What’s It All About?

Forgive the personal nature of this post. I’m not in a very “political” or “policy” mood right now.

A couple of days ago, a close friend died unexpectedly.

A couple of months before that, my best friend in the world–someone I talked to almost every day for fifty years, someone who shared my life so thoroughly that it’s hard to know who I would be if she hadn’t been part of it–died after a brief battle with cancer.

Even with months to prepare for the inevitable, I couldn’t write about that first death until now, couldn’t talk about it much, couldn’t come to terms with it. (I still haven’t.) The second one was a shock–a single male friend who we had semi-“adopted” into our family, who shared Thanksgivings and birthdays and weddings with our “clan,” and was only 62.

It’s times like these when you confront your own mortality, and wonder once again what it all means. Are there lessons in life’s fragility, and if so, what are they?

Like my best friend, who was a student of philosophy–and like my mother, who wasn’t–I don’t believe in an afterlife. We’re here, and then we’re gone, and to the extent our lives have meaning, it’s meaning we create. So we are responsible for thinking carefully about what it means to be a human being with free will (or something that feels like free will), and about the nature of morality, of good and evil, and our responsibilities to our fellow humans and the planet we share with them.

My friends each left a legacy of kindness. Neither was petty or self-aggrandizing. They both had a passion for justice, and an aversion to the sort of self-righteous judgmentalism that is all too common among less thoughtful and/or reflective people. They both lived full and authentic lives, and they both left their corners of the world better than they found it.

At the end of the day, I suppose that’s really all that anyone can hope for or aspire to.

The size of the holes left in our lives when wonderful, loyal people die is a testament to the value they added to ours. But those holes are really, really painful. We can walk around them, but they can’t be filled.


  1. I realized several years ago that nobody is really gone until everyone that knew them or knew of them is gone. Since then I have tried to pass along stories of my parents and grandparents and their associates to my children and grandchildren to keep those memories alive.

  2. Thank you Shiela for sharing your thoughts and contributing all you do. Condolences and hope for healing and happiness for you. You are so excellent at creating meaning, fostering critical and compassionate thinking, and promoting calm and careful assessment. Thank you again.

  3. I didn’t know your best friend, but I knew and worked with your adopted family member. Every word you write is so true. He left some big shoes to fill. And he truly did work to make this world a better place.

  4. Thank you Sheila. I have always looked forward to your daily blog. This one certainly hit home for me.

  5. Sheila; my condolences for your loss of another loved one. Sadly, we are at the age where we seem to lose more friends than we make. Death is a fact of life but there is no way to prepare to it; we believe we are ready to face the loss till it happens.

    I agree with daleb; I believe our “afterlife” is what we leave with those who knew us, warts and all. We live on in the lessons we leave with family, friends, loved ones, co-workers and even casual acquaintances. One of the greatest examples of this form of “afterlife” is Alex Haley’s incredible search for his “Roots”. He shared his history with us; our history will be carried on by memories, just as our own memories of family and friends we have lost keeps them alive for us.

  6. Was shocked to see that Mark had died, reported in this mornings Star. Remember Sheila, Bob and Mark coming into the coffee shop daily when I was there. Sorry to hear and especially someone my age, changes the focus at least for a while.

  7. Sheila, may you find peace and comfort in your memories of these special friends in your life as your heart heals from profound loss.

  8. My deepest sympathy for your recent losses. I read your blog daily, but rarely comment. Your words always help your readers and your words about your two dear friends do so as well. May your fond memories for these friends help you as heal from their physical loss among us.

  9. Family is defined by who we care about, love, listen to, and cherish. You’ve captured it beautifully, Sheila, and I thank you. Mark will be missed.

  10. Sheila,
    From my perspective, you wrote your best column today. Mark was a close friend of mine. As you know, I didn’t travel with him and share holiday time but we were close. I advised him on personal long term care issues off and on for twenty years and we were effective allies at the State House. When Mark and I took on the O’Bannon administration to stop unwise and poorly advised cuts in SSBG in 1998 that was among our better and more enjoyable moments. But those things aside, it seems that human beings flourish best when they are kind to each other. Being social animals that seems to make sense. That is enough of a religion for me. Kindness assures the next generations will have a chance to survive, to be healthy, and to bring the generation that follows into a nurturing environment. It assures a place for human beings in the cycle of life and opens the possibilities of life for other animals that are not so adaptable as us. Mark had that kindness and grew his kindness with each year of his life. To me that is when people aspire to wisdom, to a level of kindness that truly serves humanity and all life on a larger scale. You have that kindness and it shows in your family and in your friends such as Mark. One final note, I posted a poem regarding Mark on my Facebook page that you may like. Thank you for sharing your blessings of kindness … and wisdom … for so many years.
    John Cardwell

  11. Being relatively new to your blog, Even my heart was wrenched today by the palpable pain you shared. Loss of those we cherish and intimately share our lives with is an assault on our being – We cope, we move on, but we are forever incomplete. As I lose these significant people in my life, I dedicate myself to continuing to live my days in a way that carries their spirits forward. Although I do not know you except through this blog, I am secure in knowing that your life will honor them as well. Peace.

  12. Thank you for writing about this. Your friend still has an influence, because as you talk about his death, it prompts us to do the same. Best to think about these issues when we aren’t compelled to.

  13. Dear Sheila,

    There is a Hebrew concept within the word “shalem” or wholeness (Sometimes Shalemut) that refers to our state after existential struggles when we “wake-up” again and find our way forward changed forever by our struggle and losses but whole enough to thrive in a world that has big wholes in it. I’ve written a play on this theme http://www.theactualdance.com

  14. Sheila,
    Thanks for writing about Mark. I was deeply shocked to learn of his passing. It took a while for the two of us to come to be friends but once accomplished it was true and unassuming. Last summer he was in a conference in Buffalo and on his way to Maine to visit John Joanette called and invited himself to Hartford. This was a detour of six hours! The sole reason was to touch base, say hello and catch up. I cherish the memory.

    Most difficult for me to reconcile is that he will not be sitting with you and Bob over breakfast. For me a ritual hello if in the neighborhood.

    My heart goes out to you.

  15. Decades ago I read a book about Vietnam. The book mentioned the parents taught their children the mannerisms of the children’s grandparents so the the grandparents would live on so to speak in the children.

    I have outlived my parents, sister and wife. Perhaps the saddest part was disposing of their personal possessions, clothes, jewelry, fishing poles, etc. Some items they saved may have held deep meaning to them, but what they were I had no idea. At some point I realized these possessions were transitory to their lives. What was important was what they were in life and their legacies. You can learn from the good and bad.

    When my Grandson was 4 or 5 he asked me if I was going to die someday. I told him yes. He burst into tears telling me he did not want me to die. I tried to explain to him that even when I physically leave parts of me will live on in him for as long as he lives. He would learn from me how to love and value others, he would learn from me a curiosity about the universe. I suppose in the end the best we can do is take the legacies we are left with and add to it own and go on with life.

  16. After reading your blog and some of the comments, I got out my Star and read Mark St. John’s obituary again. Labeling him a “longtime lobbyist” doesn’t do this man justice. There are countless people he helped through his many years of service who will never know who he was or that he was the source of their needed assistance. But, he obviously didn’t do his lifework for recognition or to raise his self-esteem. He did it simply because it needed to be done and he took on the job.

    I loved the story about him hanging that sign in front of benches of lobbyists saying, “Don’t feed the lobbyists”.

    Weak as it is; again, my condolences for your loss, the loss to his family and friends and all those he served along his way.

  17. Sheila, so sorry for your losses. You’re right. We are short timers so when our network gets broken it feels devastating. Our salvation is what we can do when we’re here but the better we are at that the more too we will be missed.

    Here’s a video that someone sent me that floored me. A Harvard Business School professor professing that the only ones of us who are not criminals are not because we go to church.


    It’s a sad ignorant world that we inhabit but it’s all we got.

  18. I lost my Dad 40 yrs ago and he would have been 83 on Monday. I can only express my sympathies today because I understand the pain of loss all too well and there aren’t enough words to give you. To lose a friend is sad and on your birthday is even sadder. I’m so sorry for your loss and hope that peace comes to you and his family that loved him soon. Hugs.

  19. I don’t know that there is any lasting meaning or purpose to our lives, but I know that when I look into the eyes of my little girl, there is some magic there, enough to sustain me for a lifetime. Love is real, and so is instant karma, and a life of love and goodness is worth living.

  20. So sorry for your loss, Sheila. I don’t believe in an afterlife either. And I don’t believe that our lives are intrinsically “about” anything in particular–only that we can make them about what we carry with us and give (for better or for worse) to others. While some people view that perspective as meaningless, hopeless, and even nihilistic, I see it as liberating. We answer only to each other (family, friends, and society) and to our own aspirations. We get to decide what we want our lives to be about. It sounds as though your friends did a magnificent job with the time they had, giving love and support to those they loved and serving as an inspiration and a model for others who may not have known them personally. I don’t think anyone can do better–can make life more meaningful–than that.

  21. Sheila, you have my deepest condolences on your loss.

    I’m working, with others, on saving the history of Riley Hospital for Children, an effort aimed at celebrating our Centennial in 2024. I’ve worked there for the last 16 years and have met and also been fortunate to work with so many extraordinary people on all sorts of things in support of our patients and their families. Many of these folks have since retired and we are working to get their reminiscences before they’re no longer available to do so. Given that right now we are talking about a 91 year time span I am always chagrined in thinking of those that have already left us, with them taking all of their stories and their experiential knowledge with them.

    Fortunately for us, and our effort, we have lots of records, photographs, and ephemera to examine and glean from but none of that is as good as shooting the breeze with these folks with their colleagues and just sitting back as the tape runs and taking it all in. Our hope is that they and so many others will have their amazing accomplishments and their equally amazing levels of commitment to the welfare of Hoosier children chronicled so everyone can appreciate them. All of them, in one way or another, led the way to what we have today, a world-class children’s hospital.

  22. Tom; it is beautiful, inspired work you are doing. Please keep updating those who are making today’s history at Riley so they, too, will be remembered in years to come.

    My granddaughter, Ashley, is one of those making today’s history as a member of Riley’s pediatric heart surgery team. I’m a little proud and don’t want her dedication to saving children’s lives to be forgotten:)

  23. Thanks a lot for your very kind words JoAnn! What you have described is also a huge part of our effort and also why we’re going to be talking to lots and lots of folks from both sides of the fence, so-to-speak, on their experiences. History is made there just like it is everywhere else each and every day. Mucho kudos to your granddaughter on what she does each and every day!!!

  24. Sheila,
    I’m so sorry and sad for the loss of your dear and close friend, and indeed the sudden and totally unexpected loss of a relatively young friend/loved one has the immediate sensation of the rug being pulled from under one’s feet. Having the experience of the sudden and unexpected loss of a spouse at age 56 defied reason and logic; however, he forever will remain in my mind’s eye as the young, active, vital man of 56.

    I didn’t know your friend, but from other posters I did read his name and read his obituary in the Indy Star. Already the stories that keep him alive are being recounted in print. One particular story stuck in my mind, the story from Republican Rep. Woody Burton who laughed as he recalled one interaction with your friend St. John.

    ““About five years ago he came up to me in the elevator and said, ‘I used to think you were an A-hole, but you’re a fair guy,’” he said. “He and I over the years became friends.”

    The friendship stemmed from St. John’s gentle demeanor and ability to find common ground, Burton said.

    “He was never one of those kinds who got in your face and said it has to be this way or that way. It was always, ‘How do we get to a resolution on this?’” he said. “We differed on the social issues, but he knew that I agreed with him that we should honor our obligations to our workers. He was always there to champion those people and I listened to him and took his advice because he was well informed.”

    What a gift your friend possessed, the ability to seek resolutions by first finding common ground between those of different persuasions. He will always be present at your breakfast table.

  25. So sorry for your pain, Sheila. Your news of Mark is startling. A soldier of great mutual causes and sweet.

  26. Sheila – thank you for your words. I don’t know your friend that passed recently but as you know I was extremely close to your best friend. She was my favorite cousin and my favorite person in the entire world. I was so fortunate to have her in my life. She was truly a gift to me. Losing her only three weeks after losing my own father has been devastating. I have not yet begun to process the passing of both of them. I miss her every day and especially on Sundays. That was the time for our weekly call. She was always so interested in me and my life even if absolutely nothing exciting or new had happened since our last call. What was I doing? How was my new house? When was I coming home to Indiana? Not a day goes by when I don’t think of her. She made my life and so many others better simply by being herself. Kind, caring, intelligent, funny and thoughtful. I miss her and reading your words is a reminder that I do have these wonderful memories of her to keep her close to me.

  27. Sheila,
    My condolences. I knew Mark and worked with him often. As a woman of a certain age, I do believe in a here after. I think it would be the ultimate cruelty for us to have existed and loved to the extent that it takes our breath away, to move on to nothingness. My faith, hope, and comfort lies in a belief that I will not have to say goodbye but I will see you later. I pray that you find peace and comfort and know that you also have touched the hearts and lives of others. A soldier, like Mark, of good works.

  28. It was a great tribute to both friends. You have a beautiful way of bringing out lives together.
    We will miss Mark but will always remember him. Thank you!

  29. The chasm created by grief? Can it be filled? One loves new people, does new thing. Calls up activities left on the shelf for too long. Does something regularly in the name of the person lost. It doesn’t fill the void, but there are a lot of activities and reflections that have a healing impact.

  30. Sheila, I’ve read your blog with great interest for a long time. I’m truly sorry for the losses in your life. I don’t know what it’s all about but like you, I don’t believe in an afterlife. And that has informed how I’ve tried to live my life. I’ve spoken to my sister on the phone every morning for the past 40+ years. And I’ve often wondered what I’ll do when that comes to an end. My son has had cancer, and I’ve dealt with what it means to potentially have one of your children leave before you do. In the end, I keep coming back to the realization that we really have no control over these things. What we can control, or manage, is how we live out our own lives in the wake of loss. And I always come to the same conclusion. Some of the same thoughts you’ve been having–with kindness, and compassion, and doing the very best we can to be helpful and an example for younger generations, as well as our peers.
    I haven’t suffered the profound losses you have, but I’ve thought about what I’d do if and when I had to face them.
    You’re a teacher. You teach us every day, through your blog and your life. When I was a teacher, I always told my students at the end of the day to leave the classroom better than they found it when they arrived in the morning. That’s all we can really do. Leave this place better than we found it. And luckily, you had good friends who did just that. I guess that might have something to do with what it’s all about. But I don’t know. I’ll have to cross that bridge when I come to it. I’m sorry you’re crossing those bridges now.

  31. Sheila, I am so very sorry for your losses of people who have meant so much to you. It is a recovery process that is long and difficult, and then one day you will find yourself smiling at some little thing that they said or did, and you will know that healing is beginning. My dear grandparents died 40 years ago, and a day has never passed that I haven’t missed them, but the many good memories linger still and I am so thankful they left such a wonderful legacy for so many. My thoughts will be with you.

  32. Sheila, My thoughts are with you. We’re I there or you here, I would give you a hug. Take care.

  33. While the holes left in our lives can be painful they do allow us to retain grateful memories. The good thing is that we don’t have to let the holes stop us from continuing to appreciate the relationships we have now and will have ahead.
    I know I appreciate the thoughts you share.

  34. Sheila,

    Mark often talked of how he enjoyed having breakfast with you and Bob and solving the problems of the world. I felt I knew you through my conversations with him. To the extent there is “everlasting life,” perhaps it exists when our lives have left the world a better place. Mark’s life certainly did. Thank you for making him part of your clan.

  35. When we lose those we love, the loss leaves a hole in the heart. The hole never fills, but the heart keeps on beating. I am sorry for your losses and for the holes left in your heart. You will, however, carry on, which is what your friends would have wanted you to do.

  36. Your best friend was also my best friend which makes us very much related in love and loss. Our Jan seems to have been so special to so many of us. She made us all better. She made us all feel like we mattered and were important. I miss her every day and still I try to be the person she thought I was. It is indeed a hole in my soul but like you said , it is a wonderful reminder of who she was and how she positively molded so many of us. Thank you for your beautiful reminder and tribute.

  37. Thank you once again for expressing my feeling so much better than I can. You have such wonderful friends because you have earned them. As we get older we cannot help but go through this process of loss. We must comfort each other.

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