DEATH IS ALWAYS A SHOCK: On James Gandolfini And The Rush To Explain An Unexpected Loss

You can wake up every day telling yourself that someone is going to die, and that still doesn't make their loss any easier when it finally happens.
Publish date:
June 20, 2013
death, relationships, loss, Breast Cancer

I don’t remember precisely what year it was. I was a freshman or sophomore in high school, I think. I had a close friend who lived two doors down on my street.

The same age, and in the same grade, we had literally grown up together from childhood. Indeed, she had been one of the sources of the aforementioned social problems, as our at-home friendship seemed a burden to her, something she wanted to keep from her much cooler friends at school.

This friend -- we’ll call her Christine -- and I routinely went out to dinner with each other’s families. On this particular night, we went to dinner with my father and his girlfriend at the time, returning home with a decision that Christine would sleep over -- also a common occurrence. But when we got back, the phone was ringing. It was Christine’s younger sister, whom we’ll call Tara.

I remember Christine’s enormously put-upon and exasperated end of the conversation. I mean, we were teenagers, so we sounded like that all the time. After she hung up, she told me, “Tara says I have to come home. She’s crying like an idiot. I don’t know what’s wrong, she’s probably just home by herself and scared or something.” I agreed to go with Christine, since she’d have to grab her sleeping bag anyway.

The house we entered was another world -- two family members were there, one an aunt, I think, looking pale. Someone in the house was wailing in unbearable pain, making sounds I’d never heard from a human before. The noise filled my head. What. What was wrong.

We had barely shut the front door behind us when Christine’s mother, the source of the screams, appeared in the foyer, her face colorless and ghostly.

“Your father’s dead,” she exploded between sobs to Christine, “Your daddy is dead.”

Christine froze. At first she asked questions: What happened. Where was he? Where is he now? On the other side of the house, her younger sister Tara stood in the doorway of the bedroom they shared, silent, timid and tear-streaked. Not knowing what else to do, I hugged her to me and held her while she trembled. Soon Christine’s initial shock began to wear away and she started shrieking incoherently, she and her mother gripping one another’s shoulders and collapsing to the floor.

This was arguably the most unsettling moment for me, at least, as Christine had always been a very collected, very aloof sort of girl. To see her distraught was like seeing gravity defied. For my part, I felt like I was watching all of this from a distance, as if through a television, if not for the fact that Tara’s sobs were soaking through my shirt.

I had known Christine’s father most of my life. A funny, warm, and often wonderfully reckless guy, he was tall and slender, with thick glasses, a teacher at a local high school. When our parents moved in to the newly built neighborhood where Christine and I would grow up, he would go out in the dead of night to plant trees in the city-owned grassy medians between the sidewalks and the street. This was technically illegal, but he wanted his neighborhood, and the neighborhood where his kids would grow up, to have big shady trees in it someday.

Many of those trees still stand today, well over 30 years gone by since he planted them.

When he died, Christine’s father was in the process of building a new house for himself and his family, way out in southwestern Broward County, which at the time was practically a wilderness, where people who had horses they needed to pasture lived. I had seen the house in various stages of completion, having been over there many times over the process. It was modern and bright and beautiful.

He died while sanding a bedroom door in the garage of this new house, his body discovered by a friend who had come over to help. Apparently when he’d had lunch with Christine’s mother earlier that day, he had complained of indigestion that wouldn’t go away. A few hours later he was gone.

Christine’s father died of a massive heart attack. He was in his 40s, only a little older than my own dad. None of us could have predicted it. He was the last person you’d think would go suddenly. He didn’t look like a guy who needed to worry about that sort of thing. He was active, outgoing, and always seemed younger than his age.

Whenever someone dies unexpectedly, the human impulse is to explain it away as quickly as possible. This is natural -- we want to reassure ourselves that this couldn’t possibly happen to us, or to someone we love, and so our urge is to define its cause as quickly as possible as being a factor that, somehow, doesn’t apply to us.

Yesterday, James Gandolfini, best known as antihero Tony Soprano in HBO's "The Sopranos," died while on vacation in Italy, ostensibly from a heart attack. However, if you're following the reactions to his sudden death -- he was only 51 years old -- then you might think he was as well known for being a man on the edge of mortality, as for his remarkable talents as an actor.

The rush to judgment -- that this happened to him because he was fat -- has been stunningly quick, almost immediate. Even The New Yorker’s obituary plays along, saying of Gandolfini's best known role:

As the seasons passed, Gandolfini gained weight at an alarming pace. His death, at the age of fifty-one, in Italy, does not come entirely as a shock.

I think it does, though. I think to his family and to the people who knew him, it comes as an enormous shock. I think that to portray this as an inevitability that the people around him should have been preparing themselves for is insensitive at best. At worst, it is downright dismissive of the loss they might be feeling -- it suggests that no one is entitled to be genuinely stunned, because hey, you should have known this guy was going to drop over at any minute.

Needless to say, many people James Gandolfini’s size go about their lives every day without suddenly dying. And many people suddenly die who don’t look like they ought to.

Hell, we could easily argue that everyone you know and love is going to die someday. We all know this intellectually. It’s an indisputable fact that people die, and sometimes they die with little warning, in car crashes or from random strokes or because they commit suicide. Still, even knowing this, my own experiences in losing people has been that you can’t ever truly prepare for it. Sure, it's different when someone dies after a long battle, and it's different when someone dies very suddenly and very young. But neither are easier. A death will hit you like a truck whether you are expecting it or not.

You can’t even truly prepare for it when you know it’s coming soon. Earlier this year, my husband’s grandmother, who was in her 90s, passed away. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer a couple years before, and had made a good fight of it for a long time, until those final terrible days.

We all knew that she was elderly. We all knew she had breast cancer. We all knew she was going to die.

Still, it was a shock when she passed. Still, we all felt her loss far more keenly than we might have expected to. Than we even might have thought we had a right to. She was old! And cancer! It didn’t help, knowing these things. I was surprised by how hard it hit me. She had held it off for so long; I can’t speak for the whole family, but part of me had almost come to think of her breast cancer as not that serious. As manageable, somehow. Because she seemed like herself. Until the end.

I’m not immune to this urge to avoid the reality of death either. This is my second (non-blood-related) grandparent to have breast cancer. I should be taking this as a reminder that breast cancer happens, and I ought to be aware of it. I should be doing regular self-checks; I should be harrassing my mother to get the mammogram she is long overdue for. (Do check out for a wealth of information about this subject, if you, like me, are stubbornly ignorant about it.)

In my resistance to think of breast cancer as a threat to me, I’ve knee-jerkily attributed both grandmothers’ deaths to their age, more than the cancer. I’ve done this internally, quietly, uncritically. I've done this even knowing women my age who have survived breast cancer. They died because they were old, I tell myself. That’s not me. It’s ridiculous.

It’s easy to pretend that we and the people we love will never die, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. We can be aware of our risks and the things we can do to mitigate them. But no matter what we do, our time here is finite, and the time we have with the people we love is also limited.

So I’m suggesting that, instead of rushing to judgment about why a person died, or making pronouncements about how shocked we’re allowed to be, we respectfully mourn the departed and remember that our lives together are brief and precious, and should not be wasted making unnecessary evaluations and pronouncements about the private details of other people’s health and lives.

Because odds are good that even the most death-courting person you can think of has people who love them, and who will cry when they are gone. Respect their shock and loss. If only because someday, the person mourning might be you.