Cope with death by peeling back the pain to reveal good memories

My death is not very interesting. It’s likely the least important part of my life. And the circumstances of my death might be less interesting than that.

Oh, I completely understand why those who love me and will miss me will initially be, well, captivated by my death. And, if the circumstances are unusual, traumatic, the result of negligence or crime … well, again, I understand how and why grieving people can be and are initially compelled and swallowed up by the event of death.

It is very easy to get stuck in that moment of time.

I talk with a grieving family. A little boy — a son, a grandson, a nephew — is dead. The circumstances of the boy’s death are pure absurdity. An accident. No crime, no negligence. Just an ambiguous vulnerability that could have (and does) visit any family. For no reason at all, except that the fabric of life is just that absurd, ambiguous and vulnerable.

The family is strong; though, at first, they do not perceive themselves that way. But they dig in, hunker down, and let their hearts break. They suffer. They anguish. They take turns in abject despair. And little by little, inch by inch, they drag themselves back toward life. Forever changed, of course. But still — life.

A year later, the family is ever-so-much better. But still frail. The father says he still resists thinking or talking about his son because doing so invariably leads him to that awful night. The sights. The sounds. “I can’t even afford to open myself to memories of good times,” he says. “Even good memories lead me back to the night he died.”

I think of the late Trappist monk Thomas Merton. I was 11 years old when he died. I didn’t “meet” Merton until I got to graduate school, where his books and biography changed my life. On Oct. 10, 1968, Merton gave a talk at a conference in Bangkok. He adjourned his address with the words, “I will disappear.” He returned to his room, where he died, absurdly electrocuted by a faulty fan.

I imagine him in heaven, still blushing, hoping people have turned their attention from the ignominy of a broken fan and toward the life he lived so passionately.

I think of Abraham Lincoln. What a shame to shrug off his leading a nation through an ugly, wretched civil war, to “ho-hum” through his signature on the Emancipation Proclamation, only to fixate on an aggrandized punk coward murderer hiding in a theater balcony with a derringer.

I think of my grandmother dying of lung cancer. Well, of course. She smoked from the time she was 12 years old. The only thing that kept her from being a chain smoker was the accident of her lighting each cigarette separately. But, these 30-plus years later, it’s hard to remember her death. Her life is what I remember.

I think of families who are grieving a completed suicide, including the times my own family has been faced with that task. I think suicide provokes a unique grief. Uniquely difficult and complicated. But, on the other side of the suffering, families often come to see and believe that the last act of one’s life does not have the power to define a whole life. Good memories emerge again. It’s a blessed surprise.

I encourage the grieving family to keep taking the risk of remembering the boy’s life. The strong, curious fingers. The giggles. The smiles. The chatter of baby talk. The smell of his skin. The feel of him breathing, sleeping on your chest. Don’t give up. Decide, right now, that the dark memories of one moment will not carry the day of your attention.

The death of a child is awful. The life of a child is a miracle. The latter is more important than the former.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 227-4165 or

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