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OVER MY LIFETIME I’ve had many opportunities to learn about grief. I’ve lost a lot of close family members: one brother, four grandparents, one son, two uncles, two parents and a mother-in-law, one husband.

When a family member dies, there are all those departure-from-life tasks to be attended to, most immediately the care and disposal of the body: Embalming? Traditional burial? Green burial? Cremation? Keep or disperse the cremains? Funeral, memorial service, non-traditional ceremony, or none at all? This decision-making can feel onerous, but in fact it is a welcomed, if temporary, diversion from grief.

There may be a glut of sympathy cards. Does one keep them in a pile? For how long? Or put them in a scrapbook to be reread over the years? Or does one angrily rip them into shreds because the pre-printed sentiments don’t begin to address the reality of grief’s pain?

Then there are the sale/disposal/transferral of personal belongings, real estate, financial holdings, accounts needing to be closed and bills to be paid. Even when my 13-year-old son died and there was no estate, and few financials besides medical bills, it still seemed as if there was a lot of paperwork. And one must “be strong” and keep up a good front to attend to all these things. Mourning can come eventually, but not now.

Even with the best advance planning, and the decisions already made, the ”plan” still has to be implemented, and the bulk of grieving can be postponed until “later, when things settle down.”

BUT THIS WEEK I learned something new about grieving. When a dear friend dies, there are seldom any sympathy cards. There is no official role for a friend to play, no tasks that occupy and hold grief at bay. There is only raw mourning, and the tender empty hole inside, a dismally dark hole because the light of my friend’s life has been extinguished.

Because we were both wise, my friend and I had said our goodbyes, each time we were together. Together we’d considered the fact that one of us would die first, and that the remaining friend would miss that one dreadfully. We’d always said, “I love you,” even in his last conscious moments before he was too weak to mumble much more.

So there were no loose ends to be tied up when my friend died. No departure-from-life tasks to distract me. And there are no more dinner dates, no more silly spontaneous limericks, no more fretting over politics, no more swapping stories and sharing village concerns.

Now there are only the severed cords of our no-longer-being-together. They dangle, fraying, swaying in the damp gray winds of October.

Oh god, Leo, we were right. This one who remains misses you dreadfully.

Leo E. Baldwin July 23, 1920 – October 22, 2018

Photo by Christin Chaya

REFLECTION photoOne of the human qualities I most appreciate, about myself and about others, is curiosity, and its cousin courage. A person who wonders is a person who is engaged with life regardless of their age or circumstances. From the trivial (how many people DO live in Chicago?) to the profound (why did God bother to create us after all?), and from the person across the table (what are you passionate about?) to the nation across the world (what IS daily life like in the jungles of New Guinea?), wondering is energizing. At its finest it might even give one the courage to seek out first-hand answers. At the least it gives permission to take time to google for answers or to risk asking an in-depth question of a neighbor, and listening deeply to the answer. Curiosity is a skill that can enrich life for everyone.

One of the human qualities I most dislike, about myself and about others, is regret, and its cousin second-guessing. A person who regrets what has gone before is likely to fear moving ahead. And then tomorrow they may regret the steps they didn’t take today. It’s a vicious cycle. One who regrets is one who cannot like themselves. Even if they don’t fully regret a decision, second-guessing (so maybe that wasn’t a wrong decision, but was it the best decision? Maybe I shoulda . . .) can rob life of its vigor. What a depleting waste of a lifetime!

This past week my friend Effie and I were talking about a practice we learned in our Circle of Caring, a long-term group focused on proactive aging. We called the practice “the five important words,” but the “words” are mostly short phrases: Please forgive me, I forgive you, I love you, Thank you, and Goodbye. Effie was recalling how she and her husband Mark took one of the last days of his life to hold these words, one at a time, and say them to each other, laughing and crying over all the details they could remember about their lives together as they repeated each phrase clearly – and for the last time.

I’ve been thinking a lot today about that relationship practice. I’m aware that we needn’t wait until one of us is dying to erase regrets from our lives by giving and asking for forgiveness. We can express gratitude and love today, and acknowledge that there may not ever be a better time than now to do so, because there may not be a tomorrow. Should tomorrow come, how good it will be not to drag another day’s-worth of regret into it!

And how about the relationship I have with the person I see in the mirror every day? She, too, craves assurance that the choices she made all along the way to this day were good ones. She needs to know that I like her, that person I see in the mirror, and that if she had not made the choices she made, she would not be the one I smile at now. Can I thank her for her choices and life experiences? Can I share forgiveness with her for the times she and I have doubted and judged each other? Can I look into her eyes and tell her of my love for her? Can I tell her goodbye, just in case we don’t see each other again? And when I click off the light over the mirror, can I smile at the nudge of curiosity about what this new day might hold for me?

Second-guessing is not a satisfying hobby; regrets are not a good reward for living. But playing with curiosity, and allowing courage to take me by the hand to explore what I wonder about – even, some day, as far as my own experience of dying – that’s how I want to live!