Pamela Chan, Publisher/BCFamily.ca
To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.*
A little over ten years ago, I had to scratch the names of eight people off of my wedding invitation list. In any given year, you’re going to know a good number of people who have died. Maybe it’s a former colleague or someone you used to know. Or it could be an elderly relative. But this group of people were in my closer circle of friends and family. The number of deaths was a definite spike, and it felt all the more significant because it happened just before I got married.
This past year, as my 10th wedding anniversary approached, I saw another spike. It was the first one in the last ten years. A similar amount of people passed away – and many of them were sudden deaths, including people who were not that old. A husband and wife died within six months of each other. One of these deaths was not expected and the other involved a sudden and new health diagnosis. Two people died in similar and frightening ways, a month apart from each other. One friend died when I had no idea that her health condition had brought her to the brink of death. She was one of my dearest friends. You know – that type of person who is in a special category – not a blood relative but more than a friend.
Everyone experiences these types of situations in any given year. It’s not so much a function of getting older or knowing more people as life progresses. I had a similar experience when I was in my early 20s.
Every Reaction Differs
When my maternal grandfather died, I was 19. It was the first time in my life when I realized that a person’s response to someone’s death can reflect the personality of the deceased and their relationship together. I knew my grandfather to be a quiet, humble and kind man. I felt the influences of his personality on me as I moved quietly through the days and weeks after his death.
Just after I heard about the unexpected death of a friend this past year, I collapsed onto my knees, as if I was on a Japanese tatami mat. My arms fell forward in front of me. As I sobbed in shock and despair, I was reflecting the energy not only of my friend but of our relationship. My friend lived her life with passion and a great deal of enthusiasm and energy. I’d always wanted her to come to visit me in Canada and to meet my husband and twins, but health complications had made this impossible. The first statement I cried out was something like “NO! I want her to meet my family! I want her to meet all the grandchildren!” Of course I wanted them to meet her. I wanted them to meet a person who was important to me. I wanted the experience of meeting her, and getting to know her, to be a moment that would create a shift in how my family member’s experienced life. And now this meeting would never happen.
One of the people who died this past year was someone I had admired greatly for most of my life. She was profoundly gifted, and greatly respected and appreciated by many people. You could see evidence of the results of her caring for others – and the influence she had on their lives – as people shared their feelings and wrote about her in private and public posts. When she passed away unexpectedly, I was deeply shocked. I had many strong emotions and frustrations about what had happened to her and what this meant to her family, but I remained completely calm.
For each passing, my reaction was different. We often hear cliches about how people will react following a death. There is no one formula. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
I Won’t Be Measured
Over the years, I’ve noticed that sometimes people will want to know what your relationship was with the deceased. Was this a close friend or a distant relative? Does the nature of the relationship measure how we will or should respond to someone’s passing? There’s no justification for this calculation. And I would argue that the people who do try to take this measurement will usually get it wrong. Thankfully many people do not engage in this activity, which involves an unattractive component of one part judgement and one part arrogance.
I grew up mostly in the company of family friends and my own personal friends, as my family moved from one country to another. So it might be that I will be deeply affected by the death of an elderly family friend who might seem – in the eyes of others – to be a vague acquaintance. Maybe I will have expressed the impact this person had on my life or maybe I kept these details private and to myself.
Closure Is Hard
I was only able to attend one funeral, this past year, related to all of these passings. The other people passed away in different provinces, countries and on different continents. Ten years ago, as I attended my grandmother’s funeral in another province, I was struck by the important function that a funeral and the related social event can serve. It’s comforting to be able to visit with friends and relatives, exchange hugs and messages of encouragement – even a laugh or two. There’s usually an effort to put on a good meal, choose beautiful flowers and display memorable photographs and even video clips. Often family members and/or friends will put a lot of effort into pulling together a truly special memorial service.
A few years ago, I was fortunate to attend a memorial service and tea for a family friend I had known since I attended middle school in another country. It was a simple affair, in a charming church in Saanich. There was so much positivity, inspiration and beauty in how that afternoon rolled out. I felt privileged to have had the opportunity to be part of the day, meet with his family and friends and have my husband and children with me.
When the people we care for pass away somewhere else, we miss out on these moments and the related sense of community. It can make that process of finding closure about the person’s passing challenging.
Support Comes As It Will
Without sharing too much information, I did mention some of these deaths on my personal social media accounts. I’ve been using sites such as Facebook for 10 years now and I’m realistic about how other people will see my information. Based on interactions, some people see my content and some people don’t. Some people have 100s of contacts and probably don’t see my updates that often. I don’t know this to be a fact, but there might even be people who don’t know me as well and have muted my content because it’s not a priority for them. And so I received messages of support and encouragement from some contacts but not everyone.
I also didn’t, for the most part, share this information on Twitter. Twitter is a steady stream of tweets and when you follow 1,000s of accounts across different profiles – as I do – using Twitter is like dipping your toe in a fast moving stream. It is not the place to be sharing information and hoping that someone I know will see it. Maybe they will. Often they won’t.
With these considerations in mind, if you’re sharing information about personal struggles on social media and don’t get the kind of response you were expecting, you need to readjust your expectations and think about your method of communication. Recently I saw how a user on Twitter started to insult the few (according to the user) people who read her account after 3 tweets were shared over the course of a few weeks. Their non-interaction was a clear indication that they were self-interested, social media types who were only interested in broadcasting their own content. And, by the way, their content was dull and boring. (This tweet was later deleted.) You might expect this from a young user of Twitter but not from someone in her second adulthood. This is NOT the way to proceed. Avoid this path at all costs. You will simply end up offending the people who have probably provided the most consistent listening ear over the years. And the last thing they will want to do is be a listening ear, again, and offer you their empathy after this type of passive-aggressive emotional posting. Then you can really be assured of not receiving ANY support. Don’t be surprise if they “unfollow” you, “unfriend” you or block your account.
Making Your Own Memorial
Sometimes there’s not much you can do if you can’t attend a memorial service. You can reach out to family members and friends. You can send messages. For one of the funerals this past year, I wrote a speech that was read at the funeral. For another friend who lived on the other side of the world, I completed something that I’d been making for my friend before she died. In fact, during the last few hours before she passed away, I was walking around Michaels carefully choosing the wool. I didn’t know that she was so gravely ill and about to die.
More recently I purchased a book that reminded me of a memorable moment when the deceased had introduced me to her love of the works of Shakespeare. I wanted the “a ha moment” that that person had created for me to continue with my children.
For another friend, I committed to studying and learning to play the music of her favourite composers. The books that I’m using are ones that she had given me in past years.
For another relative I committed to keep pursuing a project that I had been working on before she passed away. I’d been keeping her abreast of my findings because it was a topic that was relevant to her too.
Most of these actions are in my own private world. But they matter to me and it feels right to keep moving forward with my efforts.
Last summer, I found myself having a conversation in which I explained that I really think it’s inappropriate when people deconstruct someone’s death and focus on the deceased person’s cause of death and how their lifestyle was at fault. I might understand if someone has just died. But when these conversations continue months and years later, that’s when I put my hand up and say “come on now”. Within minutes, the family member of someone who died a few years earlier fell into the same type of conversation. Not a word of what I had said had been heard. Maybe I could understand if, in the ensuing years since this particular passing, I’d heard anything from this family member other than discussions about what caused the death. What about some fond memories? What about the good times that they’d shared? What about sharing stories that attest to the character of the person and the impact you could still see on the lives of others? I’d be open to hearing just about anything else.
After someone dies in a traffic accident, please don’t tell me to be careful crossing the road. Are we blaming people hit by aggressive and/or careless drivers for not being careful enough?
Remembering the Dead
Shouldn’t the weeks, months and years after someone’s death be a time to honour that person’s life? Sure we can look at external successes but people always remember the conversations about their internal successes. What did this person mean to other people? How did this person have an impact on other people’s lives? What filled this person’s life with joy over the years? Were there interests and endeavours that I didn’t know about?
When you focus on these types of questions, rather than blaming the person’s death on their deficient choices, you can focus on the true purpose of why we’re living our lives here on Earth.
If you pay attention, you’ll start to hear a common message that’s being shared through the ages and in the time that we live.
We are here to have a positive impact on each other and on the world in which we live.
We are here to love others and be loved.
It’s all about love.
When people pass away, we can focus on these aspects of their lives. This is their most important legacy. These are the stories and the memories that will inspire the people who are left behind.
I get that there are some people who aren’t the nicest of individuals. But those people are the exceptions. Let’s focus on the vast majority of friends and relatives who leave a legacy of love behind them.
The people I know who passed away this past year have left legacies that continue to inspire the people who knew and loved them. Isn’t that so much more appealing than simply focusing on how to avoid the death that they faced?
* Hallowed Ground, 1925, Thomas Campbell
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