||WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN SOMEONE DIES
Susan V. Bosak, MA
Social Researcher, Legacy Project for YOU 177
I dug out this old photo of my grade 6 teacher Al. As I glanced at it, I realized that one of the girls in the background committed suicide several years ago. That brings the total from our class to three suicides. About a dozen other schoolmates have also died, through accidents or illnesses.
People die – every day. Some we're close to, some we don't know, and some are in between. Most of us aren't sure what to do with any kind of death and, quite honestly, tend to be surprised by it even though it's the one certainty in life.
Though we live in separate cities, I kept in touch with Al and his wife Mary over the years. I recently received a letter from Al: "There is no way for me to make this nice. Mary passed away a few weeks ago. It was totally unexpected for me, although I have an inkling that Mary may have had a premonition. Knowing how I would have reacted to any such reference, Mary bided her time. Then, one morning, I awoke to a very unmoving Mary. She looked indescribably beautiful in death – perfect serenity."
He added, "I miss her company terribly. This has been the most heart-wrenching time ever. I shall carry on and hope for some lessening of the pain."
I could feel that pain in his letter.
Mary and Al had been married 53 years. He was a teacher, she a librarian. They never had children, and had followed my career with some measure of parental pride. Al likes to recall how I led my squad of student crossing guards as their captain, and how he always knew I would do "something worthwhile."
With my work in life course and legacy, I felt a responsibility to Al to offer more than a polite sympathy card. Our death-denying culture does little to prepare us for the end of our days or help those who lose a loved one. So I started thinking hard about my best and most practical advice on what to do when someone dies – and your heart is broken. I wanted to share a piece of my heart to help in even a small way to start to heal Al's broken heart.
When someone you love dies, your world changes. It will never, ever be the same. We think there's a "world" out there and that we experience it directly. But really, each of us has our own world and we experience it through the people in our lives. When someone we care about passes away, our world changes. My father was a big presence in my life. When he passed away, the very next day the world felt inexplicably different. That feeling has to be multiplied many times over when it's your partner in life and you've been together for as long as Al and Mary were. Al is in a new world now. It's a world that can leave many, especially those who are older, socially isolated.
From a life, legacy and even community perspective, I believe a death is a moment in time that's an intersection of two legacies – theirs and yours.
Live Their Legacy
Every person alive leaves a legacy trail behind them every day. It's the timeless part of each of us, what we add to the world – the grumbles or hugs, the things we create, the ideas and relationships we nurture.
Legacy can either be a burden or a gift. Legacy is a personal and social force. It may be grand and far-reaching, or a fine thread that contributes to a larger tapestry.
Especially in the moment of pain, living the legacy of the person you've loved is a way to find comfort.
Ritual can be a part of that. When my father first passed away, at his request we didn't have a service. But I felt his life didn't feel properly finished. So we ended up planting a tree for him in the Legacy Center arboretum. It's an Oak tree, strong like he was. So do something "official," whether it's a tree, or a donation to a charity or community group, or some other appropriate gesture. For Mary, Al might carefully choose and gift some books to a local library, given her lifelong work to bring all ages the joy of reading.
I've noticed that even children seem to have a natural need to recognize legacy, to keep holding on to a part of the person.
In our YOU 177 work, I've had the pleasure of getting to know Diane, who's in her 70s. Diane is one of those forces in the community that you simply can't deny, though she has shared how shy and unsure she was when she was young. That's one of the gifts, I think, that can come with age: fearlessness.
Diane's straightforward nature has endeared herself to many local children. After she got to know some students as part of YOU 177 projects, they specifically asked for her help when a staff member at the school passed away. Diane worked with the students to come up with a fitting way to honor the woman's legacy. The school mascot is the "Stingers" and the woman's family was in the honey business. So bees emerged as the sweetest, most appropriate recognition. Each student, teacher, secretary and caretaker made a thumbprint to which wings and color were added to create a mural with bees buzzing around the community hive of caring and kindness the staff member had created.
On a daily basis, to get through today and tomorrow and tomorrow after that, I've found power and comfort in celebrating moments of the person you've lost – in Al's case, Mary Moments. Allow yourself to be in those moments every day, especially in the first few months, feeling everything that comes with them.
When my father passed away, one of those moments for me was hearing the hourly beep of his watch. Every time I heard it, I felt he was saying hello. For Al, Mary Moments might be doing something Mary might have enjoyed or that they did together, finding comfort in memories and photos of her, and feeling her spirit when Al needs it most.
Live Your Legacy
The powerful thing about death is how deeply it informs life. Because death exists, life is all the more precious. When a death happens close to you, it's a very personal reminder of your own death and therefore your own life.
Mary Moments are important. But when someone you love passes away, especially a partner in life, you also need to consciously cultivate the Al Moments, or Me Moments. And you need to do it without any guilt that it might mean you miss the person you love any less.
As much as I loved my father, his expectations could be heavy at times. In many ways, he had traditional views on the role of women. With his death came more freedom to be who I am.
The real trick is to try not to let the Mary Moments intrude on the Al Moments. Separate the moments you spend celebrating the other person's legacy from the time you put into nurturing your own.
Like Al, Diane also lost her life partner suddenly. They had been married many years, and her identity as a wife and mother was very much tied up in her husband. She decided that the extra time in her life, without her husband, was an opportunity in which she could discover, or rediscover, herself.
So she reached out to the world and tried things she had never tried before, met people she would never have met otherwise. She's found many meaningful ways to connect with and give back to her community. She loves the intergenerational relationships she now has through YOU 177. She's open to trying almost anything. I'm sure it isn't always easy, and I'm sure there are still moments of loneliness. But her legacy is vital and she consciously nurtures it.
Diane marks her wedding anniversary every year with a piece of chocolate to celebrate her husband's legacy. Every time I indulge in a piece of chocolate now, I think of her.
So, especially if you've recently lost someone close to you, I hope you find some inspiration in Diane, and Mary and Al. May that be a little part of their legacy.
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