We are living through a profound time in history. It’s been brought to my attention, that we are all grieving. We’re grieving the loss of the life we knew… and the loss of friends and family. We have not been prepared for this massive loss.
Every culture has their own beliefs on death. In Mexico, the Day of the Dead concept believes that… life as we know it, is a dream. When we die, we wake up and pass into the next realm. Death is celebrated. I don’t have a traditional religion. I believe in Humanity and Science, and I’m open to alternative concepts like after-life, reincarnation and multiple universes or dimensions. I’m fascinated with the after-life… I want to know what’s behind the curtain, so I don’t fear death. I do however, fear causing my loved ones grief.
In the American culture, when somebody dies… we go with the standard, sorry for your loss, because we don’t know what else to say. It is true… the people left behind, suffer most. It’s natural to want to reach out with words of sympathy.
Personally, I’ve always had a problem with the term, I’m sorry for your loss, when the person saying it had nothing to do with the death. It just didn’t make sense or give me comfort.
I’ve had plenty of loss in my lifetime, starting with my sister Theresa in 1980. She was 18 and I was 14. She was driving from Vallejo to Sacramento to start her first semester at Sac State, when she was hit head-on by a drunk driver going the wrong way on the freeway. I recently discovered that she didn’t die immediately as we were told. She was brain-dead and lingered for a few days. My parents didn’t talk about it with me and my younger sister, who was nine at the time.
Theresa was the star of the family; she was a cheerleader, prom queen, an actress and singer, a community theater star and a smart student with huge ambitions. The blow was devastating for my parents, who didn’t really know how to deal with us kids. They followed the Catholic funeral playbook so we had a full week of events. People came to the house non-stop, there were prayer meetings, a Rosary reading the night before the funeral and finally a full-blown mass and funeral. It was brutal. The constant flow of mourners was exhausting and draining. People all said the same thing, sorry for your loss, but it gave me no comfort.
My uncle Peter, a full-blown hippy queen from San Francisco, told me… “And now she knows everything”. In the months following, I was sent to therapy for misbehaving. It gave me the chance to talk about my guilt (it should have been me) and feeling that as the invisible middle child, I was tired of feeling unworthy. The therapist diagnosed me as a normal teenager dealing with loss, and there was nothing wrong with me. This and my uncle’s words, was my first peek at dealing with death in a healthy way.
Since then, I’ve lost a lot of people close to me. Both my parents have died. As POA for them both, it was my job to manage their finances, health and estate. As my first marriage ended, I returned to Vallejo to care for them, since their health had declined. I fed them, bathed them, administered meds, and cleaned up accidents that the Depends didn’t catch.
My mom suffered from Parkinson’s, dementia and arthritis so she used a walker. My dad had Alzheimer’s and undiagnosed colon cancer. He was mobile, so he would escape regularly. I spent every night as night-watchman, shooing him back to bed. During that time, I sorted through 40 years of paperwork, looking for my dad’s Air Force discharge papers so I could get him his VA benefits. It was like having toddlers, who could open doors.
I was in the ER every week, with one or both of them. I used blogging and humor as an outlet. During one of those ER visits, my mom insisted that my dad NOT come home with us. She had been caring for him since her retirement, and was clearly done. I had to orchestrate getting my mom home and into her bedroom, while I got my dad settled in the living room to keep them separated. In one week, I found a memory-care facility for my dad. Caring for my mom was exhausting, mostly because she fought me on everything, saying, you can’t tell me what to do. She decided it was time to go into a care facility, so I was relieved.
Within a few months of his move, my dad’s colon cancer took a drastic turn. The facility sent him to the ER, where I picked him up to return him to his facility… to die. I brought my mom to see him to say goodbye, but she really didn’t understand the weight of the situation. When he died a week later, I was the one to tell my mom that he had died, with the company of my sister and cousins. Per mom’s request, I gave him the burial she wanted him to have.
I felt relief at my dad’s passing. I was glad he passed quickly, in his bed and not in pain. My mom however, was confused and distraught. She would rub the lines on her palm, which had predicted that she would die first. I couldn’t comfort her. Again, it was brutal.
From her care home, my mom would call me with random requests for things like face cream. She called several times a day, usually angry that I was making her wait. As POA, I was also the one to get the emergency calls from her care home. I would meet the ambulance at the ER week after week. When she developed an infection, she died quickly at her care home. Again, I was relieved.
Without expectations of family, I was able to handle my mom’s burial differently. She had no life insurance and was on a fixed income, so finances were a factor. We made her casket ourselves, and paint it with her favorite flowers, irises. It was a therapeutic project for me, my sister and nephews. We sent her into the next world in a way she would love.
People offered up sorry for your loss… and once again, it gave me no comfort. Her passing was a great relief. She hadn’t been herself in years, so I had grieved that loss long before. What did give me comfort, was the thought of her being in no more pain, that she had escaped her failing body and mind… that she was free.
Last December, when I suddenly lost my chosen-brother William… it was different. Instead of relief, I was angry. His death was unexpected and tragic for his wife and three young sons. I was quite inconsolable. I couldn’t make sense of William’s death and it took me weeks to come to grips. I finally found resolve by writing him a letter. I was able to thank him for the time we had together, talk about good times, wish him well on his next journey and make plans to meet up in the next world.
By removing the focus from my loss, I could focus on William and his journey. It gave me comfort and peace. I won’t lie… I’m exceptionally sad for me, sorry that I won’t get to see him again in this world. However, I have strong hope that I’ll see him in the next world, and that makes me smile.
These experiences have given me a unique perspective on death. Rather than saying sorry for your loss, I remind folks that we were lucky to have them in our lives, that now they are free, and that we’ll see them in the next life. I hope it comforts others as much as it does for me.