When Someone Dies Suddenly

It was a warm sunny day in July some 25 years ago and my dear sorority sister and friend, Rochie, called me on the phone. She said, “Erin, I’m not going to be around on your birthday, I’m going scuba diving at Catalina. It’s my first deep dive. I feel really bad that I won’t be able to celebrate your birthday with you. If you want me to cancel my trip I will.”

I said, “No, don’t be silly. We can celebrate when you get back. I want you to have fun on your trip.”

She said, “Are you sure?”

I said, “Absolutely. There’s plenty of time for us to catch up when you get back.”

She said “Okay, thanks for understanding. I love you my friend. I can’t wait to tell you about my trip.”

I replied, “I love you too, Rochie. Enjoy your trip and let me know as soon as you’re back.”

Fast forward a week to my birthday and my phone rang at 11pm. I thought, “Hmm, probably someone calling late to wish me a happy birthday.” I answered the phone.

I heard a distraught woman on the other line. It was Rochie’s sister. She said “Erin! Erin!”

I said, “Oh my God, what is it??”

She took a breath and said “Rochie was in an accident.”

I said, “Oh no, what hospital is she in? I will head right on over.”

She wailed loudly into the phone and said, “No, you don’t understand, she’s dead!!” Then a burst of sobbing.

I was stunned. I couldn’t collect my thoughts. I couldn’t think or breathe. This couldn’t be real.

I said, “What??”

She said, “She drowned in Catalina on her dive. My baby sister. I’ll never see her again!”

We spoke for another minute or so and then she had to make more calls.

I couldn’t process what I had heard. I was just talking to Rochie, a few days ago. This had to be a joke, a prank, it’s not real. What if it’s true? I can’t. I just can’t!

I went down the hall and woke my mom and dad. I just started sobbing and I couldn’t get any words out. They knew something horrible had happened, but I couldn’t get my mouth to work.

I finally calmed down enough to tell them what happened. They consoled me as best they could. After a half hour I realized I had calls to make. It was after midnight though and I didn’t want to wake every sorority sister so I called a few key people in positions of leadership and her closest friends.

I got on the phone with one of the friends and told her Rochie had died while scuba diving. She said very calmly, “Oh, well thanks for telling me” and then hung up the phone. I thought that was sort of odd, there was no emotional reaction at all. I shrugged and went to make my next call.

But this gal called me back. Now she was crying and she said into the phone, “Do you think she knew I loved her?”

I said, “What?”

She said, “I quarreled with her. The last time we spoke I was mad at her and we had a fight. I said terrible things to her, Erin. Terrible. We never made up and now I’ll never get the chance to tell her how sorry I am.” She was sobbing now.

I didn’t know what to say. After a minute I said, “Look, I am sure that deep down she knew you were sorry and she wouldn’t have held this against you.”

This poor girl was beside herself with regret, guilt, pain, grief, and despair. Over the next several days as we all gathered to sit with her family, to share our sorrow, to try to understand what happened, and to help plan her funeral, this one girl became so withdrawn.

When I spoke to her again she said she could just never forgive herself for the terrible things she had said to Rochie when they fought. She said she felt she didn’t deserve to grieve with the rest of us.

I was very young then, and I had never lost a close friend before. I wasn’t really sure how to make sense of things myself. We all muddled through as best we could.

I learned a lot from that experience though.

I learned that you never want to wait to tell someone you love them, because you never know when it will be too late to tell them.

I learned that sudden deaths are really hard to process, because they just don’t make any logical sense.

And I learned that regret can be like an anchor around your feet, pulling you to the bottom of an ocean of despair from which it’s hard to rise.

Take some time to check in with your loved ones. Mend any broken fences. Clear the air between you. Make sure they know you love and care about them, because you never know when your last conversation will be your last conversation.

Don’t let your loved ones go to their graves without your unconditional love. For you, and for them.

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