Thinking about Death
One thing about being a student in Funeral Services is that I think about death. A lot.
I’ve seen babies who died. Old people. Middle-aged people. Rich people with rack of lamb served at the funeral, and people having the government funded “Social Services” funeral. People who were sick, people who died suddenly, people with 1000 well-wishers at their funeral, and people with only 1 or 2. In death, those details become completely unimportant. What is important is that whoever the person is, they are gone from this Earth forever. Doesn’t matter if they were rich or poor, popular or solitary, kind or cruel. Death is the great equalizer.
It always surprises me a little bit when I see a deceased person because, usually, everything about them is fairly intact other than the fact they’re dead. I look at gnarled knuckles that I know someone probably used to run their thumb over in an act of affection. I touch feathery-soft hair that still bears the smell of shampoo. I see lips that once left butterfly kisses on someone’s brow, and legs that ran across a beach, tiny bits of sand squeezing between toes. All the parts of the person are still there, but in death it all stops and becomes still. The person is suspended in time, frozen forever in that moment they took their last breath.
I think that’s why sometimes it’s so hard to see children that I haven’t seen in awhile. Because they have, undoubtedly, gotten bigger. They are older and doing new things and changing rapidly. But Stella is frozen forever as a 3 ½ year old. Passages of time for anyone—birthdays and anniversaries especially, are a concrete reminder of the fact she is not getting any older and never will. No more firsts for her. When I see kids that two years ago were babies who are now walking and talking human beings, or toddlers from then that are now zipping around on ice skates, or teenagers that are going to College this year, I am overcome with the reality that time does not stop for anyone…unless they are dead.
Last weekend I worked the funeral of a gentleman who had been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer and given 3 months to live. A week later, before his wife and child had the chance to adjust to this shocking diagnosis, he died suddenly of an (unrelated) massive heart attack.
It brought the oft-used term “live each day as if it were your last” new meaning in my mind because even when you think you know when you will die, you don’t. No guarantees.
I think a lot about trying to live each day to its fullest and think a lot about the mortality of those I love. Sometimes I try to picture someone telling me I had three months to live. What would I do with the time I had left? What would be most important to me? And if I didn’t get advanced notice, if I just didn’t wake up tomorrow, would I be proud of the person I am and the things I’ve accomplished? Is my life meaningful? Am I making a difference at all?
One thing about my grief is that it complicates everything. Nothing seems easy anymore. An innocent, simple social invitation turns into a huge commitment from me because I need to be mentally and physically prepared for what it will bring up. Uncomfortable feelings of jealousy, self-pity and sometimes anger that threaten my promise to “find the joy” in everyday. It’s a process, obviously. And where you think you will be, or what you think you will want, is not always clear.
The trouble is, the answer depends on the day. And to be honest, it’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself– to have extraordinary moments each day. Sometimes I just barely scrape by, ending the day on my knees wiping up pee from the floor, my greasy hair flopping into half-closed eyes. Days I didn’t even manage to shower, let alone “change the world”. Some days I am invigorated and excited, bursting with love and gratitude. But most often, what I feel is neither up nor down, just an irritating restlessness. I spring ideas and dreams about my life off Aimee and they jump around like bouncy balls, confusing her, confusing me.
I want to have another baby— maybe. It’s so much work. The timing isn’t right. We don’t have any money. My kids are what bring me the most happiness, why wouldn’t I want more happiness? My career would have to wait- again. Things are manageable now and with another child, it would tip the scales. But imagine how lovely it would be to hold another precious life in my arms…back and forth we debate this question.
I want to move out of Toronto—some days. I long for the small town, community feeling of Waterloo, Guelph or Lindsay. I want to live in a place where I can shop locally and where people know your name at the library and where the community group makes a skating rink for all the neighbourhood kids and maintains it and hands out hot chocolate on a Sunday morning. But I don’t want to be far away from my family. I don’t want to have to commute to Toronto for a job. I don’t want to miss out on all the activities of Toronto (events and festivals) and I don’t want to go into 30 years of debt on a new mortgage.
I want to travel to far-flung places. Sort of. I want to see the beauty of foreign lands with my own eyes, run my hands over history, experience the excitement of new foods and new cultures. But new things also make me uncomfortable. And I don’t like not having running water or flushing toilets. Sometimes the unsanitary conditions of places I’ve visited stressed me out to the point of tears. And I get nervous about trusting people in places I’m unfamiliar with. Travelling to foreign places always seems like it’s fun and exciting, but sometimes the reality isn’t as wonderful. And it’s so expensive to travel, especially with kids. But the rewards can be immeasurable.
Back and forth, bounce, bounce, bounce. I’m unsettled and jumpy.
I try to figure out what I really want, but the problem lies in the fact that the only thing I know 100% for sure, is that I want Stella back. And that can never happen. So I find myself searching for something else to fill the void. But there is nothing.
There is no child that can ever be born with her mischievous grin, warm hands and bouncy curls.
There is no house or community in the world that she will be waiting for me inside, eyes wide open, waiting for the next adventure.
There is no country that she will suddenly appear in to give me a hug and lead me around by the arm.
There is no job and no course that can fulfill me the way being her mother did.
I keep trying to find my footing, and failing. It always feels like something is missing, like the answer to the question isn’t quite right and nothing really fits properly in my world. It’s because she’s gone. From the day she was born, she was the axis upon which my world turned. After her diagnosis, the focus was even more on her. Then she was gone and there are hundreds of directions to turn in, but none of them have her, so my world is off the axis and spinning wildly through the universe.
Sometimes I think that’s why it’s difficult to find my way — because I am frantically trying to escape from who I am, trying to be like everyone else. What I should be doing instead is looking inward and honouring the fact that I am different because Stella lived and Stella died and that reality makes me experience things differently.
I think about and see death every single day. I know both how ugly and beautiful it can be. And remembering that we will all die someday is a very powerful tool for focusing on what matters most in life. I don’t have to change the world to be important or to say I lived a good life, I just have to be myself.
“Your time is limited. Don’t waste it living someone else’s life” – Steve Jobs
Boys paint together at Stella’s beloved Kimbourne Drop-In Centre:
Sweet Little Hugo:
Sam, Gracie, Hugo and Auntie Juju make cupcakes: