Like most people, I loathe funerals. And as regular readers know, I’m not very good at them.
It’s not that I don’t know what to do or say: I give great hugs and I usually know the right words (sometimes I even sing them). But I just can’t make my upper lip stiffen, no matter how how hard I’m trying to avoid putting my grieving loved one in a position of having to comfort me. I blow it every time, and Saturday was no exception.
My friend T’s younger sister Gina passed away suddenly, just over a week ago, and her funeral took place on Saturday.
I became friends with T several years ago through work, where she’s as strong, successful, and poised as sales executives come. T’s one of four sisters with whom she’s close, and she’s not much older than I am. That makes her far too young to lose a cherished sibling, in my book. The pages of my book, in fact, depict a dreamy fairytale landscape where siblings are always around. I need those pages to look like that because my brother and sisters are my best friends. They make me laugh so hard my face hurts, they stand ready to hug me at my happiest and saddest times, and they love me no matter how badly I screw up (something I have tested, alas). I simply can’t imagine life without them. Until Saturday, I had refused even to let such an awful thought enter my brain. Saturday morning, however, that thought saw no need to ask for permission; it just barged its way to the front of my mind and heart as I approached T at the funeral home.
One look at my friend proved that absorbing a staggering loss on a balance sheet is one thing and in life another altogether. No kind of training prepares you for the latter, not even intellectual awareness that big love sometimes means big pain. The sorrow on T’s face telegraphed the enormity of her grief. I hated what it meant for her, and what it might mean for me someday. Overwhelmed, I was in tears long before I reached her. So much for putting my friend’s needs ahead of my own.
Then the ceremony got underway and I learned about Gina, a woman I’d never met but soon wished I had. Everyone who spoke mentioned her generosity of heart, the way she loved unconditionally and her capacity to love people through flaws most of us couldn’t abide. Her family members poked gentle fun at some of her quirks –evidently she loved to plan events, which meant you’d better head for the hills when she started writing the to-do lists–but to a person they painted a portrait of someone who was a nurturer by nature, a superwoman who took care of anyone who needed it. Gina didn’t let her loved ones get away with any crap, but they knew she always had their backs.
In describing Gina’s steadfast loyalty, no matter the circumstances, T’s son said, “I could be dead wrong, and I knew she’d be standing right there, being dead wrong too.” I laughed with the crowd while thinking that’s exactly the kind of aunt I aspire to be (minus the event-planning part). So whether she ever set out to or not, T’s sister set an example, even for a total stranger like myself.
(Speaking of setting great examples, I give very high marks to the way the family structured the service. A few relatives and friends had been selected to speak about Ts sister, and according to the program, had been allotted two minutes apiece. But we all know emotions can make it easy to lose track of time. So in a nod to one of the more redeeming feature of the Oscars, the minister notified the speakers that, if they were still talking at two minutes, the organist would begin to play. If they kept going, well, so would the organist, and he was gonna crank up the volume. I can only hope T starts to run meetings this way.)
No matter how hard you try to smile through the tears, it hurts like hell to say goodbye to someone who set an example like Gina clearly did. It’s like losing the coach who not only knew how it was done but taught you everything you ever knew, the one you counted on to keep you motivated when you faltered. The minister acknowledged that pain while exhorting all present to use Gina’s example to examine our lives and repair any dysfunctional relationships we might have.
I liked that call to action. I heard it as a reminder to live well not because life could end at any moment –we all know it could –but rather to honor the beautiful example someone left us by doing similar good works.
I left the funeral home in tears, but glad to have been there. Though I absolutely stink at funerals, I go because I believe it’s important to show up for your loved ones whenever you can. Never once have I regretted going, and every single time I walk away having learned something important. In getting up close to a loss that terrifies me, I realized T’s sister will live on not just in memory –a fickle and increasingly unreliable thing as the years pass –but in the actions of those whose lives she touched.
May we all live, and leave, so well.