When my father died unexpectedly in September 2003 the outpouring of care and concern my family received was overwhelming. Even in the numbness of the events surrounding his death, the kindnesses of others stayed with us and seeped into our consciousness weeks and months later.
I think it is safe to say that my mother, sisters, husband and I talked about things that happened in those early days for a very long, long time. One or the other of us would be doing something entirely unrelated to my father’s death and would be flooded with an image of the ways in which we were surrounded.
For instance one of our father’s very best friends was the first to show up with food—a huge ham hot out of the oven. And he arrived just when we were in need of a meal. While he was there he pulled a flagpole out of his truck and planted it in the front meadow hanging a Purdue flag at half mast. I can still see myself standing at the front windows looking out at him as he dug a hole for that flagpole.
Other friends came with their trailer and loaded one of dad’s motorcycles on it. They took that motorcycle right into the church foyer where it greeted every arriving guest to the calling. Resting on the seat was his helmet… as if he’d just arrived himself and was waiting inside.
Instead, we waited inside. I can only imagine the looks on our faces as we watched people stream in the doors. I don’t think we were prepared for or realized the many lives our dad had touched during his lifetime. And, in my own numbness I know I didn’t fully understand that all of his friends were in shock, too. That he was among the first in his peer group to die; and that each of them was perhaps as broken hearted as me.
Just when I thought I might be making a tiny bit of forward progress after Dad’s death, Mom was diagnosed with cancer. In a few short months she was gone… and my sisters and I did the whole thing all over again.
At mom’s calling I distinctly remember holding the weathered hand of our family’s long-time veterinarian. I remember he could barely speak. But, he looked at me with tender care and stood around holding my hand for a while. He was never a many of many words and in this case his words weren’t needed for our shared sense of loss.
What I learned is that people themselves are the most important gifts to those who mourn. People showed up and held our hands. They didn’t necessarily speak—just stood there with tears in their eyes too. Oh, sure, gifts of food were nourishing but perhaps the greatest gift of all was seeing someone else’s face, feeling their hug, knowing that I wasn’t alone even in these darkest hours.
I learned that this precious gift does help carry the family forward into the next day. The very next day after you say your final goodbye to one you loved. That day, when you realize that the funeral is over and the food is waiting in the freezer. That day when the exhaustion rises to the surface of awareness. When the driveway is empty. The beds are quietly waiting for sheets to be changed. That day when everything has changed and yet, in some ways nothing has because the bills still need to be paid, mail opened, children or dogs or partners fed. That day when you start anew—trying to get your head and heart around the fact that your loved one is gone forever. That day.
Now I go to funerals. I make time to attend callings. I step up and show up and offer my presence in the awareness of what a difference it can make to those difficult moments.
Recently I attended the calling of a high school friend’s father. I never met his dad—and hadn’t seen this high school friend… well, since high school. I’m not sure he or I would have even called ourselves friends back then—but we knew each other. And, I knew from my own experience what it is to lose your dad. After all, not matter how complicated your relationship might be, you only have one dad.
Not long ago, my husband and I went to the calling for my fifth grade teacher Mrs. Crowley. I hadn’t seen her since I left that elementary school years ago. And even though I’d not kept in touch—she was one of the most influential teachers of my childhood. I really wanted to attend the calling as a way to thank her for all the gifts she gave me. She encouraged my love of words and stories. She saw me as an individual and inspired my interests in many different subjects. I still remember her presence in our classroom. I loved Mrs. Crowley and as a result still love learning.
I loved meeting her daughters—and they seemed to relish meeting me too. They couldn’t believe that I’d come to their mother’s calling… and it was their joy, even on this difficult day, that affirmed the importance of attending callings and funerals.
It isn’t always easy to attend a calling or funeral. Sometimes I fumble through filled with doubt and fear. I feel lost and uncertain, useless and helpless. I worry about things like; what will I say? How will I cope if someone is crying? What will it be like? Will there be an open casket? Do I have on the right clothes, shoes, look on my face? It isn’t easy because it means changing schedules. Sometimes it means traveling a long way. And it means understanding and holding the space for someone else’s pain even though it is just plain hard to do.
This is a way we hold one another up when someone dies. Being present, with open, empty, non-judgmental arms to hold up someone is a great gift. It is a gift of love and remembrance even when you don’t know the person who died. Presence is a powerful natural resource we each have in abundance, for one another. I don’t think it can be overstated; even when we think we don’t, we really do need one another.