I remember a time when my mother-in-law was attending funerals on a rather regular basis. One Sunday when she and I were having tea and discussing the state of the world she commented that she was growing weary of losing people who were important in her life. She was in her seventies at the time and had already laid all of her elders to rest. What had become unnerving to her was the number of people in her own age group who were dying with more and more regularity. Losing people was wearing her down.
My grandfather who lived to the age of one hundred eight also complained about the constant presence of death. He had long ago lost all of his friends, his wife and even his children. When his grandchildren and great grandchildren began to die he felt as though he had somehow outlived his welcome on this earth. Even though he was an optimistic fellow who still had a number of young friends and family members he regularly mourned those who had walked with him through the early days of his life.
So too did my mother begin to dread the kind of phone calls announcing the passing of yet another person that she loved. In fact she reached a point of being emotionally unable to attend funerals any longer and instead grieved quietly at home. As her losses mounted she felt more and more isolated and alone even as my brothers and I regularly visited and checked on her.
Growing old and doing so with grace and good health is a blessing but with it comes the price of watching the inevitable demise of the once vital people in our lives. It can be emotionally daunting to realize that the march of time is relentless and selfish in reminding us that nobody is immortal. Death eventually claims everyone. We know this and yet we almost always feel the hurt of loss even when there have been warning signs that someone we love is fading.
Each culture has rituals associated with death. For most of my life funerals have meant having a viewing of the deceased, a visitation with the family, a prayer service and a final mourning that includes eulogies from those who knew the departed best. We honor our dead with flowers and flags and kind words that all too often we neglected to utter when they were alive. We comfort their families and share hugs with their friends in gatherings that we wish we had done while they were still with us. We joke that we have to do more than meet when someone dies and make promises to correct our behavior but we get a bit too busy to actually do anything to change. We celebrate a life when it is over but not often enough when it is still vibrant.
My brothers and I conspired to give my mother a surprise party on her eightieth birthday. We asked everyone that we invited to write letters to her revealing what she meant to each of us. We put the notes and cards together in an album and presented it to her as a gift. She kept it close and often re-read the comments to remind herself of the love that she had spawned and the impact that her life had made on others. When she died just shy of her eighty fifth birthday we were happy that we had told her how we felt before it was too late.
We are a busy society flitting from one task to another, measuring the success of our days by the number of things we accomplish. Telling people what they mean to us never quite makes it to the top of our list of priorities. We have the best of intentions but there always seems to be so much to do. Still, there are wonderful souls among us who seem to have a knack for acknowledging the contributions of the people around them. We all know someone like that and we admire them for what they do. Perhaps we have even been the recipients of their gift so we know how wonderful it feels to be seen and heard and appreciated.
I was once asked what I would say about myself if I were to write my own eulogy. Even though I have found the words to describe countless people who have died, I was speechless when it came to myself. I think that is because I know what kind of person I hope to be but only those who know me can actually speak to my success or failure in building a meaningful life. We can critique ourselves but it is only in the eyes of others that we know whether or not our efforts to find purpose have been realized. It is so so wonderful when we hear that we have actually had an impact on the people around us.
I know how I want to be but I also know my imperfections intimately. Thus it is for each of us. We tend to be our own worst critics. We question ourselves and worry that even our very best efforts are not really enough to accomplish all of our dreams. Even Mother Teresa had moments of darkness and doubt. Abraham Lincoln questioned himself. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wondered if his efforts were actually making a difference. Each of us likewise needs feedback from the people around us to know what we are doing right. When we get such acknowledgement a load is lifted from our hearts.
Do not wait for death to come before saying the kind words that you have for someone that you love. Sometimes it only takes a couple of sentences to convey how you feel. Make it a daily routine to reach out and touch hearts before it is too late. Start a new tradition that will make eulogies as old fashioned as massively expensive funerals. Say the words to the living. Don’t save them for the dead.