The Angel of Death

LightMy best friend was buried on Good Friday of our junior year in high school. She’d been in a horrible crash with her boyfriend on a sunny spring break day. They were heading to the video store to grab a movie. They never made it. Chuck died at the scene. Marcie lived a couple more days. But I knew she was on her way out. I felt it.

Of course, I had no way to know how I knew. I just did. But, having a super-rational side, I brushed away the notion and just chalked it up to the dread of something bad happening turning into the reality of it.

I love her and carry her with me now. Sometimes I’ll catch a whiff of her — in a song or a photograph, or most recently, a silly fill-in questionnaire book we’d shared in 4th grade that fell out of a box I was throwing away — and my heart will stop for a moment. I’m full of the joy of knowing her and the sadness of missing her all at once.

Several years later I had the same feeling. The difference this time was that I didn’t know of anyone who was in peril. I was just banana crackers and trying to do anything I could to shove away the panic. I had an 8-deck game of solitaire going, the TV on, the radio blaring, and was begging my then-mother-in-law for company.

I got the call the next morning. “Granddaddy is very sick. We don’t know if he’ll make it through the day. Come home.” I made the trip from Boca Raton to Knoxville in about 11 hours. I didn’t call home the whole time because I didn’t want to know I was too late. He was Blind and in a coma, so his greeting me with a sweet and strong “Hi Gina!” as I walked into his hospital room was bliss and shock all at once.

I love this man more than any other human on earth. He was my saving grace as a child and my Tuesday date for years as his Parkinson’s and my Lupus stranded us in the living room reading Sam Venable books and laughing about how many dishes of ice cream we could sneak past Grandmother. He was a good guy. A really good guy.

He died as I talked with him — Christmas music playing in the background in spite of it being September — and I knew he was okay. I wore my wedding going-away-dress to give his eulogy and planned a picnic for the twelve who gathered to scatter his ashes in our mountains. It was the saddest and sweetest week of my life.  He still visits me — as birds — from time to time. Yeah, I’d think me nuts, too. But it’s true.

Like the time the Bald Eagle swooped over B and me as we visited the WWII memorial in DC. Grandpa spent The War in India and Grandmother worked at The Pentagon. Grandpa Eagle hung out with us as we read every plaque in the WWII Memorial and then perched in a huge tree for a couple of photographs. When we finally decided to walk on to the Lincoln Memorial, he took off, circled the WWII Memorial twice, and flew over the Reflecting Pool and beyond the Lincoln Memorial out of sight.

The most personal death I’ve lived through was that of my first child. We were happily readying our home for her arrival when I got that feeling again. I shoved it aside as hormones. I went to the doctor to be told everything was fine. I checked and rechecked every twinge and poke. And then the time came when I just couldn’t sit still with the knowing. My wasband took me for a drive and a walk and it happened — I lost her.

Losing a child in pregnancy is the strangest of all deaths. On some level you are the only person on this planet who knows this child. And she’s gone. And you miss her — the her you never got to meet or kiss or comfort — while you know her every heart beat. No one knows what to say to a grieving mother who has lost a child before their birthday. So, they tend to say all the things that only make it harder. How far along were you? (Far enough to love her.) There must have been something wrong with her. (She was perfect.) You can have another. (But I wanted her). So I smile, walk away, and say a little prayer of gratitude that they’ve never had to live through such a thing.

It is a personal, private grief that still catches me off guard when I hear someone say her name  — Sarah Katherine. It happened most recently at a graduation. I’ve burst into tears on playgrounds when seeing girls her age playing. I also have moments of happiness as I imagine her brushing past. My own, personal guardian angel.

It wasn’t until a friend’s father became very ill and landed in the hospital for the final time that I reluctantly gave in to the reality that I, somehow, know when people are preparing to go. Still living in Florida, I happened to be in Knoxville and driving by the hospital when I had a strong urge to call Stephen in LA. He answered and told me where he was — sitting in the building I had just passed. I spent the next week loving Stephen through his Dad’s final illness and the following week supporting him through his Dad’s funeral and memorial and interment. That’s when I was given the somewhat odd nickname, “Angel of Death.” I’ve tried to take it as a compliment.

There have been other deaths that have caught my attention. It isn’t always someone I know, but the feeling that someone is going is never unfounded. I usually get a call asking for my support about the time I’ve made it through my speed dial list trying to figure out who it might be.

So, it was especially heart-rending when my baby sister called me for help this week. I knew, of course, who she was calling about. She wanted answers — Would he live? Why did he have to suffer? What could she do to stop it? Was it wrong to pray for a different outcome?

“I know you’re the Angel of Death. Help me understand this.”

Oh, sweetie, I wish I could. I can make some guesses, but every person who lives on this abundantly gorgeous planet eventually leaves it. The timing seems as personal as any other aspect of our existence — and as universal. It happens when it happens. I tend to believe there is purpose and meaning in this going — even if the ones left don’t have the insight to know what that is.

I’ve been touched by enough people who have made that transition to know that regardless of how well-prepared or surprising their leaving is, they leave behind a need for the ones who love them to make a journey of their own. There are volumes written on grieving, so I won’t repeat that work here. I will say that it is a sacred space.

I’ve also been touched by enough people who have sent me the feeling that they were going before they made their exit to trust that the soul knows. And it prepares. And, somehow, it’s ready.

Even if we aren’t. Even if they are young. Even if we want just one more bowl of ice cream with them. Even if they are loved. Even if they’ve fought hard to live. Even if we light candles and wish it were different.

But that doesn’t stop us from loving and hoping and living.

Until it’s our turn.

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About Gina Lynette

I have been called a, "PollyAnna, sugar-coated idealist." I like to think of myself as more optimistic than that.


  1. Thank you for sharing! I was so blessed to have been present and with my mom when she died. And recently was with my family when my Aunt passed. Being with loved ones and family as they cross over is a true gift. And I too experience Mom’s spirit in my life. It is true – the spirit never dies and while we may mourn and miss their physical presence, their gift of life, ongoing love, and ongoing present is such a blessed sweetness that is very comforting.

    • Hi Julie:

      I’ve read and re-read your comment over the past couple of days and it’s been kind comfort as we breathed my Uncle Chuck’s final few days here. There is this cynical piece of most of us that wants to brush away those feelings of connection as magical thinking or fairy tales. But we want to hold on and we want to believe and it is such a sweet peace when we are given permission to trust what our whole being knows.

      Being present for my Grandpa’s death changed me in a profound way. It opened me up in such a way that I no longer needed to explain or have the mystery explained to me. It just is.

      Enjoy those whispered moments with your Mom and your Aunt.

      Love, love, love,
      Gina ;~}

  2. The thing I miss most about my brother is his voice; he had a wonderful voice and a deep, hardy, robust laugh. Living far apart meant that we depended on hearing one another’s voice and loving each other that way instead of in person.

    After my dad died I dreamt about him and he was shining, young and healthy. In the dream it was very evident that he was on the other side, but that he was just fine–his wonderful smile telling me so.

    Mama never came to me in a dream (my younger daughter said it wasn’t her style), but I felt mama put her arm around my waist one day, and in my spirit I heard her say, “let it go.” I had been grieving because her last African violet was dying and for the life of me I couldn’t save it.

    My mother-in-law (who by the way was the best mother-in-law a girl could have) came to me in a dream looking wonderful, healthy and happy. She smiled and looked directly at me and said, “I love you so much,” in her sweet Texas accent.

    So, I look to at least hear my brother somehow, somewhere. A love of family such as ours cannot be stifled–it will be shown. I don’t know when, but when the time is right, I’ll know it is he telling me he is okay and loving every minute of his journey.

  3. Thank you for sharing, Gina. I am profoundly moved by your honesty and truth. I shall read this many times in the future, I’m sure. Love you, Michelle

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