And then they die
You thought you were ready for your elderly loved one’s death, had even stopped by the funeral home a month ago, signed papers, started burial planning, considered a headstone. The nice man asked, “What were her wishes?” or “Had he said what he wanted?”
You prepared, as best you could, and now your loved one is gone without warning. It seems without warning because the slow decline eluded you. You hadn’t taken in how she swore “no” when offered her favorite buttermilk scone. You hadn’t let yourself glimpse how his skinny legs buckled and his spindly arms failed to hoist him out of his recliner. Your body had step-by-step tweaked your hearing to match her ever-thinning voice. But your mind refused to spot the changes. How could you have missed the fading life force, even after you engaged Hospice weeks ago? The news leveled you.
Trembling, you take out the wrinkled notes you scratched because now you have to write the obituary for real. In a mental fog, you wonder, “What was the name of her grandparents’ town in Latvia?” or “Was his father’s father’s name really Eustasad?” There is so much you wish you inquired about her true sources of joy, or his inner longings, but you’d been too drained. Those last weeks, your exhaustion sapped your compassion. You couldn’t ask. Or wouldn’t.
You ruminate. Did I do enough? Did I give her all I could? Did he know I loved him? I shoulda, coulda, woulda if I’d only known. You tell yourself, “At least I heads-upped the rabbi when she fell and gashed open her forehead.” You comfort yourself with, “I called the priest to request Last Rights. (Are they still called that?)” You think you added, “I’ll keep you posted,” or “stay tuned,” which ring shallow given the present gravity.
Now is no time for shallow. Now is time for deep feelings, profound thoughts and meaningful words you’ll speak at the memorial service. But you are tongue-tied. How did death’s door open and snap shut so fast?
You knew we all age, get sick and die. Yet, even after your loved one spit up everything but red Jell-O, even after she slept all day and night, the bargaining repeats, “If only I had given her probiotics.” or “If only he had done PT.” Your denial screams, “Why?”
Frozen in time and space, still, you do what needs doing. You call the funeral home again. They tell you where to be when. They’ll do all the driving. You phone the rabbi or priest. They listen, as if holding your hand. Their kindness cradles you. Then, though you are sure no one could possibly know the hurricane tides of your stormy loneliness, the Smiths next door show up with tuna-noodle casserole. Your neighbors the Rubens deliver onion bagels and veggie cream cheese. Cousin Pat picks up other cousins at the airport. Chris takes your dusty black suit to the dry cleaners.
You are not alone. You open your palms to peoples’ caring because the grip of grief needs to be shared. That’s how life works best. Death too. Your loved one is gone. But you are here, lifted by others also here. You start to unfreeze, limping one slightly thawed foot in front of the other. Left. Right. Shaken and teary, you move. Because you must. Because human beings step up and step into their lives again and again. Some larger power and some generous people walk you. You lean on them and let yourself be walked.