Why are we so afraid of a dying person? After all, we will all be that person one day. I know death is painful for those left alive and that watching a loved one die is excruciating. The thing is, there are many things in life that are excruciating but we get through them. Why do we try to avoid this natural part of life? Death is as much a part of life as birth, which can be extremely painful and does not always turn out joyous, yet we go through it. We take the risk hoping for the possibility of joy. So why cant we do the same in death?
At this time a neighbor from my childhood is in the last stages of this journey we call life I feel compelled to visit the family or at least make contact and yet I am afraid. What am I afraid of I wonder. Is it that I do not feel I have earned the privilege to share this family’s grief?
In an interesting series of circumstances the grandson of this man became my son’s closest friend. I feel so privileged that this man and his family became part of my family through my father and then through my son.
The elderly man is a German immigrant and one of my fondest childhood memories is of visiting their home at Christmas. They were simple living folks who knew and appreciated what was important in life. They did no live in an ostentatious home filled with elaborate furnishings. They had functional, simple décor but if felt good. When we would go there at Christmas to visit they would always have cookies and treats that had been sent to them from Germany and I marveled at the different shapes and flavors of the cookies I was allowed to sample. It was at their house that I tasted my first liqueur filled chocolate. I also remember how beautiful their tree was. It was the only tree I had ever seen with candles rather than electric lights on it, a tradition I now know is very German.
I also recall how my parents went out for a Christmas ‘drink’ one year when I was a teen and did not return home that evening. I was shocked (but somewhat proud) to know that my parents would drink so much that they were not able to get themselves home, especially my Dad; he never got drunk.
That is the great thing about this man. He is so accepting that he allows others feel able to let down their guard and lose some of their inhibitions, while enjoying the moments in his company.
Much later when I had my own children and they were entering their teen years my son became friends with a very good-humored boy from his hockey team. They ended up in the same class in middle school and the rest is history. At 22, these boys are still the best of friends. My son’s friend is the grandson of this wonderful man.
My son has also had the privilege of experiencing the openness and love of this dying man’s family. He taught my son lessons that he could never learn in his own family because of our different backgrounds. (Like smoking cigars, haha) From this man my son learned, that life is not meant to be all toil and hardship. Sure there are times when we are not comfortable and there are things we must do but really, we must be true to ourselves, and indulge in simple pleasures, or it is all for naught.
This man had first hand experience with this as he immigrated to Canada from Germany and married the love of his life, which his family did not approve of. He had the courage of his convictions and lived as he saw fit and I admire him for that. His family learned the importance of love and acceptance and I saw that in them as my son became welcomed and included in their lives.
I am so glad that we were fortunate enough to cross paths with this man from Colgne, Germany. I cannot think it is an accident that a man coming so far from my birthplace and settling in our small town on Vancouver Island should have such an influence on our family. There were long stretches of time where we were distant from each other but none of us has forgotten what an amazing soul this man is.
I feel honored to hold in my soul, great memories of the kindness and generosity of this man and his family. I am also lucky enough to be blessed with a material piece of evidence of our connection, in the form of a gorgeous amber necklace that belonged to Sigrid his wife.
I was at one of my son’s and her grandson’s hockey game several years ago and she said, “Lauraleah, I have something for you. I am going to give it to you at the next game.” I was taken aback and wondered what it was that she would want to give me.
As promised, at the next game she showed up with a beautiful string of various sizes of amber. I loved it instantly but questioned her as to why she would be parting with such a beautiful piece and why to me? She told me that her brother had given it to her when she still lived in Germany but she had never worn it much because they were too big. She said I was the only person she knew that could pull them off and I took that as a compliment. (Even though it meant I too was big.) I love that necklace and I wear it all the time. I get compliments on it every time I wear it and I get to tell the story of how I came to be wearing such a beautiful piece to anyone who asks about it. In this small way I feel I will pass on a piece of this man’s story and again I say, what a privilege and an honor.
So, back to my initial question, why are we so afraid to reach out to a dying person or their family? In writing this I believe I have answered that for myself. We are afraid we are not worthy of communicating with the family because they are grieving. We are scared that we may offend them or cause ourselves to look foolish. We are afraid that we will cry or lose our composure. At the risk of doing all of the above, I am going to face my fear and offer this story to this man and his family. I pray they will accept it in the spirit of compassion and honor, it was written in.