“You gave away one of our secrets,” said Frank, the Funeral Home Guy.
We had just buried my mom — and three weeks to the day later, my grandfather — when I wrote the following words:
“Some people think that the purpose of The Guest Book is to keep track of the people who attend a funeral or visitation, so you can properly thank them. While that’s true, the main reason they put The Guest Book in that sad little room is so that the grieving family can know who it is who came to honor their loved one.”
Frank’s comment verified what I was sure to be true: Funeral Home People understand the true purpose of The Guest Book.
You see, experiencing the loss that has you reading these words has made you a celebrity. For the next several weeks or months, throughout your neighborhood, city or county, you are going to be known as That Person Whose Somebody Has Died.
And like other celebrities, people who don’t know more about you than your name will look at you and whisper or subtly gesture to each other. “Hey,” they will say, “There is That Person Whose Somebody Has Died.”
And because they know you as that person, they will act as though they know who you are. They mean well; they are genuine and sympathetic. Many of them will even pay their respects at the funeral or visitation.
And when they walk into that sad room, you will have no idea who on earth they are, or why they are there to mourn Your Somebody.
“Hi, I’m your cousin Dorothy,” said the first woman who hugged me at my mom’s visitation.
I did not know Cousin Dorothy. I did not even know I had a cousin Dorothy. But there she was, sharing my pain.
“Sorrow shared is sorrow diminished,” said Mr. Richard Fischels, my ninth grade English teacher. Even the people you didn’t know and the relatives you did not know you had can help share and diminish your sorrow.
Mr. Fischels, who taught our Death and Dying Unit in 1982, was the first of my teachers to die. I used my notes from his class a dozen years later, when writing about his funeral.
The real irony of that is this: Death, despite all of its untimely cruelty, is a brilliant teacher, if we will remember to pay attention in class and take careful notes.
And one of the first things I learned in Mourning 101 is this: Losing a loved one gives the Person Whose Somebody Has Died a bit of both the fame and privilege of celebrities.
Things that society generally does not condone are perfectly acceptable — and often completely necessary — for The Person whose Somebody Has Died.
And now that you have become one such Person, let me share with you some of the things I learned when I became one of those people.
First, about The Guest Book: Do not ever, under any circumstance, feel guilty at all for not recognizing the face of a person who walks in to the room where people are telling your Somebody good-bye. Even on your best, easiest days, you simply would not, could not, remember those faces or names. And at this most unimaginably awful and difficult time in your life, you simply will not have a clue. That’s OK. (More about guilt and being OK later.)
If you are lucky, the funeral home will put a water fountain near the guest book. Frank’s funeral home did. I drank lots of water during visitation. During one of those trips to the fountain, I peeked at the guest book and learned that the lady whom nobody in my family could recognize had attended high school with my mom, and had come to represent the Class of 1963.
Some of the people who walked in that door looked somewhat familiar, but I could not remember how Mom or Grandpa knew them. Others looked very familiar, but I could not determine, until reading their names, which branch of my family tree they were from.
Expect that to happen to you, too.
We live in a society in which we have several layers of People We Know, from Those We See Almost Every Day to Those We Only See At Funerals.
“I went to a funeral,” sings Lyle Lovett. “Lord, it made me happy, seeing all those people that I ain’t seen since the last time somebody died.”
Those words are painfully true: I have seen several people at funerals and remembered that the last time I saw them was at the last funeral. It will probably be the same way for you at the funeral of your Somebody.
You will be shocked at the number of people who you see coming to honor your Person Who Died without even having a clue about who they are. Let The Guest Book be your guide.
Some may say, “That’s cheating. That lets you pretend you know someone whom you really do not recognize.”
That is absolutely right. Using The Guest Book is blatant cheating. And it’s totally acceptable.
Becoming A Person Whose Somebody Has Died allows you to willfully break many laws and societal norms that typically apply to others. It s one of the very few benefits of becoming A Person Whose Somebody Has Died. Make the most of it.
Because the world knows you are A Person Whose Somebody Has Died, they give you space and time and understanding.
If at work, you mess up something, or totally blow off something else, it’s OK. You are A Person Whose Somebody Had Died. Most won’t dare to challenge your decisions, and if they do, the rest of the world (with perhaps a few notable exceptions) will quickly take your side.
Just about everywhere else in society, people will understand if you say “No, thanks,” or even something less polite, when asked to do something. You have more important things to do, mostly this: Take care of you.
Take care of you
“Be sure to take very good care of yourself.”
That is the advice they tell organ donor network volunteers to pass on to The Person Whose Somebody Has Died, and there’s no better advice.
No matter how many kids, bosses or obligations you have, your No. 1 job at this time is to take care of you. Remember to eat, exercise and do whatever else you normally do to stay mentally, emotionally and physically healthy.
At this time in your life, you must quickly learn to identify the things you have do to, and the things you can deal with when you are ready.
And about those things you have to do, like taking out the trash or walking the dog: Let them become part of your grief therapy. Use those times, when you are doing what you must, to remember Your Somebody Who Died.
As a Person Whose Somebody Has Died, there’s only one way to deal with all of the overwhelming, illogical feelings you face: Your way.
You will cry or laugh or work, or go through the items that your Somebody left behind, only when you want to, when YOU decide you are ready.
It’s your grief, and only you can manage it. Most people, especially those who already have been A Person Whose Somebody Has Died, know this. Don’t let those who don’t understand tell you what to do or feel.
I’m NOT OK, and that’s OK
If there is one thing I did right after my mother and grandfather died, it was this: I realized at that time that I was absolutely, positively NOT OK, and that was OK.
The NOT OK-ness of grief feels differently to different people.
To some, it feels like an intense anger raging at just about everyone in the whole (expletive deleted) world. Others feel it physically, like a heavy weight pressing down on their chest, making it hard to breathe.
Some feel a sadness that nobody can help alleviate, now matter how tight they are hugged or what they hear from those who care.
Others feel absolutely nothing, the numbness leaving them wondering what s wrong with them that keeps them from being able to cry over the loss of the person they loved so much.
I realized after my grandfather’s funeral that I was not OK — not at all. I knew I was in no shape to make any decisions or big changes or take on any new challenges.
So, I didn’t.
I figured I would be OK again someday, but I recognized at the time that all I could do was focus on the day in which I was living. It’s sort of like driving through a fog so dense that all you can see are the highway markings 10 feet in front of your car. Your only job as a driver on those days is to get safely to where you are going. Your only job as a mourner on those days is to get through the day without running off the road — and on some days, it will take all of your energy and emotion to do that.