Death and Law School in Sunny San Diego

My first experience with death came when I was a senior in high school.  That was the year that one of my first best friends, Peter, died in a car accident one icy January day in Wisconsin.  Another friend called me in the early evening to tell me the news, and a few of us got together to . . . well, to be together.  I don’t remember what we talked about, or even where exactly we were, but I know two things for certain: 1) It felt right to gather together as friends that evening, and 2) I didn’t cry.  I remember six years earlier when Peter’s dad died—Peter and I were in Sixth Grade.  Peter came to school the next day, and he didn’t seem phased.  Our teacher told him he should go home, and I remember Peter smiling and saying that he was fine.  He didn’t cry.

At Peter’s funeral service, I cried.  Pretty uncontrollably actually—from the moment I saw Peter’s mom until I got home after the service.  Then, that evening, I went to work at the grocery store.  I remember stocking shelves and bagging groceries, trying to steer my mind away from death and toward non-perishable cans of peas instead.  It kind of worked.  But death had now officially become a part of my life.

It wasn’t until the spring of 2010—sixteen years after Peter died—that I encountered death so closely again.  Within those sixteen years, I had lived a life filled with college, a career, and the law school experience, weaving a colorful web of glories and mistakes on the way.  My grandma always told me, “Have fun while you’re young!”  I most certainly did.  My grandma, who died in April 2010, most certainly approved.

I got the call from my dad on a Thursday afternoon right before Corporations.  I remember being in the Warren Hall parking lot, I remember it being sunny, I remember wearing sunglasses.  Enter the cloud.  After my dad told me some of the basic things a father tells his son when his grandma dies, I remember the conversation turning pragmatic—I was in San Diego with my grandma; my parents were in Wisconsin; it would be best if I could go to the funeral home to take care of the arrangements.  That would work fine; I could do it on Friday . . . because I didn’t have class.  Then I went to Corporations.  Then I went to Lawyering Skills II.  I skipped softball.

The next seven days were intense.  Friday, I went to the funeral home.  I selected my grandma’s casket.  Saturday, I met with my Lawyering Skills partner to go over my mock trial.  Sunday, I did my Wills & Trusts homework . . . which naturally now vibed differently.  Monday, my parents arrived.  Tuesday, my wife and parents watched the mock trial.  We won.  I went to all my classes that week.  I skipped softball on Thursday.  Grandma’s funeral was on Friday.  Grandma was gone, but my life continued.

I don’t want to understate the importance my grandma had in my life.  She was a tremendous influence on me and a true hero.  I specifically chose to come to the University of San Diego School of Law because for me it was like coming home—home to my birthplace and home to my grandma.  I have no regrets about coming to USD Law, especially considering the time my wife and I got to share with my grandma.  We spent many Sundays with her, enjoying food and conversation.  We spent her final two Christmases together (which also happened to be her birthday—we always have cake for Grandma and Jesus).  And I was here for her—and the family—when she died.

I guess I’m getting old because people close to me are starting to die more frequently.  I aged considerably last spring.  One month after my grandma died, and in the middle of final exams, my wife’s mom passed away.  We Whitmans got hit pretty hard this year.  Death now occupies a pretty significant part of my life.  And the coping and healing is a work in progress.  Mix in the stresses of law school, and it has been a true challenge.

Many of us at USD Law have dealt with death in our lives—for many of us, we have encountered it in the midst of our law school experience.  I was somewhat surprised (and comforted) when numerous peers approached me to express their sympathies after my grandma passed away.  It’s definitely tough to find the right words to say in those moments, but it definitely means a lot to have that support.  And it’s always nice to realize you’re not alone.    

Thank the Lord for . . . well, the Lord.  And thank the Lord for life—the joys, the pains, and the memories.  This holiday season, my wife and I will be focusing on family at a much higher level than mere cliché.  Because life is damn short.  And there’s more to life than the world of the law.  And death—that ominous cloud—constantly looms over us . . . even in sunny San Diego.

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