Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Life and Death Lessons

Things I’ve Learned in the Last Week, or Growing in My Third Third:

I learned that losing a parent is painful.

Yes, yes, I knew that, but I didn’t KNOW that. It’s like when I first had a baby. Suddenly I felt like I needed to apologize to every friend I knew with children. I’d had no idea it could be so HARD. I didn’t know about the sleep deprivation, the worry, the demands on your time. I didn’t know about the disruption to life-as-you-knew-it. I didn’t know that finding the right childcare was so hard, that you’d be torn emotionally in so many different ways. These were abstract facts to me, not life-wrenching realities.

The same is true with losing a parent. I’d offer condolences, but I didn’t offer CONDOLENCES, if you know what I mean. I didn’t know you’d be shaken to your core, that the shaking would last and last. That anyone could be this sad.

I’m sorry. I didn’t know.

I learned that expressions of sympathy and comfort make a huge difference.

Yes, it was right here in this blog that I made fun of greeting cards: “NO ONE looks at old greeting cards.” But I didn’t know the power of new greeting cards. Returning from my mother’s burial, picking up the held mail at the post office, I was moved by the sympathy cards. I was moved by the cards that came from people relatively distant in my life, from my past, from my synagogue. It made me feel part of a community. They took time out of their lives to comfort me.
I was moved by the phone calls, the visits, the hugs. I was moved by the comments, the emails, the “loves.” I was honored by all the requests to help. It reaffirmed me as a member of the larger community of human beings: we all hurt, we can all comfort.

When she was little, we never let Sophie play with or wear a gift until the thank you note was written. We wanted to teach the necessity of demonstrating gratitude. It didn’t occur to me that I should also teach – and learn – the necessity of showing support.

My sister has said the same thing. In our Third Thirds, we want to be card and note writers.

I learned that rituals exist for a reason. They are in place to help people in difficult times.

When I had a child, I joined the ranks of mothers from the beginning of time. I was a mother in a long line of mothers. When I became bat mitzvah, I affirmed my place in a long line of Jewish women. And now, my mother’s death placed her – and me, as a mourner – in the Jewish tradition.
Prior to burial, my mother’s body was bathed and purified in a ritual called taharah by a group of women known as the Chevra Kadisha, a holy society. My sisters liked that; they thought of how my mother loved having lotion rubbed into her dry skin, how she would have appreciated being bathed. My mother was buried in a plain shroud in a plain pine box. To my mind, it asserts dignity and respect for the deeds of her life, not any material acquisitions. All these things make me feel better.

In the Jewish tradition, there is a seven day mourning period known as sitting shiva. You’re just supposed to sit at home, receive visits, let your grief out. And here, life has intruded. I had too many commitments – my own good deeds in the world, I guess – that I couldn’t break. But I really appreciate the value – the necessity – of shiva.

Susan said to me, “Please honor me with the mitzvah of helping you at this time.” What an exquisite way to offer help. Now I understand where rituals come from.

I learned that preparing with Advance Directives, Health Care Proxies, and The Conversation Project were critical.

Again, that’s one of those abstract facts that became real in the last week. I’d pushed my siblings to get all the paperwork agreed to and signed. Now, a week later, I know my mother could not have died the way she wanted to without the preparation we did. With The Conversation Project starter kit, I knew how my mother wanted to live her final days. With the Advanced Directives, we could ensure that would happen.

It’s all about dignity and respect.
I learned that de-cluttering accomplished BEFORE my mother died was absolutely the best thing.

My mother and we siblings had already cleared out the family home. Truckloads of furniture, memories, and photos were distributed, dealt with, disposed of years ago. My mother was an active player in all this as she launched her own downsizing. In July, her apartment was further condensed. When she died, she was surrounded by only her favorite things. My siblings and I dealt with it all in a few hours.

By de-cluttering early, my mother gave herself the gift of lightening her life. I still remember us asking where she wanted to put the photo albums in her new apartment. “I’ve had them for years,” she said, “It’s time for one of you to take them. I don’t want them filling up my new place.” By getting rid of the weight of her old life, my mother could make room for a new life.

She gave us the gift of that lightness, too. Everyone who has dealt with parental clutter says the same thing: I don’t want my kids to have to deal with all this. I cannot imagine sorting through 90 years of memories and possessions while grieving. Thank you, Mom, for sparing us that.

Mostly, I’ve learned that life is short. Live it well.


  1. I understand about not really KNOWING how painful...I felt the same when I lost my mother. For a long time afterward, when I read obituaries in the newspaper, I wanted to send cards to families I didn't even know because I'd learned a new feeling of compassion for those who suffer loss. There is comfort in those cards and words of sympathy. So very sorry for your loss, but thank you for sharing and the wisdom you've already gained from this experience. Many things for us to think about in preparation for our own "going".

    1. Thank you. I couldn't find the right word, but you did: compassion. Wanting to send cards to families you didn't even know ... I can now understand the motivation behind that.

  2. What great lessons, so beautifully expressed. Thank you for sharing them.


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