Children have such a loose concept of death. They know that it's a thing and learn that it's a thing that means the person in question will not be there anymore, but they don't know what it means. It's sort of the equivalent of a broken toy in many respects leaving the child waiting for a replacement. But there is no replacement from death.
I remember my first funeral. I think I was three. Maybe two. I remember all the people at my grandparents' house, like snapshots of strangers in the sun on the porch stairs, but, mostly, I remember the body of my great-grandfather, who was hardly a person to me, but whom my mother loved, and how he looked waxy laying in the casket. Like a wax figure. 40 years later, that is still the image in my mind. A wax man in a coffin. Like it wasn't real, because, at three, it's just not.
Childhood is a progression of meaningless deaths, in fact; distant relations that have no meaning to us. We can't feel the death, because, frankly, that person means much less to us than a favorite toy or even the goldfish that sits in our room and that we're responsible for feeding (I never owned a goldfish). Sure, there are exceptions for some people, but, see, they're exceptions. Most of us go through childhood and funerals watching other people cry and wondering why. We just don't get it.
And that continues... until it doesn't.
Because, even after we've figured out what death is, for most of us, it's still meaningless. We don't mean it to be; after all, we get that someone has died, but it just doesn't touch us. It's someone else's tears, someone else's pain, and we might cry, but it's for that other person's pain, not our own.
Until it isn't.
This is why, though, teenagers get so wrapped up in death. Those that do. It's never been close enough to understand, not really, so the idea of suicide doesn't really seem real. Because death has never really seemed real. It's easy, then, to play the suicide card, because other kids get it enough to say "no, don't do that," but not enough to really take action. Because, really, who would do that, right?
It was a suicide that brought my first real discomfort with death. I think I was 17 and I didn't know the girl. But, see, she knew me. She knew me well enough to talk about me and the fact that she had a crush on me. I was nice to her, you see, but I didn't know her. She used to visit my youth group, and I made a big impression on her, because, the first time she ever came, the time she came when she didn't know anyone except the one person she came with, I went up to her and introduced myself and welcomed her into the group and brought her over to everyone else and made her feel like she belonged. But I didn't know her. That's just how I was. She made friends, and people knew her, but I never really did.
So when someone asked me why I hadn't gone to her funeral, I didn't know what she was talking about. First, the name of the girl didn't mean anything to me. I had no idea whom she was talking about as the girl hadn't been to youth group in months. Worse, though, I couldn't bring any picture of the dead girl to mind, and no one's attempts to remind me of whom she was did any good. I hadn't been to the funeral simply because I hadn't known she'd died. Because I didn't know who she was.
Of course, then everyone felt obligated to let me know what I'd meant to her. That she'd had a crush on me since I first introduced myself to her. That, really, she'd come to our youth group (because she actually went to a different church) as often as she did because of me. That she spoke of me as "the nicest person ever." That she talked about me. A lot. Asking how I was and all of that.
And I didn't even know her name or her face, and the guilt just poured on, because, maybe, if I'd paid better attention, I could have done something. Of course, in my head, I know it wasn't my fault and that I had nothing to do with it. In fact, one of the things I later learned is that she had been talking about suicide since well before she met me and that meeting me actually delayed it. But that doesn't change how it feels. The feel of it is "how could I have been so important to her life and not know who she was." I wonder if celebrities ever have those thoughts.
That was when I first really became aware of death in a real sense. In a meaningful sense. In the sense that death was a thing that could affect me in a meaningful way. And that moment, that confrontation of this girl's death, the girl I didn't know, has stayed with me for 25 years. It still makes me uncomfortable, because I still wonder how I could not have known any of this beforehand. Not that I had a reason to. No one told me. I suppose they all just thought I must already know.
Not long after, one of my closest friends would lose her father and another friend (in the sense that I had classes with him and had known him for years) would go off the road from driving while intoxicated and kill two children. Showing great mercy and forgiveness, the parents of the children did not press charges, but I can only imagine what it must have been like for him. In all honesty, he became a much more likable person afterwards.
Mostly, though, Death was just a distant thing all through high school. I had brushes with it, but I didn't come face to face with it. Not yet...
On a morbidly related note, there's a blogfest on Friday:
here, read all about it, and get signed up! Seriously, go do it. Now.