I’m not a therapist, grief counselor, or medical professional of any sort. But I’ve noticed a few things about death and how it affects people. It seems worth mentioning that it can bring out the very best and the very worst in people.
My friend Gail’s dad died when we were young, maybe 20 years old or so if I remember correctly. Sadly she found him the day after Christmas, and it seems he died in his sleep. I was the first person she called after 9-1-1. I got there before the paramedics. Because that’s what you do when you get that call. You don’t question it. You’re not busy. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing. If you are the recipient of that call, you respond accordingly and immediately. Which I did. I’m glad I was there to buffer some of the melodrama that unfolded that night. I’m glad I was there to hold her hand, dry her tears, hold her tight and shield her from any unnecessary decisions or BS. It’s called being a good friend.
Gosh I loved her dad. He put up with so much nonsense from us girls. He was funny, light hearted, and a good soul. He genuinely cared about others and would give you the shirt off his back. I recall foraging through that death together, as very young women, along with my invisible friend Roxy. We dealt with funeral arrangements, credit card bills and wrapping up an estate that was mostly a lifetime of a love of reading. We found some precious memories among his things, and helped Gail decide what was important to keep with her the rest of her life and what was okay to discard. It was tough. We grew up about ten years too fast, but we did it together and we did what was necessary.
Many years later, Gail had a friend who I can only call an acquaintance. The short story is she was murdered by her new husband. It was awful. Really awful. The details were bad, and my friend endured more than a year of courtroom appearances to ensure justice was done for her dear friend. Gail lost a lot of weight during that time. It was how she handled her grief. Knowing that this sort of thing is temporary, I never gave her a hard time about it even though she became scary thin at one point. I just made a point of showing up with her favorite fast food burger and would offer to share….I knew she would be okay eventually. And she was. And she is.
We watched others around us during that time react differently. The victim’s ex-husband shaved his head and made a spectacle of himself. Another friend never publicly cried, causing the others to worry about him. I was a little more removed from this situation and able to ensure the others that everyone grieves in their own way, and just because you don’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Much goes on behind closed doors when we are left alone.
Another friend lost her husband unexpectedly in a car accident. We were so young then. I don’t recall whether her husband died before or after Gail’s dad, because the time frames are close in my mind. He might have passed before Gail’s dad. I was a little closer to this situation, and remember delivering a eulogy or some poetic words written by my friend, the wife. There are times my gift of gab and public speaking are useful and this was certainly one of them. I remember Gail climbing into our friend’s bed and stroking her hair till she fell asleep for weeks. Because that’s what friends do.
One day about 20 years ago I received a call no one wants to get. The Wayne County Coroner’s office had a body without identification in their refrigerator and they were pretty sure it was my brother. I called my dad. We went together to identify him. I remember it like it was yesterday. In the middle of the night, I woke up and wrote a really long poem about my brother’s passing. A friend took that poem and had it printed on a CD cover, filled the CD with Christian music, and gave it to me and everyone in my immediate family. Friends do that sort of thing.
My stepsister passed away a few years ago from cancer. It was long and ugly. She was and is an angel. She left behind a husband, a couple of children who weren’t grown yet, along with the rest of the family. I watched my father and stepmother lose the gleam in their eyes, the color in their cheeks and the laughter in their voices. It was so hard to see them in so much pain. So hard. Every time I hear the song “If I Die Young” by the Band Perry, I cry and think of her. Every single time. It sounds just like something she’d say to all of us.
Last night I had dinner with an old friend. His mother has the onset of dementia and/or Alzheimer’s. It’s difficult to diagnose because she refuses medical care. He spoke of his frustrations in dealing with her, and that he even felt bad for getting angry with her because he knew deep down she couldn’t help it and that his father would be proud of him for caring for her. I don’t know how long his dad has been gone now…maybe ten years or more? But his eyes filled with tears when he realized he really missed his dad…A LOT. I left the dinner and cried for him, and his dad, and his mom. It goes to show you, you never know when grief will strike you. We were having a friendly dinner, laughing, reminiscing when that bastard Death spoils everything.
Sometimes I have sightings that remind me of those that have moved on. It kind of freaks me out but after vocalizing it to a few friends, they confirmed this happens to them too. Sometimes I see Gail’s dad and have to do a double take, only to learn it’s just someone who looks the same from the back. The same with my brother. It’s weird, but maybe their way of letting us know they’re always around.
The pain of death and loss affects people differently. One person stops eating. Another dives into their work, looking for distraction. Another sees it as a sign to get moving with their life, because it’s short and too valuable to waste. Some grieve hard, and need professional help or medication to get through. There’s no right or wrong way, I guess.
I read an article a few years ago about a woman who was terminal and declining quickly. The article was written by her sister. Instead of enduring a long, painful, inevitable death she went to a state (Colorado, I believe) that allowed physician assisted suicide, or “dying with dignity” as it is sometimes called. She rented a mountain estate and had her family, closest friends and a caregiver there. The only rule was that no one could cry in front of her. They spent the entire weekend visiting with her, and looking around the house for an item that would bear their name at the bottom of it. She’d had things labeled that she wanted certain people to have. They ate, drank, laughed, and hugged each other. After the last guests left, the sick sister was wheeled out to overlook the sunset over the mountains. The caregiver administered a lethal injection and the very sick, terminal patient fell peacefully asleep watching the sun set over the mountains surrounded by her loved ones.
Now that will surely gauge all sorts of reactions, from religious differences to what people think is right or wrong. Just like grieving. These days, I try to think of death as a time to celebrate life. The life they lived. I hope that when I pass, there will be a celebration of my life. That people will know that despite all the trials and tribulations I may or may not have endured, the last part of my life was happy. I surrounded myself with positive people, had a job I loved, people I loved, and hobbies I loved. I hope that I have left enough meaningful relics behind that I won’t be forgotten. I hope that my body is reduced to ash and scattered somewhere beautiful. I hope that no one sits in a church fellowship hall and eats mayonnaise-laden salads. I hope that everyone drinks wine, eats cheese and laughs about the stupid things I write about or some antic I pulled that made them laugh. I hope that there is cool music, like the soundtrack from “The Graduate” or “The Big Chill”. I hope that I touched the people that mattered most to me. I hope that my daughter knows she is the love of my life.
Death is inevitable. Best to reconcile it with yourself now.