I once asked an acquaintance whose father had died, "Was it expected?"
"No," he said, "it was totally unexpected."
I was reminded of this conversation recently.
When Marika Bedolla-West died, this blog received a huge increase in visitors. Why? It was an unexpected death. An unexpected death, but I didn't know Marika--I posted about it only because I thought people might want to know how to find out more or contact her family.
My daughter is away, and we had sent her a note telling her about Marika's death, but I didn't think she really knew Marika. Well, it turns out that she did. Ann Arbor is a small town, even if it is a big city. And in her letter back to us, she closes with:"How did she die?"
It's not that expected deaths are easier. I don't think they are. But I think they are easier to talk about, at least to kids. He was very, very sick. She was very, very old.
With the unexpected death, it's different.
I do know how Marika died, but I'm not writing about it in this blog. Families deserve to be able to treat death, and grief, privately, if they want. So I will just write more generally.
Every year in Washtenaw County there are kids who have unexpected deaths. It may be from an undiagnosed heart condition; a car accident; criminal violence; domestic violence; suicide; a freak accident.
I find that my daughter's simple question, "How did she die?" tears at my heart. Maybe that is because How just scratches the surface. How leads to Why. Why leads to Who was involved and Might it have been preventable? And even though I know how Marika died, I don't know why. I don't know if it could have been prevented.
What I do know? Some of these unexpected deaths could be prevented. Sometimes we can intervene by taking away a drunk person's keys; by getting help for a depressed person; by reporting an assault; by making sure that someone wears a bike helmet.
When we speak out and speak up, sometimes we can prevent harm.
I'm very fond of Ben Franklin's quote, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." And yet--some of these unexpected deaths could not be prevented. Nevertheless, when we look back at unexpected deaths, our hindsight is perfect, and the "if only I had..." impulse (and related guilt) is strong. Every child who dies has potential that is lost.
In this post, I remember also the kids from my hometown who died of unexpected deaths when I was in high school or college:
For Joe, who was hit by a car while walking on a dark road one night.
For Rex, who was killed by a drunk driver.
For Feffi, who slipped on slick rocks, fell and hit her head.
For Chris, who died in a bar fight when they turned to knives.
I'm still not sure what, exactly, I will say to my daughter. Please do post your suggestions--and your resources--for how to talk to kids about unexpected deaths.