I’ll be honest. I’m not good with death. I never have been. It’s probably ironic because I’m a Christian and so I believe that we’ll go to heaven, that it’s an amazing place, that everything is awesome (thanks Lego movie). Yet it’s the unknown and it’s so finite that it scares the hell out of me. It scares me to think about leaving my boys behind or my husband. Or worse, it scares me to think what would happen to me if something happened to them.
2016 was filled with a lot of death for me, and especially the final week of 2016. There seems to be something somewhat relieving when you lose someone who struggled with a long illness. Their pain is gone, and you feel hope and happiness that they aren’t suffering anymore. But when you lose someone with no notice, no final chance to say goodbye or I love you, it’s just hard to grasp.
My uncle who I was close to died suddenly at work in June. He had a massive heart attack, just like his father who died while shopping at Walmart. I went through several minutes, hours and days of shock. My mom’s face told me someone died as I met her in the hallway close to midnight. I’d gotten up to use the bathroom and heard her crying. I immediately thought of my 91-year-old-grandmother. But instead it was her younger brother. The one who called me his favorite niece. The one with a smile so wide you could cut it in half and it was still bigger than most. There was no way.
His funeral was hard on everyone. I didn’t want to see the open casket because I don’t like to have their bodies as my lasting memories. Yet in an effort to shield my son’s eyes I accidentally turned when the casket was open, and saw him. I almost collapsed. The grief washed over me and I just erputed in more tears. It’s been six months and I still have a hard time looking at his photos without crying.
Fast forward a few months and Sean’s favorite uncle, the one I’ve heard a zillion stories about, and who, in person told me many of those same stories, was getting sick. His illness started to digress very quickly and it was soon apparent he was not going to make it. To watch my husband lose his favorite uncle was hard. He wanted to make the journey to New Orleans to be near him in his final days. It became even more obvious that there weren’t going to be final days, but perhaps final hours. The plane flight at that last minute was more than we could afford and so he had to begin his grieving process privately at home. The Uncle Dan stories were always told with so much spirit and liveliness. He was so alive in every story and will continue to be. The few times I met him he loved to tell me all the fun he had with the Clark boys on their vacations to Deep Creek camping as kids. See, there’s something special about uncles. They can give guidance like fathers but also have a little more fun than fathers can with their nephews and nieces. For Sean and I to lose ours in the same year was particularly tragic. The only positive I guess was that we both knew how the other felt, only Sean didn’t get to gather with family for a memorial. That time will hopefully come at a later date to spread his ashes. I know he would enjoy everyone telling their favorite Uncle Dan stories and I hope he gets to do that with his family soon.
Within a few days, I learned a family friend who had been struggling for years, finally succumbed to his ongoing heart problems. While this might not be unheard of for a man in his late 60s. But this particular man was my dad’s best friend and basically a second father. His son was my close friend growing up and our parents spent many, many years together traveling and eating weekly meals. It was yet another punch in the gut to know he was gone. Here I was at yet another funeral of someone I loved. I watched my dad give the eulogy and he had people laughing outloud. He delivered it so gracefully and with love and compassion, tearing up at the end, but trying to keep it positive. You could see all the years of public speaking my dad had done come to life. Yet you could also feel his grief and pain amid the raw emotion. I wept many tears.
At first, I hated knowing he’d died on Christmas. I felt so bad for the family thinking that their memories of his death would be on Christmas. But the pastor at the funeral talked about Christmas is actually about birth. It’s about Jesus, the man who later died for our sins so that we could live such beautiful lives. It’s all about sacrifice and a life that was actually only meant for death, so that we could live. And so to make the parallel that Christmas is about life, and so David’s anniversary should be thought of more as a day to recognize his life and not the sadness of his death, made me feel a little better.
As the end of the year drew to a close I thought maybe I could shut the door on 2016. I was getting ready for the new year to begin and picked up my son at his afterschool program. There, I ran into an old friend, Justin, who’d had some health problems earlier in the year. It had been over a year since I’d seen him, but we quickly exchanged hugs and his trademark smile welcomed me. We even spoke on the phone the next night, catching up for a few minutes. The next day, I would learn, he had died on new years eve. Only 41 years old, the father of two young girls, and he was gone.
This week, his friends have been sharing what could only be described as amazingly awesome and hilarious photos of their life with Justin. From silly Halloween costumes to high school shenanigans to beautiful photos of him with his daughters, there is one thing in common in all of them, Justin smiling. To say he loved life was an understatement. As plans for his funeral come together, people are quick to begin planning the after-party. Everyone who knew Justin knows he would not want a sad affair with no smiles. But instead we all plan to gather somewhere, swap stories, have a beer, laugh a lot and remember the character he was.
But amid these smiles and laughs I can’t help but think about the cliché of how short life is. One of my best friends lost his son before his life ever even began. Stillborn at 35 weeks, their baby never even had a chance. Yet again, my heart broke and yearned for a life that wouldn’t come back. It’s not fair. Why does this keep happening? As kids we think we have forever in front of us, and at 39, it’s apparent we don’t.
Another close friend lost her brother in law this past fall and endured their first holidays without him. My heart continues to ache for her and her family. There’s just been too much death for me to handle in one year. Especially at age 39.
So, in trying to make sense of all of this, I’m trying to come to some conclusions.
- Tell people you love them. And show it. Don’t just say it because it’s what you say when you hang up the phone or walk out the door. Say it with conviction. My oldest son told me today that he loved me to Pluto and back, and Pluto is REALLY far. He told me I was the prettiest mom in the entire galaxy (he’s on a space kick) and that I was the best mom in the entire universe. That is saying a lot.
- Drop the small stuff. Seriously. LIFE IS TOO SHORT. Get over yourselves and the crap that keeps you unhappy. Have the hard conversations to get to where you need to be with people. Don’t be self righteous or stubborn. Everyone needs forgiveness and there is no way to heal or move past things if you don’t talk them through. Silence solves nothing.
- Live responsibly but do some things you might not ever do. I’m not saying go spend all your money because you might not live to see tomorrow. But take an art class or go to a concert. Do things that make you happy. Scare yourself every now and again.
- Try to make time for people you take for granted. Sure your family is always your family but how often do you really go do something social with them that isn’t just a holiday or an event? Is your best friend always around but you don’t really get together just to laugh and grab dinner and talk? Find time to text someone who might not hear from you often but might just be aching to receive a hello. You never know how much it can mean for someone to have one last conversation with you that they might not have had otherwise. I personally love knowing Justin and I saw each other just days before he died and we hugged, laughed, and he met my oldest son. It will be a wonderful positive memory.
- Give hugs, kisses, high fives, compliments, all that cheesy lovey-dovey hippie stuff that makes the world go round. We need more positivity and less negative stuff. Again, life is too short.
I’m sure there is more but I’m trying hard to live by these conclusions. I got to reconnect with a couple of old friends this year and I’m trying to nurture those friendships. I’m was able to visit two of my close friends for a weekend at the beach that was just a girls’ getaway. I got to see lots of concerts with many friends and my husband. All of these wonderful memories and paths to happiness are crucial for me going forward.
I’m trying to pray more in 2017 to find some peace and answers to all of this death and hope that if there is more around the corner, I will be able to handle it. I’m not Debbie Downer but rather trying to turn negatives into positiives. As one of my favorite Phish songs says, “I’m vibrating with love and light, pulsating with love and light, in a world gone mad, a world gone mad. There must be something more than this.” I truly believe and hope to be every word of that.