November and December 2012 were tough months as far as loss goes. I attended two wakes, read several eulogies, cried over photos, and experienced the shock and grief of losing family, friends, and acquaintances who died too soon—all of them without my having had a chance to say goodbye.
First there was my stepmother, Raya, in November. Although she was 79, she had seemed quite healthy when we saw her last summer in Israel. But Raya developed a huge cancerous tumor on her neck not long after our visit and declined rapidly. Shortly after that, my former boss lost his wife of 31 years, Julie, to a heart attack in her art studio. Then my former college housemate, Kathy, dropped dead at age 54; we still don't know the cause. And while looking up address information online for our family’s holiday cards, I discovered that my old friend Elizabeth died more than a year ago after falling at home. She was only 53.
Here's what I take away from these losses:
* Eulogies and obituaries bring us closer. They remind and teach us about the many facets of a person's life and his/her essence as a human being. From the loving tribute by Kathy's brother, I learned that Kathy was a competitive cheerleader in high school, adored her nephews and nieces, and invested in her stepson's business ventures. I hadn't known that Elizabeth tracked down her birth mother, who was homeless, and helped her find a place to live. I discovered that Julie always wore hats. And I found out that my stepmother spent her final hours surrounded by love and affection, despite the awfulness of being in the hospital.
* Eulogies can help us heal. My half-brother Dan was able to thank his mother, Raya, for being such an emotionally generous mother, grandmother, and mother-in law, as well as for imparting important values: openness, forgiveness, and an appreciation for nature, animals, and music. But in his beautiful, heart-wrenching eulogy, Dan also expressed his regrets about their relationship: for not hugging Raya enough over the years, for having silly disagreements with her, and "for saying these words over your grave, and not on a joyous day like your birthday."
* Photos preserve memories. They freeze moments in time and help us recall people, places, events, emotions, even sounds and smells. Making a photo collage of Raya gave me a chance to comb through hundreds of digital and print images for pictures of her during vacations, family reunions, weddings, and bar mitzvahs through the decades. After editing and shuffling them online to get just the right arrangement, I wound up with a treasured poster that reminds me how much Raya touched our lives.
* Find comfort in community. Whether you're attending a wake or communicating online, connecting with other people who knew the deceased person can be healing. I learned about Kathy's death from her husband on Facebook, and it was helpful to "talk" with friends and others who were equally stunned and saddened by her death. I think her husband, Serge, found some comfort in sharing his pain on Facebook. One of his anguishing messages serves as a reminder to us all:
"Love them while they are alive because you'll miss them when they are gone … Treat them right or you will feel the guilt after they are gone … Care for them because they only live once, no second chance to do it right when they are gone."
Consider this …
Share stories and sorrows with others after a person's death.
Use photos to evoke memories.
Tell your loved ones how you feel before it's too late.