Saying Goodbye To Robbie: Why Losing Someone You Haven’t Seen In 26 Years Still Sucks
It seemed fitting somehow to learn the news on April 1.
Robbie Peterson* was one of those gregarious, larger-than-life personalities – always photographed with a gigantic, almost clown-like smile – and in my shock, I wondered briefly – hoped even – I was missing some sort of inside joke.
But the comments below the social media post, including a link to the obituary, assured me – as if I could find any assurance in this terrible news – there was nothing funny here.
We’d lost him.
Gone way too soon, with no advance warning.
Robbie and I attended school together from Grades 1 to 12. He was the energetic class clown. I was more studious. But there’s something about coming up together during these formative years that brings a certain closeness, even if you don’t run in the same circles.
He was the kid who wore his mom’s wedding dress to the Halloween dance. The guy who lit up our junior high science class – quite literally – when testing the conductivity of copper wire by shoving it into the electrical socket while the teacher was out of the room.
For all his antics, he was affable, his pranks always rooted in a sense of fun, not malice.
After graduation, we didn’t stay in touch, although I’d hear through the grapevine little snippets… he’d become a paramedic, working for a time on the nearby Kainai Nation. I always thought: good for him – putting his energy and sense of adventure to care for others.
It wasn’t until Spring 2020 that we reconnected on a high school Facebook page. I sent him a quick message to say hi, how’s life?
At that time, he was stuck in Timbuktu.
How Robbie! I thought, still a kidder. Maybe some things never change.
Turns out he was stuck in the actual Timbuktu – Mali – unable to get a flight home in the early days of the pandemic.
He had a wife and three kids waiting for his safe return home.
Photos of Robbie in firefighting gear, photos of him in a helicopter, photos of him in hazmat.
Turns out he was not just a paramedic, but also a firefighter, and when we reconnected, he was serving on a UN peacekeeping mission as a privately contracted flight paramedic. That’s why he was in Mali.
I was proud of him.
About a month ago, just as Russia first invaded Ukraine, something sparked inside me. I needed to reach out.
I sent another message: I’m thinking about you. Wherever you are, thank you for your service.
I was a little surprised when he wrote back right away. He had friends in Ukraine he was worried about. Pilot friends who weren’t allowed to leave. Crazy world.
Together, we briefly prayed for peace.
It wasn’t a long exchange. But I was glad he knew someone somewhere was thinking of him.
I imagined we’d have more of these brief exchanges over the years. I’d watch his kids grow up through photos. Our hair would gradually go grey.
Even though he was no longer central in my life, Robbie mattered to me. And his death stings.
I hope he knew that, and I hope he knew how beloved he was to all the others, all over the world, who are now grieving his inexplicable exit.
I’ve been surprised over the last couple of weeks to discover that even the distance of time and space cannot protect me from this sting.
As though there is some sort of height restriction on grief: You must be “this close” to ride the train.
But it doesn’t work like that.
So, instead of pushing it down – hanging back awkwardly, as if in high school again… as if I wasn’t eligible for grief because I wasn’t as close to Robbie as others obviously were – I lean in and feel the feels.
I’m consoled by the fact that this is not my grief, but our grief.
It’s a grief connecting me not just to the loved ones he was close with, but also connecting me to my old schoolmates, many of whom are experiencing the same confusing shock of losing an old friend.
This grief connects us all – across the miles and across the ages – in a way I hadn’t anticipated.
*Addendum: This tribute to Robbie Peterson has been updated from a previous version to include Robbie’s full name and photos, with his family’s full permission and support. What started as a very personal reflection on loss, has grown with love into a public tribute.
I’ve learned an important lesson through this experience… a lesson we already know: Grief is meant to be held in community. We heal by grieving with others, not alone. Thank you to the Petersons, and my long-lost school friends for reminding me of this truth. ❤️
Photo of high level bridge in Lethbridge, AB by ImagineGolf, Getty Images. Personal photos of Robbie provided by his family. Class photo of Robbie and Shannon unearthed from Shannon's box of memories.
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