What Will They Say?

IMG_4471Yesterday, I attended a beautiful and moving memorial service for the husband of a long-time family friend.  Afterwards, we all gathered at her brother’s house for some food and drinks, as is often the custom after such services, so that family and friends can comfort each other and share stories and memories about the one they have lost.  I’m sure most of us have been to several of these gatherings, but there was something especially touching about this one.  The toasts and tributes were so heartfelt, the memories were so special and the sense of loss so deep, that there was no doubt that my friend’s husband was not only a very special person, but was also dearly loved but all who knew him well.  Clearly, he had left a powerful legacy of goodness, tolerance, and love.

Afterwards, I couldn’t help but wonder how different our lives might be if we thought just a little bit more often about how people we will remember us after we are gone.  I don’t know about you, but whenever I’ve attended a funeral or memorial service, people don’t really talk about the sort of things that seem so very important to us as we live our daily lives.  No one mentions what car the deceased drove, how much money he made, how she always looked ten years younger than her actual age, what advanced degrees he earned or what a prestigious job she held.  Sure, some of that information might make it into an obituary or be a part of the life story shared during the service, but when the time comes for people to share their own memories of their loved one, that’s not what they talk about at all.

In the personal tributes and toasts, people talk about the real gifts that their loved one gave them.  They talk about how he was always ready to listen to their problems, without judgement, and without jumping in to offer quick and easy advice.  They talk about how she always made time for them, no matter how hectic and stressful her life happened to be.  They talk about the good examples he set by the way he lived his life, or how she had the courage to follow her own dreams and encouraged others to do the same.  In short, they talk about the important things, and not the inconsequential stuff that occupies far too much of our attention.

I have always been taught not to worry about what people say about me (easier said than done), and I understand that is meant to be good advice about not letting other people’s opinions dictate how I live my life.  But I’m beginning to think that it’s a good idea to consider what people are going to say when I’m gone, and how they are going to remember me.  Am I a positive and encouraging influence on other people?  Am I helping others when they need it, and not just when it’s convenient for me?  Will anyone be able to say, honestly, that I left this world just a little bit better than I found it?

The beautiful tributes and heartfelt toasts I heard yesterday are the kind that can only be earned by living our lives as fully and compassionately as we possibly can.  And I can think of no better way to be remembered, and no better legacy to leave behind.

Just Be There

When I was a child, my best friend’s pet rabbit got sick, and my friend was very worried about her.  So when I stopped by my friend’s house on my way to school one bright sunny morning, the first thing I asked was, “How’s Jessica doing?”

“She’s dead,” my friend answered, looking away. “But at least it’s a nice day for a funeral.”  Then she reached out and took my hand, and together we ran the whole way to school.  I made sure I sat next to her at lunch, and afterward, stood with her in the corner of the playground while the other children ran around, playing games and shouting.  Neither of us said a word about her rabbit.

Sometimes I wonder exactly when it was that I forgot how to comfort someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one or dealing with a major personal catastrophe.  I wonder when I decided that my job in those instances is to offer the perfect words of comfort, to try to smooth away the rough edges, or to explain the tragedy.  In other words, I wonder when I got the idea that I had both the duty and the ability to make things right for people who are going through major emotional loss.

As a child, I seemed to know intuitively that what people need most when they are suffering is for someone to simply be there with them.  There are no perfect words that are going to take away the pain, but there are a lot of imperfect words that can make things so much worse, such as: “Remember, everything happens for a reason.”  And someone coping with an overwhelming problem, like a loved one’s terminal illness or a life-changing tragedy, doesn’t need my advice or instructions on exactly how they ought to deal with it all.  They just need my caring support as they make their own choices.

Years ago, when my son was just about two years old, the father of a good friend died rather suddenly.  The funeral was on a weekday afternoon, smack in the middle of my son’s normal nap time, and my son didn’t handle missing naps well.  But I couldn’t find a sitter, and I wanted to support my friend.  So I went anyway, armed with a bag of quiet toys, and sat in the back of the church in case my son became too loud and we needed to make a hasty exit, hoping I was doing the right thing.  When the family was walking out at the end of the service, my friend looked over and saw us sitting there.  We locked eyes for a few seconds, and she smiled, ever so faintly and briefly.  And in that moment I was very glad I had come, even with a toddler in tow.

IMG_4471Being me, I’m sure I said a lot of things to my friend about her father’s death, but I don’t remember them and I doubt that they provided her with any comfort.  What gave her comfort was seeing my son and me in that church, supporting her in her loss.  Because what people who are overwhelmed or grieving really need is simply the assurance that you are there with them in their time of trouble, right beside them as they walk that difficult path.  Just like my childhood friend and I, running hand-in-hand to school all those years ago.

 

In Remembrance

One of the best things about reaching middle age is having friends that I have known for many decades.  These are the people that knew me when I was just a little kid wearing scuffed saddle oxfords, and have stayed in my life ever since.  We understand exactly where each other came from, because we were there, too.  Their parents were friends with our parents, and now, our kids are often friends with their kids.  They may be “just friends,” but our relationships have lasted so long and our families are so connected that I think of them more as close, personal relatives.

Thanksgiving in NorthfieldI have very good friends that I have met in recent years, but they can’t share the stories of the past the way these long-term, family friends can.  They can’t talk about the time my parents had the neighbors over for a backyard barbecue and it started to rain heavily.  Rather than risk losing his precious pork steaks, my father simply picked up the grill and ran in our back door and down the basement steps with it, leaving a trail of curse words and black smoke behind him.  Or the time when my husband and I had just moved to St. Louis and we all packed into my friend’s father’s van to head to Chicago for Thanksgiving at my parents house, never mind that it was a cargo van with no real seats in the back.  We even took our friend’s dog, who was the only one who seemed comfortable sitting on the floor for the six-hour trip.

But one of the worst things about middle age is losing so many of those life-long, family friends.  Tomorrow I’m going to a funeral for one of those family friends, one from my parent’s generation, who was the father of a very dear, life-long friend of mine.  He was someone I’ve known my whole life, a very smart man who told funny stories, who could make just about anything in his shop, and who gave my husband a part-time accounting job on the side at a time when we desperately needed the extra money.  He was a part of my past, and my family’s past, but now, like so many others, he is gone, and my heart aches for his grieving family.

I do know that as I age, everyone else in my life is aging as well.  I mourned when my beloved grandparents and great aunts and uncles grew old and died, and now we are losing my parents’ generation too, one by one.  Between my husband and I, we have only one parent left.  I understand that this is just the natural progression of life, and that my generation’s turn will come soon enough.  But I’m not going to lie; sometimes it makes very very, very sad.

It’s not that I want to live in the past, or am yearning for a “better time.”   I’m not.  It’s just that it’s hard to lose so many people who I loved or cared about, and that with each loss, there is one less person to “remember when,” one less person who shares my past, one less person who knows not only who I am now, but who I was then.  It’s one more reminder that time is moving relentlessly forward, and that life is, and always has been, both precious and fragile.