'm very much on a new journey, hopefully one that will bring hope, not discouragement to others. But I realize I can't offer hope until I begin to taste and understand, and, yes, even embrace the pain first. I must admit, there are days when I really feel that loss. It's there and always will be. But I'm reminded that having this reality in my life is one thing; it's another to choose to do something that will be of lasting value to myself and to others.

I encourage you to do the same. Choose to be a "people-maker," not a people-breaker. Encourage those around you while you have the time. You just never know how your words can offer hope and life to the one sitting behind the desk with smiles, who is also the same person sitting behind the mask of pain.

- Justin Agoglia (eldest son of Joseph Agoglia)