Ancient Egyptians spent their whole lives preparing for the end of their lives. But dying is the one certainty most of us never plan for. It always blindsides us.
I want open casket when I die. Not just from the waist up, but from the feet up, both of which will be wrapped in Louboutins. I have left instructions to that end and make this request only half in jest. But it is the fundamental reason why after the London bombings in July 2005, I stopped taking the TUBE. The thought of perhaps being buried 5 stories below ground and never being fully found left me with a sense of dread. How could people say “good bye” if I wasn’t there dressed in a customarily stylish manner. My husband blames this outlook on my Irish heritage. That black streak that runs through many an Irish poet, but I simply consider it good planning.
However, it is impossible to pre-plan any emotional relief from the awful assault of death. Of late I have been surrounded by it. I have been able to keep it at arm’s length. But others have had to take a direct hit.
“We are numb and in shock,” said a lovely and gentle friend of mine when she wrote to tell me of the sudden death of her husband. “ Just can’t stop crying,” she added. I heard her heartbreaking sobs later when I called to offer my condolences.
A fund has been set up to help her young children. It is a kind and necessary gesture. Often when people ask, “What can I do?” there is no answer. This time there is. But there is no elixir for the kind of grief that has gutted her and others like her who lose those they love, including the actress Angelica Houston. “ I can remember coming downstairs the morning after I knew my mother had died,” she recently told the New York Times. “And it was like someone had sprayed everything matte. The shine was gone from everything.”
Comic Larry David addresses the end of life in his new play “Fish in the Dark,” which is about a family patriarch on his deathbed. Although he is accustomed to telling jokes and creating funny characters on SEINFELD for instance he admits there is nothing humorous about death.
“It’s so serious,” he told the New York Times. “Solemnity is funny. It changes people’s behavior. You’re forced to talk a certain way, act a certain way. You’re not yourself. You can’t walk into a room where’s someone’s relative died and go [loud, gregarious voice] “Hey, how’s it going?” You have to go [serious, low voice], “How’s it going?” You have to act.”
Or as he suggests, you have to follow a certain code of conduct or ‘death etiquette.’
I was traveling when I learned that a golf acquaintance had tragically and suddenly lost her vibrant husband in a diving accident. I sent an email rather than the customary handwritten note but wondered if that was appropriate. Checking several bereavement sites on the internet it seems okay but a sympathy card is always better.
“Don’t Ask For The Dead Guy’s Golf Clubs” is a book about the widow of a man who encounters the most absurd behavior from friends after her husband passes. One stunning moment came at the funeral when the friend of the deceased asked for his golf clubs. He wasn’t going to need them anymore, right?
The author wrote the book as a guide for the bereaved. So few of us really know what to do when our friends or family suffer a loss. For instance, I am impatient with people who say, “I hate funerals.” Well, who doesn’t?
I remember a wonderful friend remarking before the wake of my Father, whom I adored, “You will be surprised by who comes. And more surprised by who doesn’t.” She was right. I was touched by the people who traveled and attended all of the services. And I was hurt by those who never made an appearance or a phone call. Or even sent a note. I didn’t need or expect financial contributions or a casserole, and there was nothing anyone could have said to take the pain away, but when someone dies, the living must take action.
It’s up to us to figure out how.