When I was 7 or 8, it was always exciting to go for a day at the beach. I loved going in the water, but I also thoroughly enjoyed building sandcastles. Sometimes I would have a bucket or shovel, and sometimes all I had were my hands. (I remember being envious of other kids on the beach who had small, Army surplus shovels with a hinged blade.)
I would first choose an appropriate site — too close to the water was too wet, too far away was too dry. I would then begin in earnest, forming walls, a moat and towers with pieces of seaweed imitating medieval banners. I would become totally immersed in the project and lose track of time. The possibilities seemed limitless.
But then one of two events would occur.
The first was simply that it came time to go. The day was done, and I had to gather up my tools and take them back to the car for the drive home. I knew my sandcastle would not be there the next time I came, but I had the satisfaction of saying goodbye to it while it was still standing in its full glory.
The second was that a rogue wave would suddenly come rushing up while I was in the middle of my project and take all of my work away. All that would be left would be the outline of my creation. I would be stunned and lost in disbelief. I could not comprehend that something so glorious in one moment could disappear without warning in the next. I remember looking around at the other castle builders to my left and right and they, too, would be in shock. It was a rude awakening.
I thought about this experience during this past holiday season. My father died in September at age 91. His loss was like saying goodbye to a marvelous creation at the end of the day. There is now an absence where once there was a person. But there is also the sense that he lived a complete life, and there was no injustice in his departure.
In contrast, I think of my nephew who took his own life a few years before. I still find it hard to believe I will never see his smile again, or have a chance to ask how he is doing at a family reunion. It does not seem possible that he is gone forever, that his incomplete young life on this Earth disappeared without warning and with utter finality. It will always feel wrong.
These reflections make me think of the work we do at Hospice of Santa Barbara. When I came in 2008, we were serving 280 people every month; this last fall that figure climbed past 600. The number of children we are serving rose from 54 to more than 180 a month. We are on seven school campuses every week.
Some of the losses our clients have experienced may leave an impression of a life lived to completion, to the natural end of the day. But other losses may feel much like the sudden death of my nephew, like a sandcastle that is swept away in an unannounced instant, leaving behind pain, shock, disbelief and a sense of injustice. Whatever kind of loss it is, we come alongside each child, teenager and adult in their grief, patiently helping them find a genuine path to the next stage of their life.
We are grateful that we do not have to charge a fee to any one of them, or ask if they have insurance — this is thanks to our past, present and future donors who recognize the value of what we provide.
I often think of an epiphany one client offered when he completed his time with us and was ready to go on: “Life is good, and it includes hardships.” The ocean, the sand, creativity and the mystery of life — these are good. Pain, loss, injustice — these create hardships. Both are real. In the midst of both, it is a privilege for all of us — staff, volunteers and board members — to be doing this work. Because you have taken a moment to read this, we know you are also an important part of the work we do, and we thank you.
— Steve Jacobsen is executive director of Hospice of Santa Barbara. Call Hospice of Santa Barbara at 805.563.8820 for a schedule of adult and children’s groups, or to make a donation. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.