by Constance Daley
American Reporter Correspondent
St. Simons Island, Ga.
July 18, 2006
GRIEF BECOMES MARY
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga -- Everybody dies. Whether the decedent's life ends at the biblically suggested three score years and ten or goes from life to death anywhere from the first stages of infancy to years set in the prime of life, we do die. That is not a happy thought and it does grieve me to bring it to your attention. But you did know it all along.
In "The New Atlantis," Peter A. Lawler wrote (almost flippantly): "After all, we want ageless bodies not for their own sake but to be happy; not to live forever as the restless selves we are now but to live long enough to become fully satisfied or fully whole." Flippant or not, isn't that the truth? We want to be happy and since it's the pursuit of happiness that gives us the most joy, we want to keep on pursuing it until we are satisfied.
And so there comes a time in all our lives when we must share in the grief surrounding the family and loved ones of someone who dies.
During the past ten days or so three celebrities died: Jan Murray, June Allyson and Red Buttons. In each case, they had lived well beyond the almost-promised 70 years with salutes to all their lives as having been well-lived. Celebrities always die in threes; have you noticed?
But, for the rest of us, like birth, it's one at a time - except for those multiple births and deaths that do happen. The hard part is left to those of us who must console the living while they carry on with hurt, anguish, woe, dispondency and an ache in their hearts that dulls their senses and almost shatters their faith.
From childhood on, I've seen mourners approach the coffins of those in my particular circle who died - from my teenaged son to my 90 year old sister, the last of my eight siblings to die. Times have changed somewhat in the approach - for instance, the color of mourning is no longer black - but the moment of consolation is much the same.
"I'm sorry for your trouble," says a person known to the decedent but not to the family he's consoling - perhaps someone who knew him at work. The person in line behind him often picks up on the age-old expression and says the same thing but tears will stream down his face as he speaks to the wife or son or daugher and glances toward the lifeless body of his friend from the Corporation.
When a death is not only predictable but inevitable, as with my sister, the consolation is warm: "She lived a good life," while her family can smile and acknowledge that her death is being met with both grief and relief. That's another age-old expression suitable for the occasion.
And all the while, as warm words and other platitudes accompanied by a hug or shoulder squeeze to "be strong" continue, the bereaved are holding up, carrying on the roles choreographed by the funeral director, saying to themselves, "Dear God, help me through this. Let me find a corner to cry in, let me make sense out of what's happening. Give me something to hold onto."
And then, someone will come up to the family and start remembering. And the family sees that their loved one is not dead to the world as long as the stories remain. Up until now, mourners have paused for some conversation but in their personal anxiety they miss the consoling words and offer instead something that only stupifies the family. Why would this woman tell me, they're thinking, about some cousin's aunt's husband who died the same way? Does that make losing Harry okay - because someone else lived through it? But, smile they must and they do. "Dear God ... help."
Ah, but the mourner who says: "You don't know me, Mary, but I was in the office next to Harry - actually, I had a pin in my desk drawer the day his zipper broke."
"Oh," laughs Mary, "that was you. He laughed so over that." And Mary hugs the woman who helped Harry out of an embarrassing situation and made them all laugh for years. Mary's tears would flow again but joy lit up her eyes as well.
As soon as we realize that death is indeed a part of life, we will know how to handle it. Last week I attended the funeral of an 85 year old woman I knew and had lunch with a month before. She was fine; she was sharp and conversational but was struck suddenly with a painful and probably fatal aneurysm. The doctor told her he could operate but the end result would only mean a couple days more than just waiting it out would bring. She said: "I want to live." So, she opted for the operation yet died before it took place.
Most of us think people who are almost blind, almost deaf, frail, and failing in most ways, would just give up and say, okay sayonara. Obviously, this gentle lady wasn't satisfied yet; she had some more happiness to pursue.
In this world of reaching out, most of us are known to people who are not known to our families. Men might have golf buddies; women might have book clubs or jazzercize friends. We're living longer; we're spreading out. Anecdotes are not only appropriate but needed in conversation at the funeral parlor. Inside a church or synagogue, just being there is appropriate.
The people who were most effective in helping us through our losses, just listened. They smiled, listened, were attentive, listened again, absorbed my grief with their openess. I try to do the same. After all, death is the normal ending to life. Grief is the beginning of life without that person in it. Grief is good; grief is normal. It's of no use to search around for some way to "connect," to the life hereafter - much as I'd like to. I find it better to focus on life and sing the old song: I'm gonna live 'til I die; I'm gonna laugh 'til I cry. Until my number's up I'm gonna fill my cup, I'm gonna live, live, live until I die.
A Jewish toast, l'chaim, means "to life." And many of us toast "to your health." But when all is said and done - and death is surely all that is said and done - we are left with the spirit of the life that was. That spirit never dies.