It’s always difficult in those moments when we are caught off guard by our own unexpected feelings.
Two people with in my community recently have informed me of the passing of a loved one, justifiably expecting the empathetic words which I eagerly gave. But beneath those words of sympathy that I expressed to my friends was anger at the lack of attention and sympathy towards my own grief. I wanted to begrudge them that sad half-smile and sigh that people give when you regretfully announce that you have lost someone dear to you. I felt envious; jealous that I didn’t get to feel my own hurt so openly. I couldn’t announce to more than a handful of close friends that I was mourning my own loss.
And to be honest, even if I could tell people about it I haven’t a clue what I’d say. My own feelings confuse me–why am I not sadder? Why can’t I cry? It makes me feel sickened that this sort of thing happens so often that people rarely give more than passing word of condolence before they are back to their own lives–so quickly forgetting such tragedy that has happened to another human being. The same goes for me, of course. I haven’t exactly stopped living my own life because that just isn’t how it’s done, at least not in my old world. There, people stuff the grief down as quickly as possible, occasionally chasing it down with a few shots when it threatens to resurface. Then they go on living like it never happened, sans to bring flowers once a year to the grave site. If you give any more notice than this to the pain of loss you find yourself in danger of being put on multiple medications and being labeled someone who doesn’t know how to let go of the past–as if there is a pharmaceutical antidote to loss. As if it is a condition or disease to feel the effect of death. Cocaine in a small measured doses–the modern remedy for an age-old heartache. But, heartache is a journey. It knows not time and it couldn’t be less concerned with outside expectations. It has a necessity to be experienced. It demands center stage from time to time, and will wage war on anyone who tries to take it’s rightful place.
Unfortunately, most of us are too scared to let it play out. Myself included. Fighting death is as instinctual as breathing, and this is what it is to be human–to live. The problem comes when death has won and we refuse to put down our weapons and continue living. We hold the process hostage along with our memories. Too scared to grow, to angry to forgive; we become something even worse than death–numb.
My cousin passed away one week ago Sunday and I feel, like I always do when this sort of thing happens in our family, an intense frustration of the lack of closure. The funeral was a bizarre experience, to say the least, though I can’t say it was without it’s beauty–a sad and heartfelt song was written and sung by an aunt I haven’t seen in so long that I don’t think she even recognized me. Who would anyhow? As a kid I was known for my long, brown, wavy hair that I now keep shorter and covered up. Her sultry voice, aged by too many beers and years of barroom smoke, cut through their world of constant bitterness and the indifference one naturally builds when they are faced with a life of tragedies. Everyone cried, even my mother. Even me.
Sadder yet was that so few attended. I was the only cousin on our side of the family and with so many empty seats, it was hard not to wonder if my cousin would have interpreted that as insult. Everyone had good reason–this one couldn’t get off of work, and the other was stuck in NY with no way home. But, the result was a funeral parlor which was only a quarter filled with relatives and friends, and it didn’t seem like nearly enough souls to mourn for a young 27 year old.
An uncle and myself where the only who weren’t wearing jeans–him in his best suit and me in my Shabbos clothing. Even my cousin laid in his casket wearing his every day clothing. I shuddered at the disgrace, but then I wondered to myself if that isn’t what my cousin would have preferred anyhow. This is how his own mother way laid out–in her favorite sweater and jeans. The clothing that he himself had picked out for her funeral when he was only a boy of 13. They were always so causal, and though I like to think myself the same it is quite clear the effect that Judaism has had on my life. I can’t for a moment consider celebrating or mourning a life in nothing more than sweats and sneakers. I couldn’t help but feel out of place as I watched family and friends standing around his casket; one hand wiping away streaming tears, and the other clutching tightly to a box of cigarettes and a light. Ah, such a culture shock to this girl. I felt pretentious in that crowd with my black skirt and button-down sweater, black hat covering my hair. I was thankful I hadn’t worn my best hat–it would have made such a spectacle. I felt self-conscious and momentarily attempted to send off some sort of vibe that my best skirt was nothing more than a pair of worn out levi’s, before I realize how ridiculous a thought it was. Changing my clothing wouldn’t have hidden the differences we had. There are some things that can’t be faked.
The best part–and can you imagine someone saying there is a good part to a funeral?–was when the undertaker came to the front and in his most polite Baltimore accent says–using every big word he ever heard on television– “We’d like to thank you all kindly for letting us help you in the care of your loved one who has passed. We now gotta proceed to the cemetery ‘cuz we have a time slot. Once we git em’ [the body of my deceased cousin, that is] loaded up and put the flashers on, we’ll head on out.”
–”git ‘em loaded up?” As in like a delivery? Some sort of shipment? A parcel to be sent off to the next life in the back of a tracker trailer?
I laughed. Yes, out loud–albeit quietly. Now THAT my cousin would have loved–finding a thread of humour in even the most sorrowful circumstance. And because laughing is only second best to a good cry, I laughed long and hard on the way home too. Who am I to say that laughing at a funeral isn’t okay for some folks? I think there is a part of me that would want someone to laugh for me–to remember how much I loved to laugh and honor that with a good chuckle. Perhaps not in the midst of the service, but maybe, you know, after the funeral. After I’m solemnly placed into my final resting place. Maybe on the way home, or the next week or following month they could smile to themselves while standing in line at the grocery store as they remember a joke I once told, or a silly experience they had with me.
Death is such a strange and emotional experience for us left behind that it’s hard not to wonder what it must be like for the one who died. I find it best if I don’t allow that one free reign to float around in my imagination too long. It’s just too hard to accept things when you spend too much time trying to understand them. Sometimes things just are. Death just is.