Not that anyone copes well –though maybe they do. Like Grandma Mazur in Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum books. A wake is a social event for Gramdma – not to be missed. Of course that’s fiction, but I wonder, does anyone handle death with ease? (Morticians do, of course. How do they feel when someone close dies? And how to they manage to confront man’s mortality every day, and "pretty up" what remains? They are either the most well-adjusted people in the world, or the most f---ed up.)
Faced with the passing of friends’ loved ones through the years, I’d been unable to deal with wakes (are they called wakes because they’re in the wake of lives?) and Shiva calls. I just couldn’t bear the sorrow – theirs, and mine.
I’ve always felt a universal empathy, which either helps me be a writer or is the reason I’m a writer – or both. But when it comes to living, it’s a problem, because I feel everyone’s pain. I absolutely avoid the news for this reason.
And death has been the worst. I do believe the end of a life is not the end of a soul, but it’s the pain of those left behind I can’t take.
My neighbor Harriet died a few years ago. They sat Shiva right across the street from me. I couldn’t go. I just couldn’t. About a year later I summoned up to write a note to her husband and leave it on his door. I apologized for not paying a call. I explained that I didn’t handle death well. I told him I loved Harriet – and I did. I closed it with this: “Harriet tried her hardest to be a good person and help people, and you can’t ask for more than that.” It was the truth.
My friend’s husband died suddenly at work, leaving her with two young children and another on the way. She was, understandably, consumed with grief. I told her, “You have to remember the love you shared, and you have to believe that he’s in a better place.”
She stopped weeping for a moment, looked at me and said, “I don’t care about all that. I just want my husband back.”
And I got that. And I didn’t know what to say.
I still don’t.
There is nothing to say when someone dies. I mean, there are lots of things to say, but none of them will do a thing to console those left behind. It's our friendship and love that comforts them, I realize now. It's what we don’t say. That’s another reason why it’s so hard for me to deal with death. I’m a writer. I rely on words. If words can’t be counted on, what then?
But the grief has been the heart of my problem. The grief that surged up like a tidal wave, threatening to drown me.
The grief is what held me at bay, unable to effectively be present during those times of loss.
It’s a relief to know that I’m better at my own grieving than at comforting others. Perhaps because I write about my life, I’ve given great thought to the day I’d lose my mother.
Still, it was a shock. Isn’t death always the last thing expected? Even if she was eighty-one, clearly suffering from the early stages of dementia (which I knew too well from my Aunt Olga.) Despite these factors, I never thought the police would have to break down my mother’s door to find her in bed (not expecting to die anytime soon, she hadn’t given me a key, and I’d never thought to ask for one.)
And it was a sucker punch, this loss. Coming on the heels of losing my aunt.
But I’m okay. Handling it much better than the previous deaths I’d been exposed to. I guess death has become more familiar. Maybe that’s the morticians’ secret. Familiarity.
I have my mom’s cat. The poor thing looks to be about twenty years old, bowlegged and all spine. She yowls incessantly and follows me everywhere. She’s hideously mean to my other felines, who take up a Halloween "black cat" defensive stance which I'd never seen in person before.
I have my mom’s things. Her favorite scarf. The pictures she carried of my sons. The meticulous notes she took while watching Dr. Oz. The tutu I wore when I was six, which was hanging in her bedroom. Her many, many papers I’m sorting through.
I have to deal with the things she left behind. Everything.
I hear her voice, asking the questions she always posed. She had so many questions. I only hope she’s got some clarity now.
I was raised without religion, but I know this is not the end. It’s hard not knowing just what this is, and what we are in relation to our dead. I guess that’s where the faith comes in.
The faith that was never instilled in me.
Death is, among other things, a lesson in faith. Death and faith are both so vague; both so muddied by our frenzied, fruitless attempts to explain and complicate them. Untampered with, they are simple.
They are calm.
I’m trying to follow their lead.