Mourn and Move On

Fall Maple Gold 2 When I was small I had a small cemetery. It was beside the church I had set up in a corner formed by a chimney and the wall of a small greenhouse. My family lived in the country. We had chickens and at one time some ducks. Baby chicks died and I buried them  there as well as the other assorted creatures whose deaths went unmourned except by me. My acquaintance with death came early and in a natural way. This was of help to me later.

Laurens Van der Post, a South African author whose writing I respect, once wrote, “There are some things we never quite get over, however once in a while we go back, pat them on the head and say, ‘How are you doing old fellow?'” In this instance he was speaking about his time in a Japanese prison camp, where he was very cruelly treated. I have remembered this quote for many years. It has been very useful in reminding me not to dwell on past grief, yet not to suppress it. The recent unnecessary death of a poet friend helped me to recall this.

When anyone special o us dies, it reminds us of others of whom we are fond who have left us. Yet it is well to remember them with joy rather than regret. I will treasure in my heart my friend’s funny emails and his amazing adventures. He was a unique character with a huge, loving heart and a mission to try to help every woebegone that crossed his path whether or not they deserved to be helped. He also had a way of getting into trouble. As well he had several bad habits, one of which resulted in his premature death. Rather than blame him for his foolishness I will bless him for his courage in pursuing his life the way he wanted to—whether I thought it was a good way or not.

When you live a long life as I have, you do “lose” people that you have, for one reason or another, outlived. Whether these were members of your family or your friends, along with the current grief the sadness of their passing may easily come to mind. In addition, in our lives there are other instances of departure or absence: the job we didn’t take or did, the home we bought or didn’t, the gift we meant to give, even the words that went unsaid or the ones we wish we had not spoken. The grief engendered by regrets small and large can consume us if we let it.

It is important for us to grieve and let go. It is vital not to carry these burdens any longer than necessary. There is a Zen story of two monks who came to a stream where they found a woman who was afraid to cross it. One monk picked her up, carried her over the stream and set her down. As they continued, his brother monk began to berate him for touching a woman’s body. Finally the first monk turned to his friend and said, “I set the woman down a while ago. You are still carrying her.”  There is no need to carry our grief endlessly. We can let it be on a shelf in our memories and then once in a while, go back and pat it, and say, “How are you doing, old friend?” And then go on to find a happy memory to continue on with.

Creating a Memorial to Lost Loved Ones

SimpkinsMy father always made sure to put fresh flowers on the graves of two special friends on Memorial Day. Buried under two pink granite stones, they were an English couple far from home and family. My four year old self remembers them as two elderly people who smiled at me and gave me two porcelain statues of birds. Honoring someone once a year at the site of their grave is a fine act and the traditional way many choose. However, creating an ongoing memorial tribute could be an even better way.

On Memorial Day there is an annual ceremony dedicated to my grandfather in Beverly Farms, the town where he once lived where there is a square named for him. This year will be its hundredth anniversary. As it does every year, the parade will stop there, the band will play, and a wreath will go on the pole with his name. As they always do, my brother and his wife will attend the ceremony. While I once used to go with my dad, and later on with my young children, I no longer live near enough to attend. I am glad he will do the honors for the family.

One day time runs out for each of us. It can’t be helped. It is said there are two sure things in life: Death and Taxes. We come to terms with both as best we can. Memorial Day puts us in mind of the former. While my grandfather perished in World War I, no other members of my family fought and died or had any connection to the military. For me then, Memorial Day is an opportunity to think about my loved ones who have passed out of time and into eternal life. There are more of them each year.

What seems important to me is to create a tangible memorial as a tribute dedicated to the memory of those precious who have passed from this life. It was with the passing of my first son that I initially thought of this. I wanted to honor his life, and because he loved poetry I decided to dedicate my poetry to him. While I’ve always written poetry, my decision then inspired me to look at life with the eyes of a poet and to write about what I see. In the near future I will be bringing out a small book, Poems and Prayers, dedicated to him.

While I wrote an occasional poem prior to his passing, in the nearly thirty years since his death I have written a great number of them, some of which I have published in various newsletters and others in my two books of articles, Heartwings: Love Notes for a Joyous Life and Up to my Neck in Lemons. Writing poetry has become increasingly important to me as an expression of my creativity. I have created other memorials also: My father loved nature, especially trees. My tribute to him is my love of the natural world, often expressed in poetry; mine to my mother is my photography, much of which are also of nature.  I am grateful for the inspiration of the lives of these loved ones, and I honor them as best I can.

Saying Goodbye Gets Easier with Time and Experience

Peace Village Bridge Reflection Most children have no concept of time and little to no understanding of loss, not to mention the concept of “goodbye.” Ironically however, one of the first things a mother teaches her baby is to wave “bye bye.” When we put them to bed for the night we are teaching them about leaving and being left. The first skill a child learns in the high chair is to drop things over the edge. At one level the life of any human being from birth onward is one long saying of goodbye.

          We leave childhood behind and with it many of the beliefs and rationalizations with which we grew up. As we grow older and seek out knowledge for ourselves, we often abandon our old ideas and perhaps even our cherished beliefs. We move away from old neighborhoods and old friends, we meet new situations and learn new ways to cope, saying goodbye to old ways and old situations. As we grow on in years, over and over we find ourselves, sometimes happily, sometimes sadly having to say goodbye.

Recently Stephen and I attended a graveside funeral for a long time friend. It was a lovely occasion with many in attendance, some of whom had entertaining stories about him to share. He was well loved and had traveled the world; he had lived his life to the fullest. This may be why before he died he could say to at least one friend: “I’m looking forward to the next adventure.”

The Waterside Cemetery in Upton where his physical presence on earth will rest in a plot overlooking the pond where he used to fish, is a lovely, peaceful place. There, together with his other friends we said goodbye to the earthly remains of our friend and then went to a nearby function room to celebrate his life and share our memories of him. An important part of a funeral and afterward is to share stories about the deceased that help recall his life with love and joy.

Saying goodbye to someone I’ve known for a long time, though perhaps not been close to feels strange. When I haven’t seen a person in some time and then they pass on, I have trouble remembering they’re gone. Just the other day when I drove past the former address of a dear departed friend I was almost persuaded to stop and ring her doorbell. I had to remind myself that no, she no longer lives there, and no, I can’t visit for a cup of tea.

As I gain in years I find myself saying goodbye more frequently, both to people and to certain aspects of my life. My bucket list has grown shorter. There are things I once thought I wanted to do that I now do not wish to, like go up on an air balloon. I once believed it would be fun to go on a three months ocean cruise. Not any longer. Vigorous gardening is a thing of the past. Still, as I miss all to which I have said goodbye, I am reminded to cherish all that still remain.

An Appropriate Costume

halloween-three-little-witches

 

As a young child growing up in the country I was accustomed to seeing death. Baby chicks perished; Ducklings drowned; something attacked my rabbits and the ones that hadn’t died were too wounded to survive and had to be killed. Several of our dogs and cats suffered their demise in front of our house. I understood death as a natural part of life and nothing to be feared. Until I was in college no significant adults of my acquaintance passed on except my Great Grandmother when I was only four.

Halloween wasn’t a big deal when I was small. What I remember was the occasional party, with games, and carving pumpkins. We lived in the country and without a neighborhood to go trick or treating, I wasn’t taken anywhere to accumulate candy. Besides, my mother didn’t approve of eating candy; it was bad for the teeth. Later on, however I enjoyed dressing up my children and taking them around to the neighbors.

Where I live now Halloween costumes will soon proliferate as children roam the sidewalks for trick or treat,. Dressed as ghosts, scarecrows, or pirates or masked as the current political figures the wearers follow a tradition that goes back many centuries. Halloween in the United States is somewhat similar to the Mexican Day of the Dead. It comes from a long tradition of honoring those who have moved on from their bodies to the wider life of the spirit.

It was once believed that on October 31 the spirits of the dead could inflict harm or at least return in some way to communicate with the living because the veil between this world and the next is thin. Then some hoped to consult spirits of the dead, believing they could tell where treasure was buried, or what the future held. Some remnants of fear remain from then, though they are not taken seriously.

My grandmother passed on when I was in college and hers was the first dead body I ever saw. It did not frighten me. She had been prepared for burial and set out in her living room prior to the funeral the next day. That evening as I approached her body I realized it wasn’t my grandmother, that it was just clothes she had worn once and now no longer needed. Death did not then nor does it now seem to me to be something of which to be frightened. Life is more than a physical experience.

Halloween costumes can serve as a reminder that there is little to fear from the transition called death. A change of clothing is appropriate to a change of form. Just as I can’t fit into my baby garments or the clothes I wore for my first day of school, I can expect someday to outgrow this body, and to discard it for clothing suitable for the form I will then inhabit. While the unknown is always a little unnerving to contemplate, whatever happens whether in this life or the next is an adventure to which I look forward.

Into the Next Room

Maple Flowers          The first person whose death I remember hearing about was a relative named Cousin Ellen Parker. My memory of her is of someone roundish, gray haired, and somewhat wrinkled. I have no real memory of her other than of her appearance. She must have died when I was around four. My great grandmother died in her eighties when I was five. I don’t remember hearing much about that. I do have a vivid memory of picking dandelions in our yard and seeing her walking along in her purple hat. When I told my mother she insisted Grandma Great was dead and I couldn’t have seen her. But I had.

In those days death wasn’t usually discussed in front of children. I knew nothing of people dying, only small animals and occasionally pets. The rest of my family was healthy and active, living vigorously for many more years. I grew up with the idea that death was something that happened to people who were old. Times have changed. I have outlived not only my parents but now some of my friends and acquaintances.

This past week Stephen and I heard about three people dear to us who have stepped into the next room–another way to say they have passed from this life. As I write this, it is the birthday of another friend whose death I found out about earlier this year. Stephen and I both find it difficult to believe that these and other friends are gone from our sight. I find myself regretting that I never sent that card I meant to send, or made that phone call.

How can we know when someone’s time will run out? When the card we mean to send or the call to make can no longer be sent or made? No matter how well meaning I try to be there will always be that last small gesture that won’t be made before they are gone. There’s no way to predict when someone will make that transition from life on earth to the wider realm from which no one returns.

As I grow older in years I notice that more and more of the people I have known depart this life for the next. How can this be? Children believe one must be old to die. I’m not old so how can they be old enough to leave this life? When I was growing up I thought of fifty as old. As I approached that time I thought of the succeeding years as indicating age. Now it seems to me that there is no time limit on “old,” nor any way to tell what age is appropriate for the end of life.

It seems no matter how many years I accumulate, I still somewhere within me, retain my youth. From the other side of fifty and more, although the years tell me a different story, I don’t feel very much older. Why have these dear ones left me? It seems only yesterday that we were all in the sunshine of our years. Now the shade encroaches. Still I trust that those I miss are freer now, and without pain. My sorrow at their passing is only for me, not for them. However, I have my memories of them, and these will remain with me for all my years to come.

Tasha Halpert

Living with Dying by Tasha Halpert

Halloween Well dressed SkeletonI had begun writing this column prior to the disastrous tragedy in Paris. It seems even more relevant now that sudden death has as it were, stared us in the face. The media brings it all so close to home. Even so, none of us know the when and the where of our final days in this life here on earth. it is also true that some of us have been given a time limit of sorts, an acknowledgement that our lives have an expiration date. When I hear from someone that this is the case for them, I become more mindful of my own mortality.

There are cultures that are more comfortable with both the prospect and the actuality of death than others. They are more accepting, seeing it as a seamless part of life rather than an end to it. They remain in communication with those who have crossed over into another dimension. To me death appears to signal a change in form,  a continuation not a final chapter. I’ve been changing my form since I was born so what is called death can’t be all that different. The most unsettling part of death may be the process of dying and not knowing what may or may not happen next.

Balzac’s final words were said to be, “I go to the great perhaps.” Despite reports to the contrary, no one knows for sure what will happen because it hasn’t yet happened to them. The unknown quantity that represents our change in form can be daunting, even fearsome. What can we say to comfort the feelings of one who has been given an end point to his or her existence? It may seem better not to know, yet the knowledge that there is a time limit on one’s life can in certain ways be helpful. At the least it gives one the opportunity to do what needs doing before the actual event comes about.

When I was a child I wasn’t worried about anything that might happen to me; I greatly feared the death of my parents. As an adult who has since seen the passing of an adult child as well as both parents to their next form, I am well acquainted with the feelings of loss that ensue from the deaths of dear ones. The fear that made me tremble as a young child has become a prayer for the health and happiness of those I hold close to my heart. I recognize the inevitability of death, and I accept it. I also try to make the most of whatever time I may have with those I hold dear.

It is popular to make a “bucket list” of what one wishes to do before “kicking the bucket.” Depending on one’s age, that might include traveling to see distant marvels, finishing certain tasks, parachuting out of an airplane, or a multitude of potential activities that beckon the adventuresome. If and when I have knowledge of my conclusion in this life I will do what I can to finish up what needs to be finished. However, I feel that regardless what the rest of my life may hold rather than plan what to do, it is more important for me simply to continue to learn and grow in as many ways as possible.

Boo

Halloween GhostieBoo!

When I was a young mother and my children were afraid in the night I used to address their fears as best i could. I remember stomping on the “tigers” that lurked in the closet. Whatever they feared no matter how silly it sounded, I treated their trepidation as real. Because of the way children were brought up then, my own childhood experience was very different. I didn’t want them to go through what I had as a young child of five, six or seven.

I suffered from what is now known as night terrors. Something I read, was told or heard would affect my active imagination. For instance, a radio tale of the collapse of a tunnel and the subsequent drownings became an irrational fear for me. For months afterward I would lie in bed shaking, afraid of death or what seemed worse, the death of those I loved. My most powerful fear as a child was of my parents dying. If I went to them with my fears they would ridicule my them and send me back to bed. Eventually I outgrew these episodes, yet at the time they were very real and painful.

When it came to Halloween my experience was also very different. When my children were little we lived in a small town where children dressed up for trick or treat and went door to door to the neighbors. I used to make them amusing costumes and even dress up myself to give out candy at our kitchen door. Occasionally they would be invited to a party.

Halloween for me as a child was mainly about carving up a pumpkin. I lived out in the country, where trick or treating was not an option. I did not really understand what Halloween was until I grew older and became interested in mythology. Then I learned that Halloween is a seasonal celebration of death. When people were closer to nature, death was everywhere and more natural. The fear was of spirits and the harm they might do. The holiday itself was celebrated as a sacred time, a kind of New Year dedicated to change of seasons.

Many of the customs surrounding Halloween evolved from observances dedicated to fearlessness. The pumpkin faces, the scary costumes, and many of the rest of the traditions surrounding this playful holiday proceed from the idea that at this significant time the gates between this world and the next are open. It was believed that spirits of the departed were free to come and go and perhaps to appear in some way. This could be good or bad, depending on the nature of the spirits. What was important was to protect oneself.

The Halloween traditions of games originally about contacting spirits for information or of practicing divination has pretty much removed the element of fear from the day. As people took Halloween less seriously, it became more of a party holiday. The emphasis on games and costumes, candy and trick or treating has turned the feast of the dead–one of the sources of dressing up and seeking treats, to something for fun. Whatever fear remains lurks somewhere deep inside. Occasionally it might even come out and say, “Boo!”

by Tasha Halpert