Mom used to do this thing that I found a bit creepy. But then, I was quite young and had half a lifetime yet to live before I’d begin a journey of understanding. It’s been half a lifetime at this point and I think I’m starting to understand her behavior.
The first thing Mom looked at when the afternoon newspaper arrived, oddly wasn’t the comics, which I went for. Nope. Mom looked up the obituaries. First thing. Every day.
That’s what I thought at the time.
I know now that she didn’t want to miss an opportunity to express condolence to someone she might know who could use the support and love. An old classmate, a church friend, a distant relative, a former neighbor, parents of her friends.
My second older brother died before he’d reached a year. The support and love Mom received after Brian passed away must have been invaluable. She saw the value of others reaching out to comfort her. It stuck with her, this desire to give strength and support to the broken-hearted.
You’d expect I’d naturally have picked up her empathy and kindness, since not long after that, I was born. Born into grief, born to lift and cheer, born being needed, born to fill an unfillable space.
It took a while.
I went through a phase when my own babies were tiny where I scanned the obits briefly, looking for children that had died. I think it served as a kind of mental inoculation or talisman against the possibility that my own little ones might wander into print in such a horrible way. Strange thinking, I know. We do odd things as mothers to protect our brood.
Then I passed through a phase where I’d skip that page of the newspaper as quickly as possible, as if not acknowledging it made it unreal, an un-possibility.
I simply don’t read a print newspaper anymore. Solved that problem, didn’t I?
I’ve been to far too many funerals in the past ten years. And not just older people either. Babies, young men, mothers, fathers, young adults, college students, children, teens. Disease or accident, anticipated or sudden, self-inflicted or battled, tragedies every one.
Oddly, older people dying doesn’t carry the same tragic heft and horror for many of us. Although the loss feels every bit as painful, I would think, for those closest to the departed. But who am I to say?
There is no measure for grief, loss or sorrow.
I’ve been at crowded standing room only funerals and those with barely anyone in a tiny room. I’ve felt comforted and I’ve felt bereft. I’ve been strangers to the grieving and close friends with the heartbroken. I’ve been one whose heart went missing when the death occurred. And, I’ve held my own tears in check for later as I offered a hug and spoke what little one can say.
Obituaries, along with the newspapers they used to appear in, are dying their own slow death. For whatever reason fewer and fewer obituaries get published. Facebook and other social media now serve, rather inadequately, as death announcement venues. I’m not so sure I’d want the notice of my death to run squeezed between a “stay calm” meme and a “you won’t believe what this cat and dog did” video. Lacks dignity and appropriateness wouldn’t you say?
But then, whose to say what’s appropriate nowadays?
We celebrate births and weddings. We mail out invitations and announcements and ask others to join us in our happiness. The only other significant major life event, death, has been left to dangle precipitously like so much bad press we want to avoid reading, let alone acknowledge.
I hope we figure out a better way to help the grieving. I hope we don’t simply hold our breath waiting for their response to our queries of “How are you?” to become “Oh, I’m fine.” I hope we don’t believe that pat answer. I hope we pray for them, handle with care and know that all is not well, not for a very long time.
Mortality reaches us all eventually, no matter how we try to dodge it. How we cope, how we grieve, how we celebrate a life, how we avoid its ending. It’s all part and parcel of the whole life experience.
I, for one, want to help ease whatever pain I can. After all, I was born to it.
“My father always read obituaries to me out loud, not because he was maudlin or morbid, but because they were mini biographies.” ~ Bill Paxton