The last four summers have been a time period where I have experienced many deaths of very close friends – two within the past month alone. It’s as if I have entered a new “normal” where it seems that deaths and memorial services are now a regular part of the summer season. On a practical level, it has reached the point that my wife had to push me to buy a dark suit because of having to go to so many funerals. A death always causes some sense of reflection on a variety of levels but the latest passings have caused me to ponder why I am experiencing such a sense of loss? It may be that the passing of many friends is just a demographic of my age (75) but I think it is also a side effect of having over the years been blessed with many close friends, buddies, and comrades.
There are Army paratrooper buddies, cop buddies, college fraternity brothers, work partners, sport team colleagues, trusted neighbors and the like that form a network of friendships going back over 60 years. Over the years we have had numerous reunions and get-togethers and we have all strived to maintain these relationships. One of the common denominators in differing groups of friends was a sense of camaraderie in shared experiences, efforts, missions and often times shared fears, joys, victories, and defeats. We could count on and have counted on each other in numerous ways. So when I think of those that have died the image I get is that of an old pair of leather shoes that fit just perfectly and now have to be discarded.
Dying- Creeping Necrosis
In reflecting on not just the friends that have passed on but on how and why we have such a sense of loss a medical concept came to mind. That concept is a disorder called “creeping necrosis”. Necrosis is the death of our body’s cells and can be caused by many factors such as infection, toxins, frostbite or trauma. The term “creeping” is often applied to diabetics who because of poor circulation associated with the disease and may have to have body parts amputated to prevent gangrene. It may start with a toe, then the foot and eventually could affect the leg. One of my friends who died this summer suffered through a series of such amputations until he eventually passed away.
Giving Pieces of Ourselves
While on the surface creeping necrosis is a negative concept, there is an opposite and positive twist if applied to relationships. When we open ourselves up to give of ourselves to another person, which at one level is what we do with a close friend or loved one, we are offering a “piece of ourselves” to that person. If we are blessed with many friends we will keep giving up pieces of ourselves in a positive and generous way. At one level it can analogous to the sacrifice that Jesus made except he gives of himself to the entire human race and across all time. Likewise, he doesn’t give up “pieces” of himself for he continues to give up his totality (body, soul, and divinity) through the Eucharist and his giving is never exhausted.
God made us for relationships. We need and seek connections with others. Sometimes it is superficial and short-lived. For me, many are in-depth and long-lasting. I think what makes those relationships close-knit is the mutual giving of one to another. While such a notion is usually thought of between family members, I think it can be expanded to close friendships. I am sure that these reflections may sound strange coming from a guy, especially from one with a rowdy past, however, just as my faith has developed to whereby I can talk about God so have my friends and I matured in our relationships. We hug each other when we meet and we have reached the point that we can verbalize that we care for each other.
A Sense of Self and of Others
So, in retrospect, if I give of myself to another, when he or she dies I not only lose our companionship and connectedness but I lose some of myself. I think that is one reason why the death of another can be experienced as such a loss. But on the other hand that person, in turn, has given us a piece of him or herself which we can continually carry with us. It’s one reason to have remembrances of those that have passed. It rekindles their sense within us in what they gave us.
While Jesus’ giving of himself is in terms of his body, soul, and divinity, it is hard to describe what we are giving. Is it our love, our emotions, our concern, our “essence”, our human loyalty and trust? I don’t have an answer, but I do know that there is a sense a loss within me when a friend passes on. Hopefully, over time that emptiness can be at least partially filled by what that person gave me during their lifetime.