A relative of mine recently died, so my parents, my brothers, and I went to his funeral. The rabbi was appropriately somber and talked about him fondly, as if she’d known him (though she hadn’t). His sister and brother stood up and told us all how much they loved him and already missed him. Tears were shed and hugs exchanged.
Afterward, most of the attendees went back to the deceased’s sister’s house to spend time with the bereaved. Food was presented and eaten. Talk buzzed plentifully about the same subjects that would have been discussed had there not been a death: movies, the sweltering heat, how many of us got lost on our way there, and future plans to see one another. I’ve written about the value of such rituals in a previous post, Pronouncing Someone Dead (sorry for all the morbid titles), and won’t repeat those ideas here. Suffice it to say that closure at least began.
What struck me, however, both as I listened to the rabbi and family members at the funeral, and then again later as I listened to conversations of mourners afterward, was that the cliche about our relationships with others being the most important possessions we own was not only true but also most concretely grasped only when one of them ends. Another equally true cliche is that you don’t appreciate what you have until you lose it, which, it occurred to me as I sat sweating in a room full of people gathered to remember the life of a deceased family member, was especially and tragically true about people.
The brother had written a wonderful letter in which he told my deceased relative how much he’d meant to him, which my deceased relative had been able to read before he died. When, at my deceased relative’s request, it was read at the funeral, I thought to myself how sad it was that it required a terminal illness to inspire its writing. How sad, I thought, for us all.
I, myself, am quite guilty of taking my relationships for granted no matter how hard I try not to, so caught up am I in the myriad responsibilities I have in both my personal and professional lives. I often forget that relationships can be nurtured best with small gestures made consistently rather than large ones made occasionally. And yet being consistent makes even small gestures difficult.
Consistency, as I wrote in another previous post, Keeping Romance Alive, is best accomplished through habit rather than willpower. Through repetition, we construct a behavior pattern that’s essentially mindless—but no less meaningful as a result. That I call a friend who lives out of state every Sunday as a result of consciously ingraining in myself the habit to do so in no way diminishes my sincerity in doing it—and makes it far more likely to happen. We are, as the psychologist William James said over a century ago, “a bundle of habits.” Which is why I left the funeral that day thinking that I have to do a better job maintaining my relationships in small but habitual ways. Otherwise, when my loved ones stand up at my funeral and talk about how much they loved and miss me, they may not be speaking the truth.
Next Week: Crazy Makers
Amen or what ever a heathen says.
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Well said and taken to heart. Thank you so much. Sometimes life seems so busy with stuff that I seem to forget the little things. I come from a somewhat big family, 10 kids, 2 parents, little farm. I can hear my siblings saying when I die that they really didn’t know me as an adult b/c I talk to so few of them on a regular basis…sad. Let me start changing that.
Thank you for reminding me of this. You are right, it needs to become a habit.
Thank you, Alex, for making some excellent points and for reminding us once again to be our better selves.
Incredibly timely, Alex! My friend’s 92-y.o.mom is on her deathbed and she is oddly distraught, the more so b/c they’ve had a troubled relationship their whole lives. My own mom, whom I repaired my troubled relationship with about 10 yrs ago, is almost 89 and I’ve changed my “habits” about visiting her. I go whenever I can and we have wonderful moments together going over her beloved old photographs and whatever else of the past she wants me to see. I love being with her and seeing these interesting relics of a life well-spent.
Just e-mailed my mom for a quick hello. Thanks for the thoughtful inspiration. However, I am sorry for your loss.
Death really ought not be seen as separate from living. A wonderful insightful friend once said, life is to be lived in preparation for death. I find comfort in those words.
That said, when your loved ones speak fondly and lovingly at your funeral, I have no doubt every heartfelt word will be truthful.
My condolence to your family on their loss.
Condolences to you and your family.
I try to keep in mind a little mental exercise where you sit down and write your own eulogy, well in advance of its being needed. It always yields a great deal of food for thought about the way I’m living right now and treating those around me—and whether that’s what I really want others to remember of me after I’m gone.
Your comments about habits—and how their ritual nature is not less meaningful for being essentially mindless—are forcing me to change the way I think about the place habits occupy in my life. I, too, have undervalued their importance, eschewing them in favor of much rarer displays of “sincere affection.” But a relationship, like any other human possession, benefits best from regular maintenance. Perhaps in the deciding to institute a recurring good habit one can accomplish both goals: sincerity & regular maintenance….
Thanks for the post!
A friend and I planned a farewell event for a mutual friend and leader in our community. In light of the fact that our friend will be moving across country, I am glad we gathered others to honor her while she could hear their tribute and then hug them in person!
In addition, I hand wrote a note of thanks to my co-planner, telling HER how great she was to work with, and how lucky we all are to have her. She just replied this morning, saying she was going to keep that note in her “smiles” folder for “rainy” days when she needs a pick me up. That, in turn, gave ME a charge! We all won.
Moral of the story, we can’t appreciate others too much both in words and quiet notes. Even the most confident of people have down times when they need to remember that they are loved, they are important. And as you say, we don’t have to wait until folks die to do so.
I still vividly remember that when my brother was dying far too early in his lifespan, we had a similar conversation about why did it take a tragedy such as a terminal illness to draw us closer. Neither of us had an answer. At that point, all that I could do was accept the present for what it was and allow it to draw us closer. Death and dying can certainly be an invitation for growth, albeit incredibly painful.