Life's losses–and blessings

Claire McCarthy, MD

Today is the anniversary of my friend Jim’s death.

It’s been a hard few weeks. The first year after a death is always the worst, I think, because every day is an anniversary; there is nothing in between when they were with you and when they weren’t.

Everything about the light and the smells and the air has been reminding me of last year, when I was spending so much time with him at the hospital or the church rectory where, as a priest, he lived. All I have to do is think of him, and tears rush in.

I remember one afternoon with him in the intensive care unit. Being his health care proxy meant that we had lots of tough conversations, but this was one of the toughest. We were realizing together that it was the end of his life, that our gung-ho approach to the treatment of his pancreatic cancer didn’t make sense anymore and it was time for him to go home and say his goodbyes.

I’ll never be the same without you, I said. We were both crying.

You’ll be okay, he said.

I’ll be okay, I said, but I’ll never be the same.

That’s the thing about losing Jim. I lost my son and my father, and those were huge losses; when each died, they took a piece of my heart with them. But when I lost Jim, it was like losing a hand, or a foot. It’s been really hard to function.

Jim and I met when he married my husband and me 20 years ago, and hit it off immediately. We were kindred spirits in so many ways—and as writers, we were really good email correspondents. As we started writing, an interesting thing started happening. I’d write about something going on in my life, something that I was trying to decide or was upset about. You might want to think about it this way, he’d write back. What he said always made sense in a simple, undeniably true way. Of course, as a priest he was used to having these kinds of conversations with people. But it was more than that. He was wise and insightful and fully believed that each and every one of us has tremendous capacity for love and goodness.

Jim and I in September 2009

He became my touchstone. He’d encourage me. Or he’d say GOODNESS GRACIOUS WHAT WERE YOU THINKING but of course he’d never say it like that—he’d chide me much more subtly, although just as effectively. He’d use religious references, but he was just as likely to use a literary or popular culture one. In his elegant, erudite, funny way he kept me on course—and then told me an interesting story about his day.

Not all of our emails were like that. We wrote about everything. We loved to tell each other about our adventures, our misadventures, the books we read, the people we met, the thoughts that kept us up at night. He became someone I could say anything to, anything at all. And I did, with total honesty. Sometimes I would tell my husband about our emails, and he’d say, “You said that to a priest?” But Jim understood me completely, and loved me nonetheless.

So I’ve had a really tough time since he died. It’s more than just missing his friendship terribly, which I do, every day. As nonsensical as it seems, I’ve been angry with him for leaving me without a touchstone. I’ve had a lot going on this year, and it’s been painfully hard to muddle through without him. Without him I don’t know if I’m making good decisions, staying on the right path, or being the best person I can be. He was the one who let me know. I’ve been feeling really sorry for myself.

The other day my husband and I were listening to a song from the musical “Wicked” called “For Good”. As we listened he said, “It makes me think of Jim.”

I don’t know if I’ve been changed for the better

But because I knew you

I have been changed for good.

That song has been playing in my head ever since. And I’ve realized that Mark is right. So much of why I want to make good decisions or be on the right path or be a good person is because of Jim. Through all these years, in all he said to me, he made sure that those were the values I kept central, the organizing principles for my life. Not that I did it perfectly or ever will—but he made sure I knew the importance and joy of always trying.

Some people really do change us forever. They come to us and give us something that alters everything about the course of our lives. Too often we take these people for granted—or never see the blessings they are.

Jim was a blessing for me. I need to let go of my anger at his death, and make room for my gratitude for his life.