The virus is on the upswing again. On Thanksgiving we got the alert that the new omicron variant was spreading. It kept on expanding its reach as we packed up for traveling to see relatives in the East Coast, something my family had not done for two years.
Thoughts crossed our minds about cancellation. Maybe the risks would be too great. But we also realized that there’s huge value in seeing loved ones, in person, while we can. Who knows what next year will bring for any of us?
The lessons of Stoic thinking have taught me that the present is all we have. The lessons of loss are distributed unevenly and often. All is constantly in flux, as Marcus Aurelius reminded himself often.
We all have the opportunity to cultivate an open heart to the unending changes of our world, including those of illness and death—which we essentially all live with all the time but choose to turn away from. The pandemic was a wake-up call for many about this fact, which had been smoothed over by Madison Avenue, Hollywood, and the medical establishment for much of our lives. Today, many of us know the pain of loss first-hand and do not need a reminder.
Another piece of news that came across my feed this winter break was the death of writer Joan Didion. Because of my interest in innovative nonfiction writers, I had recently started to delve into her work. I spent part of my time off reading The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion’s memoir about the sudden death of her husband. It’s a devastating book, both because of her raw exploration of grief for her spouse and also her descriptions of the simultaneous severe illness of her only daughter, who, at age 39, was hospitalized with pneumonia and then developed a severe brain injury. Didion shares the perspective of a wife and mother (albeit a non-conventional one) facing the loss of her two closest loved ones. This is not unfamiliar to families who have experienced death, especially in the pandemic, but even long before.
So: This moment is all we have. Live it well. And make the next one count too. We won’t wait long for sorrow to meet us.
Why say this now, in this season? As we spend time with loved ones over the holidays, it’s easy to get caught up in petty frustrations, fears, annoyances. Even tiny ones. I got really angry with one of my kids for leaving her food trash lying out, rather than putting it in the trashcan. Is this rational? Possibly. She is definitely capable of cleaning up. Trash is yucky, and why should someone else have to deal with it? On the other hand—it’s just a stack of trash, and easily handled. Why should I let garbage dominate my mind? I could see that I was not abiding by my Stoic approach in becoming angry. I hated realizing just that idea: “You’re not living up to your principles.” More anger, more digging in of heels, more ego-protecting defensiveness.
So even if you’re struggling with these kinds of reactions too, I won’t tell you to remember your principles: I know how annoying that feels. I will instead lead both of us back to the big picture, and perspective of the now, and the realization of how fleeting it really is. To the value we place on family and friends and the dear ones in our lives today. To the time we have lost due to separations during the pandemic... and even to the people we have lost.
Today, hanging on the family tree, I see little photo ornaments I made of my girls’ faces when they were small. I can still think of them as babies, who needed our protection and guidance every minute. Those days are gone, and soon, these days of having teens living at home with me will be gone too. Let’s make the most of this winter, Covid or no, and soak in those moments with the ones we love as fully and deeply as we can.
Stoic philosophy aims to teach us that nothing is truly “ours,” except our own thoughts and actions. Everything else is outside our control.
One key Stoic exercise is to picture ourselves and our loved ones dead and gone. We are asked to remember that our own life and body, and those of all the people we cherish today, could be taken away in an instant by death.
This ancient thought exercise, the memento mori, extends to our own children. As modern parents, we can hardly force ourselves to think about our children dying before we do. It’s simply the most devastating thing in our universe, and we resist the mere imagining of it.
Yet it does happen.
Two weeks ago, it happened to my close friends. Their only child, a vibrant, smart, beautiful 13-year-old daughter, was suddenly killed while crossing the street just a few blocks from my house.
I’ve been friends with her parents for 18 years, long before their child was born. My husband first met her dad when they were both in graduate school. His wife and I discovered we’d attended the same high-profile college. We also shared a somewhat renegade love of traditional crafts (renegade in the sense that our overachieving, academic-minded friends couldn’t understand why someone would “waste time” sewing, beading, knitting, or scrapbooking). Her dad (before he was a dad) was best man at my wedding, and we kept up ties as our careers evolved and we found ourselves living in the same Northern California city.
Not long after our wedding, their daughter was born. Seeing her grow from an infant to a toddler to a little girl helped us learn about kids before we had our own. Our daughters were two years and four years younger than she was. We met up frequently, and she was like an older cousin to my girls—someone they looked up to and who imparted helpful information about what older grades would be like. My kids attended every birthday party she had in recent memory and visited with her over numerous holiday dinners, skillfully prepared by her parents, who live far from their own relatives and treat us like family.
The last time I saw her was on July 4. She was turning tremendous cartwheels and doing aerials in the backyard, showcasing her tumbling skills to my kids. They played Wii games together, and we all ate BBQ outside on the patio. It was a normal summer day, a low-key celebration of the joys of family and leisure time and friends.
By the end of that month she was dead.
There’s simply no explanation for what happened. Witnesses said she walked into the street with the green light, in the crosswalk, phone safely tucked in her pocket. We haven’t found out how a driver in our suburban area could hit her at 12:14 pm in full daylight with such force—especially when, as a pedestrian, she was “doing everything right,” according to the police officer investigating the accident. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time when a reckless driver swung by. "A senseless accident," as her mother described it to me.
The unthinkable happened just a stone's throw away from me and my children. A wonderful girl is gone forever, and our friends’ lives are irrevocably changed.
This event has made the memento mori much more real to me. I still can’t actually imagine myself without my daughters and husband. It feels truly unnatural, horribly unfair, absolutely impossible. But despite our best efforts to stay safe in this world, and to protect ourselves with doctor visits and full-featured vehicles and security cameras and hand sanitizer, it can all be wiped away in the blink of an eye.
A couple days after the funeral I took my older daughter to see Shakespeare's Hamlet performed in a nearby park. (We invited our friends to join us but they declined, and I could understand why.) Hamlet’s diatribes on the meaninglessness of human life carried a weighty significance after the accident.
When something so awful can happen so quickly it makes a person question everything. As parents (or in Hamlet’s case, as a son), we devote so much love and care and effort and worry and… we can’t prevent the worst imaginable thing from happening in a mere second’s time? What is the point?
Yet somehow, we go on. And it would be worse to give up or to become paralyzed by grief, self-pity, and vengeance, like Hamlet.
We can take one lesson forward from this experience: enjoy anything and everything to the greatest possible extent while we can. Try to relish the moments of being a parent, even the tough ones, because there’s no predicting the future. Do our best to be thankful for it.
In a recent radio interview, actor Jeffrey Tambor said that the best advice he ever got about entering his profession was this: “Adore everything.” Even the dull, disappointing, or stressful parts, like drawn-out auditioning or waiting around for shooting to start. Adore it all.
In my family, we have a new motto this year: “Always be enjoying”—a play on the Glengarry Glen Ross catch phrase made famous by actor Alec Baldwin in the 1992 movie version: “Always be closing.” My mom and I have repeated “always be enjoying” ad nauseum ever since the spring, much to the annoyance of my kids. “ABE” is the short version and now we text this to each other as a reminder to take pleasure in our days.
Of course, it’s MUCH easier said than done—my own anxiety ratcheted up to an alarming degree after I heard the terrible news. I told my daughters they were not allowed to walk by themselves around town, at all. I conveyed my own (preexisting) paranoia about cars and roads and traffic. I couldn't help it.
I love our friends. When I see them, I will always think of this loss. But I will also think about what it means to face the worst and to continue living and loving and trying somehow to find peace and joy in our unpredictable world.
About The Stoic Mom
I'm a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.