When you reach your 50s, as Kish and I have, part of life is dealing with death. Whether it is more senior members of your family succumbing to age-related conditions, or colleagues who die in inexplicable, tragic accidents, or friends who finally are taken down after long battles with cancer, at some point death becomes a significant, unfortunately recurring part of the reality of your life.
The question is how to deal with the losses, particularly when the deaths come in bunches — as so often seems to be the case. People find themselves grappling with complex combinations of emotions that they don’t typically experience at the same time — such as grief, and guilt, and also anger — and everyone needs to deal with them in their own way. When multiple deaths hit in a short period of time, and strike down people who are about your age, you can’t help but think of your own mortality, and wonder.
Kish and I try to go to calling hours or memorial services, as a kind of tangible sign to the surviving family members of the significance and impact of the departed; I’m not sure whether the family members appreciate it or not, but it makes us feel better. Collecting your thoughts about the person, mentally composing your own personal tribute, and focusing on the good, also seems to help. And as we’ve gotten older, and seen how people respond to such losses in different ways, I find that I’ve become a lot less judgmental and a lot more accepting about how people respond.
Ultimately, though, you just hope that the period of bad news finally ends, and a period of good news begins. We’ve got a family wedding coming up, and we’re looking forward to it.
We’ve all missed the postings from Uncle Mack on the family blog lately, but now I’ve learned there’s a reason: he’s been acting in films written, directed, and edited by Carl Kotheimer, a student at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
The first piece is called Grief, and appears above. The second piece, called Desert Places, appears below. A trilogy is planned, so I’m looking forward to seeing the third and concluding part of the story. And for those of you looking for a little inside knowledge, I can tell you that the wedding photo that is featured in Grief was, in fact, taken on Aunt Corinne and Uncle Mack’s wedding day.
I’m biased, but I think my Uncle is pretty darned good in these two short films. Of course, the fact that he is playing a grumpy old man probably helped.
Well done, Uncle Mack! Well done, indeed!
ETA: Uncle Mack requested that I take the links to the films down because the director has entered the film in a contest and the films can’t be published anywhere else in order to be eligible for the contest. So, if you haven’t seen the films, you’ll have to take my word for it on Uncle Mack’s acting talents and wait until the contest is over. If we get clearance to do so, we’ll post them again.
When we were in our 20s, we were in the wedding zone. Every month or so, it seemed, Kish and I would be off to a “wedding weekend,” attending the nuptials of friends and family members.
Now we seem to have entered the funeral zone. Rather than the great joy of weddings, we’re experiencing the emptiness and sadness of loss.
The prevalence of funerals seems surprising, but it shouldn’t be. According to American morbidity statistics, death rates multiply significantly when people enter their 50s. Suddenly more of our rock-like, long-time friends are dying. It’s jarring, and unsettling. And when you add the increased death rates of our generation to the expected funerals of older family members and acquaintances, it seems like much more time is spent putting on the gray suit and dark tie and going to funerals and calling hours.
I’m a strong believer in going to calling hours. Although I always feel sorry for the family of the departed, as they try to deal with their grief while standing for long periods greeting visitors, I think it is important to show up and give the family a tangible sign of how important the departed was to friends and colleagues. In our hurly-burly modern world, the fact that people have taken time from their busy days to stand in line in order to shake the hands of spouses, children, and siblings and murmur a few words of remembrance and consolation makes a huge statement. I think the physical presence of people who want to pay their respects helps those who are wrestling with the awful loss to understand the real significance of their loved one.
So I will go, and stand in line, and think about the person who has gone beyond, and hug friends who also are there, and greet the widow and kids and try as best I can to convey what the departed meant to me. I just wish there weren’t as many opportunities to do so these days.
If you’ve been on planet Earth for a while, you’ve inevitably had to deal with death — and you have come to realize that it affects people differently, and they deal with it differently. There is no right or wrong way.
My first job out of college was writing obituaries for the Toledo Blade. In those days, the Blade treated obituaries as standard news stories, which meant the facts of the individual’s life and death, the names of survivors, and so forth had to be confirmed with a member of the decedent’s family. It was not exactly a job well-suited to a callow, arrogant youth. Some of the grieving family members I called to get the necessary information were so distraught and caught up in the rawness of their emotion they could barely speak, and I could feel the intensity of their pain through the phone line. Others were ready for my call and very pleasant and business-like as they rattled off the names of survivors and the dates and times of calling hours.
That job taught me that there is no one way to respond to the loss of a friend or loved one. (Being in heavily ethnic Toledo, where names like Czyzewski and Szilagyi were not uncommon, it also taught me the importance of double-checking spellings and careful proofreading. People who open their newspaper and see that the name of a decedent or survivor is misspelled can get very angry, indeed.)
Some people don’t want to dwell on their pain; they prefer to move on and try not to think about it. Others want to be by themselves, to wrestle with their mix of feelings and memories without having to put on a brave face for others. I prefer to be with others who are dealing with the same loss. I think there is a reason why, in many different cultures that developed at points across the globe, the deeply rooted tradition is for the community to come together to remember those who have gone on. For me, it’s better to share stories and laughs and experiences with like-minded people than to thrash about alone, obsessing about questions of cosmic unfairness that can never be satisfactorily answered.
The morning of the day after getting horrible news often is the hardest. All you can do is get out of bed, get dressed, and take another step on the winding path ahead — because life goes on.