When my friend, Carolyn, died in 2003, it was for me a generous (on her part) initiation into grief and loss.
In the final months of her life, Carolyn pondered the questions: “What have I contributed?” and “Did I do what I came here to do?”
My reply at the time was something like “Look at the people you’ve gathered around you. Look at how they love you. Isn’t that an amazing achievement?”
We tend to measure our success by the standards of a world that has defined success in terms of “how many toys you have when you die” and how much money you’ve accrued.
One’s life story is not so neat as a Hollywood ending or a well-scripted novel. It’s a messy business with threads left dangling, unresolved issues, an apartment, room or house full of incomplete projects, and furniture, laundry, unreplied-to-letters, dishes in the sink, dreaded clutter. There’s the ending that comes too soon before things are properly resolved or healed, put in order or even accepted.
In the small picture, everyone is not a hero. And probably, it’s an unfair standard of measurement–heroic or not heroic. One doesn’t often or always come out looking “good,” their life having been resolved by their dying. Do you think that the works in progress that we are continue beyond this lifetime? We can’t, though we might want to, make heroes of all of our dead. They are the ancestors, but not necessarily of heroic stature. I’ve been to funerals where superstitiously or sentimentally or desirously, relatives and others search their memories to say something kind, albeit false regarding the dear departed. Although tainted by loss, grief and fear these words don’t ring true. Truth is a partial tale told under these sad circumstances.
When my mother-in-law died in 2007, for me there was a confusion of feelings. I wondered why my feelings were so congested, constricted, why I couldn’t cry as forcefully as I thought that I should. Was it because I was ignoring a large part of my experience with her? So much had gone unspoken between us…she rivalled me for her son’s affection. Finally, after our divorce, he was all hers.
What’s up to me is my part in the story. A backwards look, a retrospective from the vantage point of a completion of sorts that occurs when someone dies. And yes, let’s add a dose of compassion for this human condition.