Gobsmacked by death

Gobsmacked combines the northern English and Scottish slang term gob, mouth, with the verb smack. It suggests the speaker is utterly astonished or astounded. It’s much stronger than just being surprised; it’s used for something that leaves you speechless, or otherwise stops you dead in your tracks. It suggests that something is as surprising as being suddenly hit in the face.

I have always loved that term. I rarely have any use for it. Last week all that changed.

I met up with an old friend that I hadn’t seen in many years. We live different lives in different places and rarely connect. He was traveling through the area and we planned on breakfast.

The visit was pleasant enough although I didn’t feel the connection. When you see an old friend, you can usually pick up right where you left off. I wasn’t feeling that. There was an elephant in the room. I thought it was me.

My week was hectic and much of it was overshadowed by a nagging headache. As is my style, I was convinced it was either an aneurism or a brain tumour. Why else would it hurt so much?

At the end of the breakfast he said he had something to tell me. I didn’t have a clue but I was all ears. That’s when the elephant came out.

Turns out that he has a progressive terminal illness — the kind that you die from (although I don’t think there are any other kinds).

For the first time in my entire life I was speechless or truly gobsmacked.

I had no words of wisdom, no words of comfort, no words at all. I stood there with my mouth gaping open while a very calm person talked about the possible ways his life could end. Most of them were not pleasant.

It was surreal. I have friends who have died. They were ill. There were signs.

Someone warned you or your spidey sense picked up on it. There was time before the book slams shut. You could prepare.

This past year I have been gobsmacked by two people with extraordinary illnesses. The kind of illnesses that you never heard before and have to look up.

They are words with lots of syllables that you practice saying to get it right.

The words are hard to remember so you revert to acronyms.

Even when you read about them you still don’t comprehend.

I am developing an aversion to one-on-one meetings for fear bad news will join for dessert.

This isn’t about me.

It’s really about closing chapters.

When a person dies, that chapter is closed forever. There are no more memories to be made. No more laughs. No more giggles. It’s done.

As he left he said this would be the last time I saw him. Fini.

It’s more common to be unaware that you are seeing someone for the last time. You get the news of their death and remember your last interaction. Sometimes you wish you had said things. In this case, I was too gobsmacked to say those things anyway.

Treasure your day. None of us really know which one will be our last.


47 thoughts on “Gobsmacked by death

    • I have two friends who are terminally ill. Neither have a timeline. One (the one in this story) appears to be living normally until something happens. The other is uncomfortable and her life is restricted. I don’t know how I would react but what can you do but accept it and soldier on. Glad you stopped by even though at this point it is an old post.


  1. Pingback: What would you do? | Views and Mews by Coffee Kat

  2. “Treasure your day. None of us really know which one will be our last.” Your final note, Kate, is one we all need to remember.

    Benedictine monk, David Steindl-Rast, says: “If you learn to respond as if it were the first day of your life and the very last day, then you will have spent this day very well.” This advice also is true for those who are in our life.


  3. Pingback: Now I’m the One Who is Gobsmacked | Writer Site

  4. My first “best” friend here met me for coffee to tell me she had 3 months to live. I was “gobsmacked.” It is the perfect word. I still miss her so much. And your advice to appreciate each day is good for it may be the last. I am sorry about your 2 friends.


    • My “first” best friend died without telling me. She didn’t send a Christmas card (which wasn’t like her). I decided to send her a follow up birthday card in March but I saw her obit first. She lived in Florida at that point so I hadn’t seen her for a couple of years. From the comments I saw, she was ill for a while. It was a shock but somehow having someone say it is harder.


  5. I haven’t been in exactly the same kind of situation where a friend tells me “this is it” and I walk away knowing that it is, Kate, but the word “gobsmacked” certainly applies here. I have wondered if age is contributing to the number of people I know with these terrible terminal illnesses, but, like Nancy shared about the young woman in Oregon, I’ve been following that story closely and she was only 29. What a sobering story you’ve shared, and it is so real. Cherishing each day and connecting with friends as we can…you’ve really challenged me this morning to make contact with a few who have been asking me to lunch and I’ve been postponing. Important words shared here, Kate. I’m very moved.


  6. Right now I am wrapped in my own grief, one that non-pet-parents might not understand. As you know, Kate, my beloved little dog Oreo passed away totally unexpectedly at the vet’s. No one had a chance to say goodbye or even let him know how much we loved him, because not even the vet thought he would pass.

    When she phoned that morning to tell me he had passed, I was truly gobsmacked. I couldn’t even speak for a couple of minutes. She waited until I found my tongue, and then I said all the ordinary things that are required by politeness and hung up. I still couldn’t really say anything that required thought.

    I sat there for a good five minutes or more, trying to grasp my/our enormous loss. I hadn’t thought until now of a word that described my condition in those moments, but gobsmacked covered it perfectly. Every little bit of the puzzle discovered helps. Thanks.


  7. I’m sure that meeting with you (and others) is part of his process of accepting the inevitable finality of his diagnosis. He had time to think about and prepare what he might say to you, whereas, you were, as you said, completely gobsmacked. We all walk away from such situations with that voice in our head telling us we should have said this, or said that, but truthfully, your reaction was honest and appropriate to the situation. Stunned silence, for him, was probably more helpful than empty platitudes. It underlined how shocking it is when we learn our time on this earth is limited. It isn’t that we don’t always know this, but facing an impending death from a specific disease leaves us no room to ignore the finality of our circumstances. I’m sorry for your friend, and can only hope that these meetings with people he cares about will help him in some way. Meeting with you was another step for him, and that, just by itself, probably helped.


      • I don’t know that it’s appropriate to use this as a reference, but what you shared here about how you felt when your friend gave you this incomprehensible news, probably equates, in some way, to how people felt, all those years ago, when I began sharing the secret of my abuse. Most people responded with stunned silence, not knowing how to appropriately respond. Which is one of the reasons it made sense to me that your friend is most likely using these personal meetings with people he trusts and cares about to help him learn to cope with his new reality. Stunned silence, and awkward attempts to put words to something that is incomprehensible, is an honest and appropriate response.

        I’ve been on the other end of that equation, too, where someone has shared something that leaves me utterly speechless, awkwardly fumbling around for any sort of appropriate response. It can surely make us feel inadequate and incompetent, and even though we know this is really about how THEY are feeling at the time, we all wish we could summon up some words of perfect encouragement or support. That just speaks to our incomparable need to try to fix every situation, even when there are no words at all that could possibly make the situation better. Gobsmacked and stunned silence are totally appropriate.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I appreciate this post, Kate. M and I talk a lot…we were just talking about the shock we had 4 yrs ago when he was diagnosed with a condition that most know nothing of or never heard about. I remember crying myself to sleep every night for awhile…I so never wanted him to know that. But…here we are…four years later and still going strong. The incurable and fatal is in the picture as it will remain…godsmack comes in many ways’ of course with a shock attached. Thanks for the thoughts. Hugs! P.S. We moved back home from China in December (205); my mother died suddenly in March two months after my youngest brother died suddenly in January…didn’t get to hug either one. I wish…I wish.


  9. I’m really sorry to hear this, Kate. I would have probably had the same reaction. Funny, on my way to work this morning I was listening to a CD about making every day a masterpiece, as we never know if it will be our last. Thanks for sharing this story.


  10. Gobsmacked is an old word – hadn’t heard it for a long time. It fits.
    ” fear bad news will join for dessert”. You felt a disconnect from the beginning – it is a spidey sense.
    Definitely a stunner. There’s a concern of being busy being busy we’ll miss life. A good reminder to stop and take note – and perhaps a legacy from your friend.
    You write very well.


  11. Be grateful you had a chance to say “goodbye!” We never had that chance with Dad! Dying is like going thru graduation, that “next step” we all must pass thru. Cherish the moments you have for the next golf date may be the last. Peace


  12. I’ve been gobsmacked by your blog. Yes, I’ve lived thru the “oh, my I’ll never see him again!” and it’s awful. Too many times of “why didn’t I say………” A good reminder for us Thank you.


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