Two bright, determined young women have become the bookends for the contemporary library of mortality.
Lauren Hill and Brittany Maynard faced similar challenges.
Hill is a first-year college basketball player at Mount St. Joseph’s with an inoperable brain tumor. She has only months to live. Hill’s dream was to play college basketball. To help her realize that dream, the NCAA moved up the start of the basketball season two weeks so she could play.
Hill played that first game over the weekend, scoring the first and last buckets in a game played before a sell-out crowd in a huge arena. Her every move provoked ovations, a tribute to her courage and determination.
Maynard was a young woman who was diagnosed earlier this year with terminal brain cancer. At 29, she was older than Hill and married. She made the decision to move from her home in California to Oregon, where she could make use of that state’s death with dignity law to end her own life on her terms. After ticking off some items on her bucket list, Maynard did just that – on the same weekend that Hill played her basketball game.
Maynard’s decision provoked a more mixed response than Hill’s did.
In some quarters, Maynard was condemned as a coward and quitter. In others, she was touted as a crusader in the cause of personal self-determination.
What I find interesting about these young women’s stories is how eager we are to turn them into symbols – so eager that we strip them of their humanity.
But I suppose that’s because when we talk about them, we’re talking about something that scares us. We’re talking about death – and that conversation is easier in the abstract.
My friend Nancy Comiskey has a beautiful piece in the current issue of Indianapolis Monthly magazine about the death of her daughter, Kate, 10 years ago. One of the most painful sections to read deals with the ways that well-meaning but insensitive people try to comfort Nancy and Steve, her husband, by delivering bromides and platitudes designed to assure the grieving parents that they “understand” the Comiskeys’ loss.
But they – we – can’t understand what Kate meant to them. She was their daughter, not ours. And, more to the point, Kate was her own person, without a replica or facsimile anywhere in the world.
While love and grief may be universal feelings, they are individual experiences. Each person is unique. And the death of a human being is a specific loss, one that will evoke its own distinct and, to some degree, unknowable responses of pain and sadness among those who loved the person who died.
If this weren’t the case, marriage would not exist and neither family nor friendship would matter. One person would be the same to us as another.
We don’t mourn in the abstract because our losses are always concrete. The people we love who die are real – and irreplaceable.
Lauren Hill and Brittany Maynard aren’t symbols. They’re people, fellow human beings whose suffering and deaths will leave marks on the people who love them until those friends and family members meet their own ends.
It’s tempting to judge how others face death – or deal with grief – because it gives us an illusion of control, some sense that there is a shield protecting us from misfortune and pain.
But, in the end, we can’t know with any precision what Hill’s and Maynard’s pains, fears and hopes are like. Their lives are their own. To say that we “understand” what they have gone through is to deny them the most precious thing they have left, the knowledge that their lives have their own specific meanings and that no one else can lay claim to that.
We cannot know the thoughts that race across another person’s mind or the feelings that stir even a loved one’s heart.
All we can know for sure are our own thoughts and our own feelings, and that is why the most comforting words we can utter in times of tragedy are not “we understand,” but “we care.”
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.