I’m very fortunate in that most of my experiences with death have come with enough time to at least attempt to resolve tensions in the relationship. When my Grandfather was dying I was a sophomore in college. I was still young enough that my family tried to protect me from the inevitable. The hospice my Grandfather was in was fortunately walking distance from campus. I’d sneak in while the crew on “vigil” was off on a coffee break. We got to talk about how angry I was that he was going away when I was finally old enough to get to know him as a person. We got to talk about how he felt about dying and leaving his family behind.
I had a high school friend who committed suicide the same month my Grandfather passed. We also had long telephone conversations about his depression. I told him that I felt like suicide wasn’t helpful because I believed in reincarnation. If he had those issues to work out, and didn’t, they’d still be with him next time around. He felt that suicide was an opportunity to “reboot”. It was too painful to stay and he needed a way out. He planned carefully, researched insurance policies and their suicide clauses, said his goodbye’s in his own way. He even knew who he wanted to find him and when. It’s hard to lose a peer, especially so young. But I never doubted the clarity of his choice.
My best friend died of HIV Kaposi Sarcoma. That’s what killed Tom Hank’s character in Philadelphia. We had lots of opportunities for conversations about love and family. We talked about what he thought was ahead for him and what he was sad to miss. I knew how important it was to him that his sister be able to have the baby she’d always wanted. I knew that he felt his mother had made a “deal with God” to take her, with her recurrence of breast cancer, so that her son could have a few extra years. (He was right, I had the chance to talk with her before she passed as well.) We got to tell each other how much we loved each other and appreciated the opportunity to share part of this life. I made him read the eulogy I wrote for him before he passed.
I had another very good friend who passed suddenly. He had severe asthma. We’d been talking for a week before he went, trying to find a time to connect. He’d say, “I really need to see you.” I’d say, “I really need to see you.” but the stars and schedules never aligned. It felt like he knew it was coming and he wanted one last chance to say goodbye. I wished I’d been able to give that to him, but I knew and so did he, there wasn’t anything either of us could have changed. Just knowing that he’d tried was enough.
There is nothing more devastating than losing a child. I have a cousin who recently lost one to suicide. I have another cousin whose son was killed in a car accident his senior year of high school. My sister has lost two babies. The grief the parents feel is untouchable. For the rest of us, the grief is as much or more for the parents as it is for the child. Unless you’re an everyday part of a child’s life it’s hard to say you knew them. But the parents, they hurt and you hurt for them and there is nothing that will make it better, ever.
Unresolved issues are similar that way. I’ve been very close to people who’ve suffered losses before relationships could be healed. My Grandmother told my mother, “If you’re not going to come home and take care of me I might as well die.” and she did. It took my mother a long time. 40 years later I think she still feels some guilt. My niece and nephew lost their father in a freak logging accident. My sister had just ended their 18 year marriage. She wasn’t willing to live with his 20-year-old girlfriend. They were still sorting through custody and visitation and financial issues and he’d announced his engagement to the younger woman. We all grieved, but his family shut us all out from the funeral process. Even the kids, teenagers, were not fully included because they came with their mother. We were actually asked to leave the cemetery at the internment.
My aunt died last week. She’s been fighting with lupus and Parkinson’s disease for 27 years. She’s stayed active and alert and always been interested in friends and family. She and my father had a difficult relationship. When she went into hospice he finally started talking to her when Mom would call to check in. They were still merciless with each other, teasing always with an edge. In an off-handed comment to my sister at the funeral Dad said, “I’ve been waiting for this day since I was 10 months old.” Think there are any unresolved issues there?
The people we live with, the loved ones we take for granted, these too are our ancestors and descendents. Take some time to say, “I love you.” Be courageous enough to admit, “I was wrong, I’m sorry.” Have coffee and agree to disagree about how you see whatever issue is keeping you apart. The seasons turn and our time here is fleeting.
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