When my book on death was published a few years ago, I went on the typical book tour, but there was nothing typical about “Happier Endings.” It was a book on dying better; the conversations around it were very personal and often full of anguish. During one stop in the spring, a woman in the audience confessed she could not get her parents to talk about death, burial plots or last wishes. She thought this book might help them start an important family conversation.
“Do you think this would make a good Mother’s Day present?”
“No, that’s a terrible idea,” I said, “possibly the worst idea I’ve ever heard.”
Mother’s Day is not a time to talk about death, unless you really don’t like your mother. But on almost any other day, it’s a conversation that needs to happen. I have had dozens of conversations with adult children who have tried unsuccessfully to get their parents to talk. I myself shared the story in the book of broaching my beloved bubbe to gently ease her into a conversation about what she’d like to do with her remaining years. She was 98 at the time. “What? You trying to kill me?”
That’s a conversation stopper.
A friend of mine buried her father some years ago. He was really sick for more than a year. When it was clear her father was getting worse by the day, she told me that she was trying to write down everything of meaning her father said to her in those past difficult months. Now, it is the notebook of her heart. I imagine that she might even be holding it now with her fingers pressed hard into its cardboard covers, as if holding on to it tightly could make him somehow come back.
And I think of the lines in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”: “His life was gentle, and the elements / So mixed in him that Nature might stand up / And say to all the world, ‘This was a man!’”
“Do you know what he said to me today?” she asked rhetorically, when he was near his last breath. “He said, ‘You are so beautiful.’ Imagine that? He can hardly say anything, but he said that to me today.” I know that she will hold on to those words for the rest of her life. In darker moments, she will know that a childhood hero thought the world of her. She may have lost her father, but she will always have a parent. His voice will continue to whisper to her.
From speaking to hundreds of people who have lost parents, it seems like nothing can prepare you for it, even when you know it’s coming. No matter how prepared you think you are. No matter how old you are. You can arrange the logistics of hospice care and a funeral beforehand. You can talk to friends, your rabbi and your therapist, and somehow all the words do not add up to the confrontation of this primal primordial, loss.
People who have just lost a second parent described the new layer of grief that sets in with four words that fall like bricks: “I am an orphan.” By this they do not mean that they are like small, pitiable children in a Dickens novel. What they mean is that the foundation of their lives — whether they were close to their parents or not — has been viscerally removed. They walk in the world now with a phantom limb.
My friend will gnaw on her father’s kind words, to borrow an expression from Maya Angelou. It makes you ponder what we need to leave our children when we leave this world that goes far beyond the financial last will and testament of a family estate. This man left his daughter a legacy of language, even as he moved in and out of coherence.
But for most adult children and their parents, a deafening silence is the norm when it comes to tying up loose practical and emotional ends and making last desires known. This may be because a parent has not yet made his last desires known to himself. Or herself. More time was likely spent contacting home help and sitting in doctors’ offices together than having conversations of final meaning. It’s a parent’s last lesson to a child. Arguably more important than teaching children how to grow up and how to age gracefully is teaching them how to die well.
If you’re celebrating Mother’s Day, have a great time. Enjoy each other’s company. Soak up the love and appreciation. But the day after, ask yourself if you’re ready to talk about what no one wants to talk about: a time when you are no longer here. I envy my friend. Her father was not afraid to speak of his death to his children. Are you?
Erica Brown directs George Washington University’s Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership. Her column appears the first week of the month.