I scanned the roomful of strangers as my wife and I entered. Up front was the familiar face of my neighbor, George, looking down at his wife in the open casket.
Immediately, attending the wake seemed like a mistake. We were only neighbors in a room of family members and friends who had known them longer than I had been alive. Should we sit? Should we go up front? What would we say? Shouldn’t we just leave?
These are typical questions that come to mind at these moments, especially those involving someone you know, but not well. What is appropriate in those situations?
Most of us do not know what to say or do at any spot on the spectrum spanning from loved one to acquaintance. “Sorry for you loss,” is what we say, even though it sounds lame.
The phrase is as ineffectual as it feels, according to Amy Florian, who has made a career of understanding grief after experiencing it profoundly as a young adult. Her husband died in a car accident, leaving her a widow with a baby.
She learned not only how to deal with that grief but she also went on to get a master’s degree in pastoral studies and now practices thanatology, which focuses on issues around death. Amy was this month’s interview with Publisher Paul Feldman.
During the interview, Amy discussed better things to say than the ubiquitous “sorry for your loss.” She pointed out how much of a difference advisors can make when they show up authentically for clients. It helps ease discomfort and can be a factor in whether an advisor keeps the family’s business.
And grief is not reserved just for those closest to the departed. It radiates all the way through anyone who even heard about the death. Grief is not always rising from just death, either. It shows up whenever there is a loss, even associated with a positive change. Someone could have accepted a great new job, but misses the commute through the countryside to their former job.
We help ourselves and others when we acknowledge and make space for that grief, however insignificant it seems.
Looking In From Outside
Lisa and I did not know George Brigham’s wife, Laura, very well. We knew George from the yard. It was our first house and we were struggling to learn all the things we should do.
Our modest houses sat on adjoining city lots, with no fence in between. George was the kind of neighbor you would rip down a fence for, rather than put one up. We didn’t know Laura, but we knew George loved her like crazy even though they were in their 80s.
During the first Gulf War, he and I sat on his back steps with cheap cigars and beer after a long day of working in our yards and talked about his war.
He was a Marine in the Pacific Campaign during World War II. Until then, I knew little about the gruesome work it took to claim island after bloody island. I don’t have the space or the desire to go into those details here.
But George put it best when he said, “People who love war have never been in one.”
Healing Through Helping
Laura died of injuries from a fall down their basement steps. The loss felt senseless, but any death is not supposed to make sense. It is just what we make of it.
We attended the wake even though it was uncomfortable because we felt like it was the right thing to do. We crept around the room’s periphery to George’s proximity to at least acknowledge that we were there for him and perhaps mumble a “Sorry about Laura.”
George spotted us and walked right over, smiling like we had just stopped over his house. I started to extend my hand but he just stepped in between us, putting one arm across my shoulders and the other over Lisa’s.
“Thanks for coming,” he said, still smiling. “Laura really liked you two.”
That was a surprise. And it helped us to hear that.
“Come see Laura,” he said, walking us over to the casket as he cradled our shoulders. “Isn’t she beautiful?”
I scanned down to see Laura looking as if she were sleeping and could awaken any moment. I marveled at how they were able to make her look in perfect health. And, actually, I hadn’t really looked at her intently before — but, yes, she was beautiful.
Turning to George, I saw him gazing down, just glowing, like the first time he saw her. Maybe he always saw her like the first time, every time.
I looked to Lisa, who was also watching George. We caught each other’s eye, probably with the same questions: “Will this be us? Do we have this?”
George led us to the side of the room, where he thanked us for coming and told us he would see us back at the house.
I don’t remember what we had said — or even if we said anything. We did not have to. He helped us through our grief. He helped us get through one of the worst days of his life.
After a few weeks, George resumed working in the yard. The following spring, he started to drive down to Florida just as he and Laura did every year, but had to turn back because of a throbbing pain in his hip that turned out to be a tumor wrapped around the bone. Soon, a hospital bed replaced his.
George’s daughters, Lisa and I took turns sitting with him as he withered in pain and morphine. I relished his stories as I sat with him. One night, the stories were silenced by thrush, an infection of the lining of his mouth, apparently a sign of imminent death.
As I sat with him, he looked past me to the door and motioned for someone to come in. I turned to see no one there. I turned back to see George watching someone walk the perimeter of the room and sit in the chair on the other side of the bed.
I assumed it was an effect of the pain and the morphine. But I didn’t wonder long who he was seeing. I had seen that gaze at the wake.
The next morning I learned he had died during the night, leaving me feeling guilty that no one was with him.
Then I scanned the garden and the house next door, glowing on that perfect spring day and remembered the night before. No, I didn’t need to worry. He had been with the girl of his dreams.
Steven A. Morelli