I'm writing this in the days and weeks after our neighbours' two-year-old son died suddenly over Christmas. Tommie, a happy and healthy toddler taken ill one day and laid low by illness. It is something that no parent should ever experience, but life can be fragile and cruel and even the best people are visited by the kind of tragedy that is beyond most of our imaginations.
Just about everybody experiences loss at some time or other. The only real grief I can fall upon is that from when my mother died suddenly 15 years ago, and even though that knocked me sideways for years, it's no equal to the absolute devastation that Maria and Luke are facing right now. It's something that I want to convey to them, but all I've managed is an awkward, lop-sided "I'm with you" smile and equally awkward small-talk. One cannot even say "I know how you feel", because there is no way I can come even close to that. So, I remain silent, and it tears me up.
Does not saying anything ever get mistaken for not caring?
Life is fragile, and worse, life is not fair. That's exactly what I thought as I watched weeping funeral directors place a tiny white coffin on the dais. Even people who see death on every day of their working lives know it's not fair. But the world still turns, people are born, live, die.
I am torn, too, between knowing in my rational mind that death is a permanent state from which there is no return; and the comfort that people get by saying "I'll see you one day soon" as some way of diluting their grief. Belief is an important thing at the lowest points in people's lives, and it's not my place to criticise or ridicule anybody who live in the hope that their departed are out there, somewhere, waiting for them. Even the grey-haired chap outside the chapel who re-assured me of the "certainly and the joy of the resurrection", a Jesus-fish lapel badge sparkling in the sun, has his place. That's his coping mechanism, and I dare say it is more effective than mine.
But I'm drawn to an exchange I remember from a 12-Step Meeting I attended a few years ago on the importance and fragility of life, as we discussed "Question 20" in the members' handbook on whether addiction had driven you to thoughts or actions toward self-destruction:
"You're a long time dead, and do we have any idea what it's like? I'll tell you... Remember those six billion years before you were born?"Without sounding like I'm pointing out the bloody obvious, an eternity is a damn long time for you to be forgotten. And you will be forgotten.
"Exactly like that, only longer."
But while the body and the life are gone, the memory remains alive as long as you and others will it to be so. It's never going to bring anyone back from Death's icy grip, but mourning, eventually replaced by remembrance and celebration are crucial for those left behind, and help you somehow blank out the fear that one day it will be you.
I have incredible trouble blanking out that fear.
So, while there's nothing I can say or do for my neighbours in these dreadful days except to be there for them when they ask, I hope that the sad tunes will be replaced with happy ones, and that Tommie's short life will be remembered with happiness rather than tears.
They played the Pingu theme tune at his funeral. All the way through. Twice. Goodbye, little man.