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Lights In The Darkness

February 7, 2016

Someone I did not know has died. So why does it matter to me?

Early each morning I drive by a long-term care facility on my way to work. My route takes me over a hill, and when I reach the top, the sprawling structure is barely visible in the predawn shadows. But once every few months when I come up over the incline, I look over and see emergency vehicles in the parking lot, their red lights piercing through the darkness. And each time this happens a feeling of sadness sweeps over me because I realize that someone has died.

I’ve passed this building each weekday for years, and unfortunately this has happened on multiple occasions. Although death is an inevitable part of life, there is just something about the darkness of the early hour and suddenly seeing all the flashing lights that makes it so troubling. But why should I be concerned about the death of someone I’ve never met? I don’t know their name, their age or their gender. In every way, their life is a complete blank to me. However, they were a human being just like you and me, and in the end that is all that matters.

Whenever one of these deaths occur, I find myself thinking about the deceased as I go through the day.

Was the individual married or had they lost their spouse? Was the person a grandfather who will not see his grandchildren grow up, or was it a loving mother whose daughters will, in many ways, always feel lost without her? Perhaps it was someone that served our country in the military, who made incredible sacrifices, and possibly witnessed things in war that continued to haunt them. Maybe it was an individual with a developmental disability who spent their life fighting to be accepted as an equal, or perhaps the person had an intellectual challenge resulting from a traumatic brain injury or a stroke. Perhaps they were living with Alzheimer’s disease or some form of dementia. What was their level of awareness? Did they recognize their family or had they slipped into a world that was blurry and confusing?

I consider the possible circumstances of their death. Did they finally succumb to a long illness or did the end of their life come suddenly without warning. Most importantly, when they died were they surrounded by their loved ones or were they forced to face death alone? For me it is particularly disturbing to think of someone dying without family at their side, but unfortunately that is sometimes the case. But despite my conjecture, the fact remains that their life is a mystery to me.

So why do we care when someone passes away that we don’t personally know? Possibly it’s because we each understand that someday that will be us. Deep down inside we want to think that we lived a life that was important. We want to believe that we made a difference in the world, and we want to know that we will be missed.

When a person dies, no matter what their situation in life, there is a ripple effect as others are touched by the loss. In some small way the world is changed. When I witness one of these events it makes an impact on me. Therefore I decided to write about it, and because you are now reading this, it is hopefully having an effect on you.

I think one of the reasons this kind of death captures my attention is because the man or woman was most likely dependent on others for their welfare. Obviously we are most vulnerable at the beginning and end of our lives. In both cases we are at the mercy of others to care for us and to protect us. I know absolutely nothing about this particular facility, but I certainly hope that all of the individual’s physical, mental and emotional needs were met, and that they were treated with dignity and respect at all times.

Of course I realize that in this day and age, with almost unlimited information at our finger tips, it would not be that difficult to find out who the person was, but somehow that seems like an invasion of their privacy. They did not know me, so it just doesn’t seem right that I should intrude on their life. It is not necessary for me to have personal knowledge about them in order to feel a sense of loss, because no matter who they were, their life mattered. If we don’t believe that, we lose our humanity. We lose our sense of who we are and how we should relate to others.

Each time I pass over the crest of the hill and encounter the red emergency lights in the darkness, the traffic on the highway continues to move along at a high rate of speed. Hundreds of people drive by, and I wonder if, in their haste to get to work, they allow themselves a moment to glance over at all the activity at the facility and realize the implications. Even though they are preoccupied with their own problems and issues, do they pause and notice that someone else’s life has come to an end? Am I alone in feeling the way that I do?

Sadly in the next few months the scene will repeat itself, and early one morning I will discover that another person has died. And although they are a complete stranger to me, I will care.