One early summer morning, I stood outside a stranger's house in my Colorado town. My official city badge pinned to my shirt and a pager on my belt, I was armed with a briefcase stuffed with the tools of my trade: tissues, flashlight, blanket and pamphlets on stress and grief.
Newly divorced and eager to do some volunteer work, I'd recently completed training as a victim advocate. In long evenings and Saturdays I'd filled my notebook, head and heart with the misery that's grist for the evening news: domestic violence, homicide, suicide, victimized children, elder abuse, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. I'd learned about post-traumatic stress and honed my listening skills. And, inevitably, I'd shared my own grief and listened to that of others.
My training has prepared me to appear, when summoned by police, in the aftermath of assaults, fires, burglaries, traffic accidents and sudden deaths. While the officers conduct their investigations and fill out forms, I provide warms hands and heart--trained to ask, affirm and listen.
That morning, I could say, on the simplest level, what I was doing at this door: the ex-husband of the woman who lives here fell--or jumped--to his death from an apartment balcony just before dawn. But on another level, I didn't know why I was there. It would take me two years of wearing my pager one week a month, stepping carefully through my days, to understand.
A woman in her thirties answered the door. She'd already been notified and seemed calm. In her living room, sitting among her friends, we talked about the death. Not long after I began thinking it was time to leave, someone said: "There's something more. Her daughter. She's only 6. She's at school and doesn't know yet."
I sat back and struggled to breathe. When I could, I said, "I've been the girl at school who doesn't know her parent is dead." When I was 6, I'd sat in my first grade classroom, unaware for an entire day that my mother had died of polio in our dining room, where she'd lain for a year, fully paralyzed, breathing with machines, watching her family. I said to the woman: Go to the school immediately and tell the child. Bring her home and let her be part of this day that will stand forever as the day dividing life before and life after.
I said goodbye and drove to the police department to get books for young children on death and grief. When I returned, I found a crowd in the kitchen, talking, remembering, weeping. The girl, dry-eyed, was in the midst of it all, her mother's hand on her shoulder.
That day, I went home to lie down in my darkened bedroom, exhausted. I'd gotten what I had sought, what I had gone years without--the feeling of being powerfully alive, the way I imagine soldiers do in battle. My sensibilities had atrophied over three decades of non-use. After my mother died, my father had fled to another state, leaving my brother and me to be reared by our maternal grandparents. Having lost one parent to death, the other to desertion, I had learned to restrict emotion to a narrow, middle range. I persisted in that confining place through a long, childless first marriage. When it ended, a psychologist had helped me mourn the sorrows that began on the day in my fourth year when my mother complained of a backache and then disappeared into an iron lung, never again to breathe unaided.
Now that I was single again and embracing a new life, I no longer wanted to avoid my feelings. I wanted to flex them. I sought a regimen of emotion, and that's what I found as a victim advocate. …