by Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove
There’s little I can add to some of the excellent literature available regarding the experience of approaching the death of another, preparing for one’s own dying, or the mourning that takes over some of those left behind.
I had contributed to the literature on the subject with my own doctoral thesis thirty-two years ago, based on the experience of caring for a parent dying of cancer, and of how some people discern the life-changing meaning that comes out of that time, in conversation about it. Yep- some complicated title, and the work was pretty complex too. Not everybody’s cup of tea (though people have written and told me they did find it helpful, which always thrills me).
But. Every time it happens, it’s different. Losing a family member or a friend just shakes you up and takes you to another place.
My stepmother of the past 57 years died 10 days ago in Ottawa. We were there when she suddenly became ill with pneumonia – after a fine morning at her Gatineau River cottage and visiting at her Residence downtown. We stayed for a week until my brothers came from England, and returned after she died just two weeks after taking ill. Shock hit both her body and our emotions. But as we shared this loss with those who appeared in the days around the funeral, to share their memories and their love for her, we felt part of something bigger than our own sorrow.
Her Passing has Made a Difference
At 90 years, she was still someone who was making her mark among fellow humans, making a difference in her own modest sphere. A wonderful difference. It’s that about which I’ve been thinking. What marked her life as which would inspire real regret when it was over?
There were choices she must have made to be such a person.
Ted Schmidt’s article about Alice Heap, published here 10 days ago, was to me inspiring and uplifting. The generousity of soul exhibited in her and Dan Heap’s lives was exciting to read about. A wonderful model of Christian love and charity – in the best sense.
Kath, my step-mum, exhibited a more modest grasp of what makes a fine life. And I want to tell you what seems to have been the structure of this life that many of us now mourn. I’m thus borrowing from her life, setting up some possible do-able goals for my own old age.
Simple, Profound, Qualities
Kindness was most often spoken of by the mourners. Over 100 elderly people turned up, from her church, bridge club, neighbourhood where her family remained, the retirement residence and the seniors’ community centre where she volunteered. I loved hearing that with fellow bridge players who weren’t as skilled as she, she took time to help them become better players rather than indulging in the irritation that I’ve heard is common at bridge tables. In her 80’s, she was helping other seniors up the stairs of the buses on trips. She never belittled people, she took no delight in showing others up.
She maintained a responsive correspondence. She answered letters, she initiated letters, she wrote notes of thanks, of condolence, of encouragement. My cousin was grateful that Kath wrote regularly for over two years to her sister-in-law after she was hospitalized with a stroke – even though my aunt couldn’t read the words herself.
She really liked younger people. Her own very gracious mother had told her to be sure to make “young friends”. Many younger women were working full-time and didn’t have enough leisure time for sharing with a senior, but there was a sizeable crowd of under 50’s at the funeral. One of her most engaging buddies was a good-looking young man under 50 who took her out in his convertible regularly in her last few years, going to concerts, plays, movies. He had been touched by her kindness to him, her encouragement, her ability to listen, her lack of judgment. She had also taught him to drive.
She recognized the importance of having a welcoming room to which people could come for tea, or a drink, or a chat. Her home was always warm and welcoming.
She had a necessary sense of discretion, not passing on harmful gossip, but sharing news that she knew others would be glad to hear about.
Having a few simple, very tasty recipes didn’t hurt. A particular moist cake, squares, casseroles that kept her out of the kitchen when guests were there – this added to the welcome she could provide.
She loved to laugh.
Mostly, she always showed that she was glad to see you. Arms open wide, a smile on her face, a laugh, and then a hug – you had no doubt that you mattered to her.
And so she came to matter a lot, to a lot of people.
An ordinary life, but one blessed with love.