Last night, all the phones in the house began ringing simultaneously. This is always an indication that an alert is coming out from the school system–snow days, an incident of violence at the middle school, that kind of thing. Last night, it was to tell us that Emma Jacobs, a 17 year old from our small town, had died in a car crash that afternoon. With that terse message (“crisis counselors will be available at the high school,” etc.), a bomb detonated in the life of our little town. The crater that opens up at the death of a child swallows up her family and friends entirely, and the concussive pressure wave rips through all the concentric rings of neighbors, acquaintances, friends of friends.
I did not know Emma or her family, but I am walking through this day with a thickness in my chest for everyone who did–for the neighbors who’ve known her since she was a baby, the elementary school teachers who taught her and who teach my kids now, for the kids at the high school who knew her, played lacrosse with her, sat in class with her, and, being teenagers, have neither words for what is happening, nor mastery over their inchoate feelings. Everyone wants to talk, and no one knows what to say. On Emma’s Facebook page, high school kids post “Rest easy,” and “I didn’t know you well, but you were always really nice,” still speaking to her. Her page says she goes to Exeter High School. There are still people who haven’t received the news yet, and knew her, and to them, she’s still alive. We are still in the period after the bomb blast when everything is chaos; the shrapnel is still in the air.
We cast around for what to say, or what to do. People leave notes or send emails to the family telling them, “Anything you need, just ask.” “Reach out to us–we want to help you.” I have never been at the bottom of such a dark hole myself, but from what I’ve seen of this kind of grief, it will have to be us who do the reaching. The pit in the stomach, the nausea, it’s partly the sorrow we feel for what’s happened, but it’s tangled with embarrassment, with fear of saying the wrong thing, with guilt that our own kids are sound in their beds. Despite this, we must say something. Pray for them, if that is your tradition, and tell them you’re doing it. Bring food, or just go scrub their toilets or mow the lawn. Do not be afraid to speak her name, either now, or in the long weeks, months and years to come. You will not remind them of something painful they forgot, you will remember someone they loved and cannot ever forget.
A man I went to high school with died, along with his son, in an avalanche last winter. His father visits the memorial Facebook page for them from time to time, looking for new stories people have shared about his son and grandson. In the immediate aftermath, there were many. Now, they have stopped almost completely, but still, he posts from time to time, asking, or just thanking people. I can feel his fingers searching in the dark, sifting for more fragments of memory. It is a kindness we do, when we say the names of the dead to the people who loved them most.
We hope that the people who are bereft will tell us what they need, because we are ready to offer anything, but we don’t know what to do on our own. It takes courage to go so close to a grief this large. It has its own gravity, and it isolates those within it. But we have to be the ones, up here on the crater’s rim, to reach down to them. They are in utter darkness, and the walls are steep. When they emerge, there will never be a way for us to close the hole up behind them. We will all, forever, be stepping around it. They will be living very close to its rim. In time, they will, with help, be able to look away from it more often, and see the rest of life going on farther from it. But it will always be there, at the center of their lives. What we can do, however far we are from the epicenter, for now, is help them on the long climb out. The heavy feeling in your chest that is grief and fear and dread, it has a use too. It is an anchor point. Lower your line from that. Set your heels into the dirt and brace for the weight. It’s going to take all our strength to raise them.