When tragedy strikes, those who wish to help might not find the words

On July 9, 10:30 p.m., Alec Cosgarea lost his life in an automobile accident.

He was only 17.

Death is difficult; untimely death is tragic.

There’s a much-too-large fraternity of those who have experienced this kind of wrenching loss. We “walk with a limp,” as my father often said. Untimely death has touched us deeply, painfully, and we are forever changed.

For me, it began with a phone call my junior year in college. My father had tracked me down to my friend’s apartment, interrupting dinner.

Alarms were buzzing in my mind before my father shared the news.

“Becky, there’s been an accident,” he began. “Forest hit a pier while water skiing. He’s been hospitalized.”

“What?” I stammered. “Is he going to be OK?”

“We don’t know, honey. We are hopeful, but he hit his head hard. The brain is swelling.”

I remember asking for details, more than once, as I tried to comprehend the incomprehensible. Color faded from the room as the buzzing grew louder.

My brother was in a coma. Nine days later, he would die.

He was only 17.

As I read about Alec’s accident on a small road in Lutherville, those 34-year-old memories came rushing back as if it happened yesterday. I met Alec and his brothers once — at the Michael Phelps’ parade years ago, when his physician father was taking care of a complex injury for my son.

Three boys, three smiles, three handshakes — a blur now, but still impressive.

And now, I hurt for them and with them, and wish them all a safe journey through the grief that is ahead.

Grief is a strange companion. Its first touch numbs us, perhaps so we can go through the mandatory motions to move us through the celebration of a life — and the business of death.

People try to help.

Some of us may innocently ask, “How are you?” as if we can’t see how devastated you are or dare imagine it. What we really mean is, “I care about you, no matter how you are.”

Others of us may say, “I know how you feel,” when we don’t, not really. Even when the circumstances appear similar, no one can know exactly how you feel. “I’ve experienced a loss like yours,” is what we mean. “If that’s helpful, I’m here for you.”

Still others of us venture to state, “Everything happens for a reason,” which, in truth, most things do — as a consequence of an action or inaction, though — not the mystical purpose implied. What most don’t realize, though, is that it often hurts or overwhelms to think there could possibly be a purpose for something so senseless, so tragic. But we won’t see that side of it — we are just trying to comfort you.

So if our words miss their mark, know our own grief may mute us as we struggle to say simply, “We share your pain.”

Life goes on after tragic loss, I’ve learned. But it’s a different life.

“There is life for you after their death,” my father told other bereaved parents seeking his comfort. “At first, you’re not sure you will ever live again. You are certain you will never laugh again. But you will. You will always walk with a limp, but you will walk again.”*

But for now and the months ahead, life will be a daily adjustment. Lean on those who care and let them help as you move through the journey of grief.

This column was originally published as part of my “From Where I Sit” series at in Towson Times.