My friend Jared Branfman and his family are easy to love. I went to high school with Jared and his brother Adam. I became close to their family quickly. When I started spending as much time at their house as my own one summer, Jared?s mother, Ellen, started calling me their third son.
For two years and three months now, Jared valiantly fought a rare form of cancer. Recently, though, Jared learned that his treatment options had been exhausted.
Last week, Jared passed away after a more-than-two-year struggle with cancer. I was honored to be able to spend the last weeks, days, and minutes of Jared?s life with him and his family.
Now, we grieve and find a new way to live.
As I began to process this experience, I realized how removed I am from the notion of death. Mortality, perhaps our most intrinsic trait, is foreign to so many of us.
For years, my mother warned me that I wasn?t invincible. Never breaking a bone, never visiting the emergency room, I found it difficult to consider or even conceive of the end of life. I experienced the loss of three grandparents, but death still seemed a very abstract and distant phenomenon. Only the most direct confrontations with death have led me to accept it as an intrinsic part of life.
The summer after graduating high school, I began working the graveyard shift at an emergency room south of Boston. Along with many menial duties, I was responsible for being the extra hands of doctors and surgeons in the trauma room.
I can?t remember specifically when I first witnessed a person?s death, but I remember that it wasn?t what I expected: It was unremarkable and natural. Death was not dramatic or frightening, as television and movies had led me to believe.
I was present for the passings of many people, but it was one case in particular that forced me to confront the fact that what I witnessed happening to others applied to me, too.
A young man was once brought to the emergency room after becoming unconscious at a party. He had been using the drug called Special K ? ketamine. I searched through his pockets for identification and found his driver?s license. He was 18 years old ? just a few months younger than I was.
The boy?s heart stopped beating shortly after he arrived. Staring at him, something clicked. Quickly, the calm disconnect that I inherited from my colleagues and my culture washed over me. That feeling scared me more than the experience itself.
Friends and family would react with surprise and aversion when I told them about my job. Death isn?t something people my age should have to deal with, nearly all of them said. It is the same reaction I got when friends and family spoke to me about my grandparents? deaths. I can?t help but feel that this choreographed response reflects our culture?s practice of ignoring death, denying for as long as possible its inevitability.
Of course, life experiences and gradual exposure can soften the blow dealt by the realities of our mortal condition, but avoiding the issue does more harm than good. Accepting life for what it is need not be morbid; it is brave, and it is healthy.
For many of us in our late teens and early twenties, the loss of a loved one who is close to us in age is not within our experience set. Naturally, the emotions that come with that loss are new and confusing. Most important is that we accept and address our feelings.
As I came to realize these things, I also realized that Jared knew them. He lived every moment looking forward. He laughed and loved every day. Jared?s life was as short as a beat of a blue jay?s wing ? and as vigorous. His life was as long as the sun?s ? and as brilliant. Jared, you are with us always.