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Not All Losses Are Equal

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This Memorial Day weekend Vice President Biden took the lectern in front of over two thousand attendees (Gold Star families of deceased veterans who died in service) speaking as part of the T.A.P.S. survivor seminar, initially determined to discuss a very empathetic matter: his son Beau’s Iraq deployment. “We felt guilty because he came home whole.” MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow introduced the clip, “I do not think I have ever seen a speech like this from a President or a Vice president. I have never seen something this raw and emotional said by a President or a Vice President before… ever, I don’t think.” Not that my eyes and ears have ever been particularly aimed at politics, but I agree. What the man said was heavy about his son, but his words became even more serious when the topic veered to a topic even more emotional.

“The call said my wife was dead, my daughter was dead, and [they] wasn’t sure how my sons were going to make it. [They went] Christmas shopping and a tractor trailer broadsided them, in one instant killed, two of them and… well… And I have to tell ya I used to resent, I knew people meant well, they’d come up to me and say ‘Joe, I know how you feel.’ (crowd erupts in laughter and applause) I knew they meant well, I knew they were genuine, but you knew they didn’t have any damn idea. Right? (more laughter) That black hole in your chest like you’re being sucked back into it. Looking at your kids, and most of you have kids here. Um… And knowing it was the first time in my career — my life — I realized someone could go out — and I probably shouldn’t say this with the press here; no, but it’s more important, you’re more important — for the first time in my life I understood how someone could consciously decide to commit suicide. Not because they were deranged, not because they were nuts: because they’d been to the top of the mountain and they just knew in their heart they’d never get there again. That it was never going to get… never going to be… again. That’s how a lot of you feel. There will come a day — I promise you, and you parents as well — when the thought of your son or daughter, your husband or wife, brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye. It will happen. My prayer for you is that day will come sooner or later, but the only thing I have more experience than you in is this: I’m tellin’ ya, it will come.”

I wouldn’t say that I acted as emotionally to this as I did, say, the recently viral Lip-Dub Proposal video, but I’d like to think that what I lack in tears I make up for with understanding. Biden’s words touched me because they’re not solely aimed at the families of loss, but the lost themselves (ourselves?).

From time to time I feel guilty, too, but not because I’ve come home from some misguided war effort in one piece, but because I so consistently revert back to feelings that I know represent betrayal to many friends and family members. I don’t think that I’ve ever really reached any mountain top, as Biden called it, but I often feel like I’ll never again experience the resounding sensation of wholeness that the Vice President alluded to in his speech. It’s not an every day thing, and I’m not moments away from drawing a razor blade to my skin and making a mess of myself, but the thought persists: I often feel like I want to die. When times are dark, the mind strays accordingly, but even when the sun is shining emotionally, I still find a way to make the connection: How romantic would it be to go out while in a good mood than a bad one? I’ve quite literally thought that before. Hopefully that doesn’t make me any more deranged or nuts than anyone else though.

I’m lucky to have friends, but the few that still listen to me are probably growing tired of hearing me think out loud about how I’m struggling to find out What Comes Next. One recent idea I’ve been bouncing around is that of landing in a new city, back in a state where I have (to this point, at least) a rather terrible track record, hoping that the kindness of a few old friends and a relative strangers helps me land on my feet. Overall, I really don’t know what I’d be looking for if I made the leap other than a safe place to spend some time, but more than anything I think what spurred the idea was simply Possibility: The possibility of new beginnings, new adventures, new love… even if none of them are actually there to be discovered. I think I’m searching for what we all are, in some respects, but I feel guilty that I know I’ll probably turn my back on whatever I find, good or bad, no matter where I land, by continuing to experience these feelings. They’re hardly like clockwork, but I can count on them with the same infallibility as death and taxes.

I was recently told that I am “a risky man to love right now.” The friend who offered me that espresso shot of reflection was dead on. Her cautionary words weren’t meant to say anything about me as a person, or at least anything I didn’t already know, but something about what’s fair to expect out of other people. As long as I feel this way, any attachment I find to anything or anyone is going to act as a replacement for what I’ve lost: that black hole in my chest Biden alluded to. Hopefully I’ll have fun along the way because I’m sure I’ll later feel guilty as my fun is balanced by thoughts that reduce my mind to a bleak wasteland of stark emotion. But rather than determining that all is either perfect or lost, I find myself momentarily taking shelter in the today’s words. Hopefully, like Biden said, in the future today’s tears will become tomorrow’s smile. So easily lost is the reality that the experience of surviving is what makes the next moment of adversity less unbearable to combat. Joe, I know how you feel.