November 12, 2019

People : Color of Loss

I've obviously seen my fair share of illness, dying, and death.  Recently I've been working on writing about the passing of patients in primary care, trying to imagine the lives lived prior to my knowing them as sick and gone.  I'm familiar with illness in this context.  Over the last decade I've become familiar with illness in my aging parents, even as each diagnosis or accident initially strikes the sense of is-this-really-happening.  Over the last year I've become comfortable with illness in myself, as I accumulate injuries that heal just enough to leave persistent reminders of their presence, and as I learn of microscopic changes in my body that will eventually rule my existence with their tiny power.  These losses are difficult, but not new.

It's new to me to experience loss in someone the same as me, but not me.  To lose someone whose hospital wrist band registers my birth year; who I was once fifteen years old with; whose shade of hair changes at the same pace as mine because we both want to wear another color (though hers is meant to shock while mine is meant to blend); who bore first witness to first feelings I'll never have again like the heart-filling acceptance to college and that heart-breaking first break-up; whose life is parallel to mine until all of the sudden it isn't.

To be fair, death itself isn't the point of divergence.  Maybe it happened at birth, an inoculation of the swirled fury that drove her creative talent and her deep discontent.  Over this she had no choice.  Maybe it happened when individual people and the world at large are unkind, inflicting trauma that is all the heavier for its intangibility.  Over this she had no choice.  And it is these forces, out of her hands, that stole the warmth from them.  The warmth that I felt so well, from fingertips out of which flowed vivid paintings and animated gestures and silly letters.

It's hard to see in someone in my life what I see regularly in patients: the slow dissolution of life weighted by trauma, mental illness, substance use, and social isolation; and all the ways in which these fragment and augment one another.  We're trained to remember how we are all the same, to remember that very little separates providers from patients other than luck of birth and privilege of circumstance.  Yet there is no way to feel quite the same, until it's someone who is threaded to you by shared experience, and by love that happened young and aged too fast.

It's hard to see that we did everything and couldn't give her enough.  Yet we'll always continue to wonder how to define everything, to question if we could have given more.  She gave me an acceptance that very few ever have--an openness of myself as I was in the present. I could say anything to her, express any thought or emotion, and she would accept it.  To her, I could be anything and whatever I gave her she took it as who I was at that moment, without evaluating if it aligned with who I had been or who I was supposed to be.  I can't stop thinking whether that was ever given to her, whether more openness could have undone a little of what bound her.  I can't yet look back at the repeated missed calls just a few weeks ago from an unknown number, and the text that comes later: "I'm sorry I keep calling.  It's me.  My life is shitty."  And to know that I wrote back, but didn't reach out to hear the voice, because I was tired.  Weary and skeptical.  Because as much as I believe in the power of continually showing up, I never believed our intermittent time together did much to puncture the film separating her world from mine.

These are the questions I have now, for my life and for the lives around me.  How am I to live mine to be of use to them?  For those who might be worrying about me right now, don't worry--I'm aware that this question has to involve care of myself.  But for me and for her, these are inseparable.  Coping now means figuring out how to do best by her, by what she teaches me about our vulnerability and about our power.  The first person I told was our substance use counselor at work, to tell him I hated all the injustices that make drugs the only source of substance in people's lives, and really because I wondered: what are we doing?  This is a question I have for my day to day right now, and for the big picture in the future.

Right now: how do I spend my day to day?   Do I spend time with others, knowing that our mutual give and take is the connection I've always valued most?  Or do I withdraw, feeling drained of the capacity to be available?  Do I immerse myself in work, work that I know has some concrete value and that I know still falls short?  Or do I take time away from it, to process a trajectory I've seen over and over but always from a slight distance, knowing that its nearness might be too hard for me to hold?  In the future: what do I do differently?  Do I try harder, approach these elements from a different perspective to increase the points at which something could have changed?  Or do I accept that we are already doing our best, and learn to balance effort with realism?  I honestly have no idea, no intuitive pull towards one place or another, so different from my usual structured life of supposed purpose.

Maybe this absence of answer is really a conglomerate of substance. Maybe that's what she saw, what she gifted me with her paintings like this one: colors that without outline burn at once fast and slow, ignite and dissolve, stand singularly and mix with one another, live confined in this image I can see and evolve in spaces I can never access.


  1. Wow, that’s really powerful. I’m sorry that you’re dealing with this loss. Thank you for sharing. Take care friend.


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