‘Tis the season to be merry.
And for anyone fortunate enough to live long enough, ‘tis the season to fend off, wrestle with, accept, crumble in a cloud of wadded up Kleenex, or do whatever it takes to deal with the ache we have for those who are not around to be merry anymore.
As we age, the number in the latter group grows. But practice doesn’t make perfect. It doesn’t get easier. There’s tons of advice, books, groups, but there is no grieving blueprint. Grief seems to have a life of its own, and does what it wants with us.
There are some common triggers—like the holidays, birthdays, family get-togethers, anniversaries. But it can be anything. Some little occurrence—“that’s when I would’ve phoned my mom if she were still around…” that reminds us of the void.
But there are other moments. Sometimes when I’m cooking I put music on. There’s a Todd Rundgren song that contains the lyric,
“The one that showed me kindness,
is the one who taught me kindness.”
Every single time I hear it, whether I’m chopping or stirring, I can feel my dad’s razor stubble on my cheek (my dad’s five o’clock shadow tended to show up after lunch). I’d felt it when we hugged, and I feel it like he’s here. And each time I say, “thank you” in my head. In other cultures his appearance might be considered a spirit. In ours, I might be prescribed more medication.
I’ve been thinking of all this as I’ve been on the periphery of too many people dealing with loss over the past few months. Beth’s sister Bobbie died a couple months ago—Bobbie and her husband Harry hosted our wedding in their backyard. Then last week, Bobbie’s daughter Lynne died — meaning Lynne’s daughters lost their beloved grandmother and mother in rapid succession. Beth lost a sister, and then, a niece.
Too many friends have lost parents and other loved ones over the past few months. And we lost Anna Perlberg, one of Beth’s students, just a couple weeks ago.
In Anna’s case and in Beth’s sister Bobbie’s case, they left gifts. Bobby left a diary. Anna left memoirs she wrote as a student in Beth’s class, and a whole, wonderful book, called The House in Prague.
The stories people leave are transcendent. They’re funny sometimes, but not always happy. Sometimes they’re heartbreaking. They remind us that people are flawed and wonderful and remarkably resilient. They provide a window on the authors, a window that their survivors can open any time they want to get a whiff of their lost loved one.
Which is all to say, get the old-timers in your life to tell their stories. As a callow kid I found the details of my parents lives tedious. I’d give anything to hear them today.
It can be writing 500 words at a time via Beth’s Writing Out Loud method. But it can be as simple as sitting down and recording conversations or taking notes. Or going to StoryCorps.
And think about telling your own stories for those you leave behind, too.
With that, I leave you with a poem by an ancient Jewish philosopher named Yehuda Halevi. When I listened to it on an episode of Fresh Air last week, it reminded me there is no inoculation against grief, and there is no cure for it either. But maybe that’s the way it should be.
‘Tis a fearful thing to love what death can touch – a fearful thing to love, to hope, to dream,
To be – to be and, oh, to lose – a thing for fools, this, and a holy thing – a holy thing to love,
For your life has lived in me. Your laugh once lifted me. Your word was a gift to me.
To remember this brings painful joy. ‘Tis a human thing, love – a holy thing to love what death has touched.