I’ve always felt sorry for those whose job it is to inform someone that their loved one has passed away. Soldiers, policemen, doctors, clergy, sometimes even airline employees often have this duty and I can’t see how they can bear to do it time after time, to be the bearer of the worst news and to have someone hear it from a stranger. In the movies, the person who has this task usually lets the family have time to themselves and discretely they move off camera. But what if the “family” is just one person? What if, as is common now, that message comes over zoom or facetime or just the phone?
I was once in a workshop with a woman who had lost her brother and father in World War II, during the blitz. She must have read our faces because she said: “Oh, it wasn’t like that. Lots of people lost family in the war.” I wondered if that could possibly make it any less painful. Shared grief is also personal grief. We all grieve for great Americans like Ruth Bader Ginsberg or John Lewis. We cry together. But not like Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s children do, not like John Lewis’ family.
I know that both for me and my husband, being bedside when our respective mother when she died was a great honor and privilege. No one had to tell me, I saw that last breath, heard that last sigh, held that hand until it wasn’t animate anymore. My mother was 85, his was 93, both had long standing, degenerative diseases so although their death was very, very sad, it wasn’t tragic, not unexpected. Each of them understood that they were dying and each felt the presence of their children and loved ones around them. Good deaths, if that is not an oxymoron and I don’t believe it is. Still, no matter what the circumstances, losing a loved one is a sore that does not heal, even if it does occasionally scab over.
How much worse is it, then, when a person dies unexpectedly or far too soon or away from loved ones or because of someone else’s hatred or ignorance and that has to be told to those who love him or her by a designated stranger? Surely the bearer of this very sad news understands on some level that someday another person, just like them, may have to do the same thing about their own death with their own loved ones, who are strangers to the messenger. Perhaps that is why they break the news kindly, respectfully and with some grace.
I do not often contradict William Shakespeare, its a pretty worthless undertaking, but I do disagree with him when he has Macbeth say of his wife: “There would have been a time for such a word…” In my life whatever time that word, “death” has been brought forward, it has not been the right time. There is no right time. When we love, we love forever, full stop, and no matter who tells you, or how, it cannot be made right.