Think About It: ‘Walking into a hug’

The main room at John Wayne Marina is large enough for most events but wasn’t big enough to hold the grief of so many who came to honor Karen Kuznek-Reese. Karen left this life and her mother, husband and daughter the morning of Nov. 14.

I wrote about Karen earlier this year in a column that chronicled some of her experiences with health insurance during difficult courses of chemotherapy and radiation intended to rid her body of cancer then attempting to spread throughout her body.

The day I interviewed her, she came into our place of meeting using a cane and in apparent discomfort. Yet, her brilliant smile and optimistic attitude overcame any reservation I had about taking her time and asking her to tell her story.

Threaded through her telling were expressions of gratitude for her husband, her family, her friends, her employer, the City of Sequim, her physicians and other care givers.

I wrote, “My friend is a strong, capable, warm, caring and smart woman. She is and will not be easily defeated. She says she cries in arms of caring family and alone; she knows the sadness of others and, as I’ve seen on many occasions, she balances her messages with good news and bad news.”

And so it was the next time I saw her. I was greeted again by the brilliant smile. We chatted about her next appointments. I tried to be of some help in phrasing questions for her physicians about those things hard to understand such as a fever that didn’t seem to have an explanation.

We talked about gardens and greenhouses. She talked about being relieved to be at home and not having to go to work. She was tired but cheered by her own good spirit. Her determination had not diminished, nor had her desire that her guest feel special and welcomed. We exchanged hugs.

Unrelenting spirit of giving

The next time I saw her, she was mostly sleeping but woke long enough to hear me tell her I loved her. Then she smiled that smile and said, “I love you.” Then she slipped into sleep again.

I spent time with her husband talking about care options. He knew what his dear Karen wanted and he was true to her and what she needed. He was well supported by family members. He welcomed visitors and encouraged drop-ins which I was certain pleased Karen. She was all about other people and affirming them as friends. I have no doubt that she loved them all.

I happened to make my next drop-in visit mid-morning of the morning Karen died. Her mother, her daughter, her husband and sister-in-law were present. I was welcomed in this most private moment. I could pay my respects. I was honored.

I was sad. Two of my dear friends who knew Karen better than I were devastated over the loss of the spirit and joy of this fine person. Unfair. Unfair, they charged.

Then we were at her memorial or celebration of life 17 days later grieving with everyone there and sharing the sorrow with the family. The sense of sharing expressed in long hugs and comforting words was most remarkable to me. It was as if the joy and spirit of Karen was present, I believe it is what she wanted.

I was reminded of a story one of the women I interviewed for my book on aging told me about the death of a parent. She arrived before her parent died and was greeted by several family members. She told me that when she entered the room, it was like “walking into a hug.”

Our very best

We are at our very best when we share the sorrow and share the importance of the person now gone. We are at our very best when the source is love and our certain knowledge that we’ve lived loss and will live it again.

If only the hugs could fill the hollow left by the loss of someone so close, so important. If only we could do more.

It’s been a sad fall that brings me to this column. Two other friends, unknown to each other, experienced the most profound of losses, another inexplicable death of an adult child and the death of a grandchild. Karen’s mother said it that day, “it’s not supposed to be this way.”

Indeed, it’s not. Our children and grandchildren are to see us to our graves or spread our ashes.

We are weakest, at least I am, in consoling the inconsolable. Still, we can share the sorrow and know enough to be there when needed and stay away when what is needed is privacy.

It helps me to recall the beauty that surrounds the pain; that is the beauty of humanity at its best and most caring. It has no room for anger, bitterness, hate or blame. None of those parts of us can survive in the amorphous hugs of genuine love.

First holidays without a special person is hard; it hurts. Thanksgiving is past and holidays are upon it. For me it is Christmas. It’s a time for many of us for remembering mixed with a certain longing for days gone by. It passes, but we try to hold the warm joy as long as possible. People who have gone ahead, people like Karen, would want that for us.

Sometime in the future, we will gather again in support and when surrounded by the antidote of children and grandchildren, we will remember that life goes on.

Now, we take our place with loved ones and cherish their presence and ours.

Bertha Cooper spent her career years as a health care organization and program administrator and consultant and is a featured columnist in Sequim Gazette. Cooper has lived in Sequim with her husband for nearly 20 years. Reach her at

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