There was a sudden loss recently in my oldest and dearest friend’s life, the death of a significant person in her life, as well as in the lives of countless others. The man lost had lived a life with many chapters and there was no doubt how special he was. One quick look around the funeral parlor and church during the two days of services would have immediately communicated that message to anyone unfortunate enough to have not known him.
I arranged my schedule to be present calling hours, as well as the funeral, and drove down to the area where I grew up as a heavy, wet snow fell. Alone in my car for those two hours, I thought about how many times I’ve made this drive to say goodbye to friends and other people who have played an important role in my life.
Death rituals provide structure during a time of mourning. The obituary, eulogy, and mass card all require thoughtfully selected words, diverting emotional energy into shared expression rather than personal grief. I think it buys mourners a little time; it’s a process which allows survivors of the one lost a few days to grow accustomed to their absence. Maybe that’s part of the purpose of these traditions we observe when there’s a death.
An indicator perhaps of my stage in life, the most recent funerals I’ve attended have been for elderly people. These wakes and funerals are sentimental and sad, but they don’t pack the same emotional wallop as similar events for someone young, at least not for me. It’s different when there are decades of memories to be shared in a funeral parlor, rather than stories of dashed hopes and potential never realized. The tales told at the wakes of those who were afforded lengthy lives aren’t quietly whispered, as you might find at the services of a young person, and often are able to prompt laughter rather than tears.
Whenever I go “home” to where I grew up, I see ghosts. These places, from my earliest memories, transport me back to a previous time, populated by people who no longer remain fully in this world even though I still see them, hear the sound of their voices and feel their presence. The active role they played in my life may have ended, but the times I shared with them live on in my memory and my heart.
We don’t always feel comfortable talking about people we, or those we care about, have lost. There’s hesitation. We certainly don’t want to cause anyone sadness or tears, do we? Unless, of course, you understand that the dead are never completely gone as long as they, and the memorable times once shared, are recollected.
At the wake Wednesday night, I approached the mother and sister of one of my childhood friends, JT. I didn’t expect them to remember me, but I wanted them to know that I very much remembered him. JT has been gone for a length of time nearly three times the number of years he lived, but he hasn’t been forgotten. Isn’t that what we all want – for ourselves and our loved ones? To be remembered?
In my lifetime I’ve lost some important people, including a beloved uncle, my dearly missed, (former) mother in law and numerous childhood friends, like JT. When I feel their presence at various times, be it in the trill of a cardinal, the sight of a specific item in my home, or during funeral services for a beloved friend’s parent, I find comfort.
There doesn’t seem to be a reason to give up the ghost when keeping the spirit of someone loved, and lost, alive is an option. May as well just continue to greet them.