Sturm: Sanctifying life in the wake of death
Aug. 21 is my mom’s birthday, and this year, it marked a sad “first.” Without my mom in my life since July 1, I didn’t scramble to find her the perfect card and gift, nor could I sing “Happy Birthday, Mom,” tell her how much I love her or hear how friends are feting her.
Nearly every human being has or will suffer this heartbreak. I’m grateful to the big-hearted, insightful souls — including near strangers — who’ve reached out with consolation, grace and guidance, helping me Think Again as I set about to plan a funeral and write my mom’s eulogy and obituary.
In our hyper-judgmental, social-media-charged world, opinions are ubiquitous, but wisdom isn’t. When a precious pearl hits you, you know it, like this insight from a new acquaintance who’d walked this path:
“I understand the pain you must be going through. … You’ve never been alive without your mom, so you’ve never had an Aug. 9 without her. The first year I thought of every day like that. … You will never get over the hole in your heart from losing your mother. However, it is what you allow to blossom in that hole that will sanctify her life.”
Now seven weeks into this realization — and having remembered Mom’s birthday without her — I am focused on cultivating a garden of blossoms, and it’s definitely consoling.
Having walked this painful path, I have lessons to impart, including a difficult one that’s complicated my grieving and hindered my return to life. I offer three lessons hoping that future “path walkers” benefit from my experience.
First, an obituary is more than a biographical list. It’s a story about how a person navigated and impacted the world, leaving indelible footprints. Distilling the essence of a person is the goal.
That’s how I approached my mom’s obituary. Surprisingly, several publications in the cities where she’d lived saw her passing as news, printing it with a photo, without charging, and in standard paragraph structure, not just a monotonous block of words.
I also named the nonprofits to which people could donate in her honor and have enjoyed beholding how many are giving to the causes she championed. What a wonderful way to make her memory a blessing.
I’ve come to realize that the void created by her loss is the flip side of the love she spread in the world, for which she is beloved — the greater the void, the greater the love.
Second, try to capture memories to make remembering easier for time immemorial. This was a friend’s advice in August 2015 when I first heard about my mom’s cancer diagnosis. So I bought a 128-gigabyte iPod Touch to record conversations, videos and photos — even doctors’ appointments, which proved most helpful in clarifying treatment options to my mom.
Since her passing, I’ve been heartened listening to our hours of conversing, chock-full of her lifetime reminiscences, laments about lost opportunities, thoughts about living while dying and her gratitude and wishes for my family and me.
We lived out the Hunter Thompson quip — “Everyone has two lives. The second one begins when you realize you only have one.” We reconciled long-simmering resentments, apologized, forgave, told jokes and laughed a lot.
Though my pleading for her to eat, drink and take her medicine was an irritant, my mom — tough as nails in the face of cancer — appreciated my concern, knowing that helping her persevere was my way of expressing love.
In approaching her end, she exited this world as she lived her life, daring to be different and to follow her own star. She understood the ultimate question of life is not how great you think you are but how great you think your purpose is. Ever-present, her star lights my life’s path.
Thirdly, beware of speaking from the grave — even inadvertently — creating needless trauma for grieving loved ones. Get your affairs in order before it’s necessary and while you have the clarity and concentration to assure I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed. If trust provisions are incomplete, the interests of grieving family members can be overridden.
Specifically, ensure your legal documents are clear about intentions and final wishes, and make certain those administering your affairs after you’re gone have emotional IQ.
Think Again — a rabbi urged me to remember that we honor those who have passed not by maintaining the void created by their loss but by filling it with life. Hopefully sharing my lessons publicly can help guide the living through similar adversity, ultimately sanctifying my mom’s vibrant and meaningful life.
Happy birthday, Mom. I love you!
Melanie Sturm lives in Aspen. She reminds readers to Think Again. You might change your mind. She welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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