Seeking Answers When a Friend Dies
The last time I saw Dan was in the apartment he shared with his wife. A priest friend of ours said Mass in the living room. I played guitar and sang with another friend who played piano. About 15 of our friends crowded around Dan while he lay in a hospital bed, hooked up to oxygen, frail, bald — hardly recognizable as the handsome, affable guy we all loved — eyes closed, hands stretched above his head in prayer, tubes drooping from his rail-thin arms, whispering along at the top of his lungs to “How Great Thou Art.” He died a few days later at the age of 33.
I had been to funerals before, even for people my own age, but Dan is the closest friend I’ve lost. I had so many “Why, God?” questions. Now that it’s been a few years, and the emotions are not as fresh, I feel like I have enough perspective to attempt some answers.
Why wasn’t I a better friend?
I wish I’d stayed in better touch with Dan. I wish I’d taken the time to invest in our friendship more. We were good friends in college, but afterward we drifted. I ran into him at social gatherings, weddings, and bachelor parties, but there were months and years when we were not in touch. I checked in on him through social media from time to time. In our bachelor years, we were almost housemates, though his diagnosis derailed that. I’ve found the last email we exchanged. It was perfunctory. Nothing special.
I regret not being closer to Dan. At the same time, I have stayed close to other people and made an effort to maintain close relationships with them. If I had stayed close to Dan, would I have drifted from another friend instead? Our time and energy are not unlimited. We have to pick and choose where to invest our efforts. Do I wish I had spent less time on some of my other friendships in order to be closer to Dan?
The lesson I’ve taken from this is to be more intentional about maintaining the relationships that have the greatest meaning in my life. This is very hard for an extrovert like me who wants to be best friends with everyone (ask my wife, I have a problem.) So this means that instead of getting together with people I just met, I try to be intentional about inviting some old friends over. Instead of browsing through acquaintances on social media for 20 minutes at the end of the night, I work on emailing my old roommate or calling my cousin. I still browse social media and I still make new friends, but I prioritize more thoughtfully now than I used to.
Beyond this, I’m still incredibly grateful for the gift of Dan’s friendship in my life, even though we were not particularly close at the time of his death. I feel like I finally understand a bit of what Jesus meant when he said “blessed are those who mourn” because to mourn means that someone has deeply touched our lives. I choose to focus on the wonderful times and conversations I shared with Dan and not drive myself crazy by dwelling on what might have been. From break ups, to changing jobs, to my 4-year-old daughter’s disappointment upon realizing there are no more birthday presents to open, there is something in the human spirit that refuses to be satisfied on this side of heaven. So I try to slay the dragon of discontent with the sword of gratitude (Sorry. I just finished rereading the Hobbit.) In other words: Dan’s funeral has helped me choose to be grateful for the gift given, not resentful of what was not.
Why do the good die young?
This question really bothered me. “Seriously, God? Why take Dan? He’s amazing! Why not let some crappy person get cancer?” I know, it’s not a super mature thought process, but I was grieving so I try to cut myself some slack. I thought about Dan and other good people I know who had died young, and I realized that while they were all good people, none were flawless. For some reason, in each case I overwhelmingly remember their goodness much more than their shortcomings.
Through this I’ve come to believe that people, generally, are good — despite their flaws. And when all is said and done, we largely forgive and forget the harm people have done, and we remember their beauty and goodness. That’s why it seems that only the good die young — because when it comes down to it, we are all good in some way, and that’s largely what we remember.
For truly exceptional people like Dan, we tend to notice their deaths even more because the loss seems so great. Dan’s funeral demonstrated for me the power people have — the power I have even with all my weaknesses — to touch so many lives so deeply.
What will people say about me?
I played music for Dan’s funeral Mass as well (a great honor for me) so I had a front-row seat for the moving eulogies by Dan’s friends and family. As I heard each of them recount the ways Dan had blessed their lives, this voice in my head was wondering: If I died today, who would show up? Who would eulogize me? What would they say? What if people don’t remember me for my good, but for my failings and flaws?
I’m not proud of these self-centered thoughts rearing their head in the midst of the grief of so many people, but I think I’ve learned some things about myself by reflecting on them in retrospect.
I think of Dan as a saint who is no doubt with the Lord in heaven, and I even ask him to pray for me. Still, Dan was not perfect. He had flaws, like we all do. Like I do. Like you do.
But Dan was also amazing. Funny, brilliant, compassionate, the best mix of humble and ambitious. Whether it was the awkward kid in my dorm with no friends, or poor families he lived with in Guatemala — Dan always had his eye out for those who were overlooked. That’s how I remember him.
People are flawed. They are still worth celebrating. It’s comforting to remember that I — even in all my pettiness — am still beloved in the eyes of God. Even you — at your lowest moments, in your worst mistakes and most selfish decisions, even when other people can’t see past your flaws — you are still amazing.
I’ve now attended several other funerals since Dan’s and the same questions always pop into my head. I try to remember these lessons: to prioritize my important relationships; to be grateful for the gift of this person in my life; to remember that I can be a great power for good in people’s lives; and to recall that my God-given goodness — not my flaws — define who I am.