Tag Archives: death

Can Wendy Whiner Change Her Ways?

 

I take great pride in my ability to worry. To dread events that have or have not (yet) happened. But unnamed others in my personal sphere have a different view:

As in their comments that I may occasionally resemble one of the following:

  • “Wendy Whiner” (SEE: the sketch character by that name on “Saturday Night Live” in the early 1980’s.)
  • “Debbie Downer” (SEE: due to my hyper-knowledge of every local, regional and world crisis or catastrophe, personal or public.)

At this particular moment in time – I have few active complaints. Everyone in my life is relatively o.k.

Which is in and of itself problematic.

Because of my profound skill in Anticipatory Worrying, I recognize the temporary nature of this present lull.  Soon enough the phone will ring or a text will ping and unpleasant, painful, and/or possibly horrific news will arrive.

Change is inevitable as we get older – a subject near and dear to my now-Medicare-aged heart.

But my position on how to handle sad news may be more malleable than I thought.

The Carolyn Hax advice column in today’s Washington Post contained a reader entry that made me reflect on the Wendy Whiner label.

(Pause here to note the path not taken. I should have become an advice columnist instead of a lawyer. I LOVE giving advice. Solicited or not.)

A reader of the Hax column, known as C., wrote in to give advice on “Losses and Dread” (two of my favorite subjects!) C. explained that she has had a wonderful, devoted friend for over 35 years who “truly understands how to sustain and nurture friendships.”  Because C.’s friend has many other close friends and family, C. felt that she couldn’t be as much of a source of comfort to her friend as her friend has always been to her.

This hit home to me. I, too, have a wonderful, devoted friend who also has a million (slight exaggeration only) other wonderful, devoted friends, all of whom jump up to help her whenever she is in need. I am part of the larger circle, always wishing I could be of more support.

It occurred to me that this kind of imbalance is probably quite common. Some of us are the center of the wheel of friendship and others are pinned to the outer spokes – and always will be.

C. goes on to suggest that one way to be a true friend is NOT to share your problems.

Imagine that.

C.’s tells us that her mother and her wonderful, devoted friend’s mother were the same age. Then C.’s mother died. But C. decided not to burden her friend with her sadness at the death of her mother. C. explains it better than I can.

So what I can do is NOT call her when I am sad – though I know she’d be there for me – and  I cannot dwell too heavily on the loss when we do talk. Instead I can ask her about her grandchildren and let her tell me about their antics, though I’m not a kid person. Time and circumstances will bring us to a common reference point on the loss of a beloved mother…The chance to spare my friend from going to this sad place any earlier and more frequently than absolutely necessary is a blessing.”

Kind of a friendship gift, don’t you think? To NOT bring all our woes to our close friends even when we really, really, really want to.

And the part that got me the most? From C. again:

“Sometimes our losses – or health or parents or jobs – scare our friends, and they just want to live their regular lives and not think about it – or catch it.”

O.K., so C. and I differ in several important aspects. I’m a grandmother and very much a kid person. Not all my friends have achieved this most wonderful phase of life so I try (honest I do) not to overshare adorable photos and tales of their toddler brilliance.

I am also not as selfless as C. I haven’t (yet?) reached the point where I can regularly keep my mouth closed and not burden my friends with my woes. I am too dependent on having friends to listen and offer support.

Perhaps the next stage of getting older is to recognize, as C. does, that grief shared may multiply it unnecessarily.

I always want to be there for my friends when they reach out  – and I think I am. But maybe I don’t need to add my sorrows to ones they have not (yet?) experienced. Losses are inevitable. Keeping afloat above them is not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Bad Timing Birthday Brings Bonus

 Having a birthday in early June is a matter of bad timing.

I don’t blame my parents (it’s a tad late for that), but for those of you who may now be considering an attempt to conceive a child this coming September for a planned early June arrival, I have these words of advice: “Don’t do it.”

June 2 is the date of my birth. It has not been an optimal one, unfortunately coinciding over the years with many seemingly more important life cycle events belonging to other people.

I have attended many special events on June 2. Instead of having the sole focus on that auspicious date be on ME and MY birthday (“ME” and “MY” are two current favorite words, in high rotation in the vocabulary of my three-year-old grandson),  I have frequently pretended to be happy at someone else’s celebration.

High School graduations, College graduations, anniversary parties, weddings, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, end-of-school-year dinners,  baby showers, engagement events.  All held on the popular early summer date of June 2.

And fyi, if you are a guest at a friend’s big event, it is not considered polite to remark in the middle of their festivities  – “Oh, by the way, it’s my birthday today.” 

No one will care. Instead you have to suck it up and act as if it is their special day alone.

Besides having had to share my birthday more times than I would like, I also have not had good luck with the date itself.

Early June is a busy time. The school year is ending. The summer is starting. Everyone is preoccupied with their own concerns. One year when I was in high school, the only birthday card I received in the mail was from my grandmother. And she spelled my name incorrectly.

(This is true, not because she had dementia at that point in her life, but because I am one of seven grand-daughters all closely clustered in age. So if I received a small, but welcome, birthday check in the mail from my mother’s mother, I was told to endorse it, even it was made out to another of my first cousins.)

At least my grandmother remembered. Unlike some of my other here-unnamed friends and family members who are pretty sure that my birthday falls in early June, even if they cannot quite remember the exact date.

Here it is for you:  June 2. And it is going to be a BIG one this year  —> 65.

A/K/A:

  • The Medicare Year.
  • The Year Your Mail is Flooded With Annuity Retirement Fund Brochures.
  • The Year You Can No Longer Pretend You are Still Middle-Aged.
  • The Year You Have to Stop Saying – “Oh, I’m  in my early sixties.” Because You Are Not. You are now half-way to 70.

Which is fine with me. Because as my Dad likes to say (especially now in his still-early-90’s), better to have a birthday than not.

Earlier this week my Dad’s best friend died. His friend was a brilliant, caring man, a highly respected doctor in my hometown.  He was 91 and sure you can say that he lived to a “ripe old age”, but for him and likely for my Dad, his death came too soon. My Dad, who is far better with words of legal origin than of emotional weight,  cannot bring himself to express his sadness. But he did tell me that with this recent death all of his male pals are now gone. He is the only one left.

All the more reason to celebrate birthdays while you still have them to celebrate. Not to let people forget how important it is to remember that you are still alive, that you still appreciate a carefully-selected card, perhaps a slice of cheese cake with a single candle and a clever email greeting or two.

(Let me state here for the record my firmly held belief that posting a breezy “Happy Birthday” on Facebook after you have been reminded it is a friend’s birthday does not count.  Full credit is awarded ONLY if you remember the person’s birthday of your own accord without a social media prompt.)

And if you are close enough to me that you are considering the purchase of a gift this year, please know that I  already have a drawer full of highly-effective, collagen-building, “youth-preserving” skin moisturizers. Do try to be a bit more imaginative in the present department. Not every 65-year-old woman will gracefully accept the subtle reminder of yet another new anti-aging cream.

But we will gracefully accept being remembered on our birthdays.

On the exact date, if possible. Thank you in advance.

 

 

 

 

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Words That Matter

“Woe to those who start a blog for their words may live forever.”

That’s a pretty snappy quote for one I just made up, don’t you think?

It came to me as I’ve been considering the wisdom – or the folly – of regularly putting my thoughts out there for all to read.

The other night my husband and I attended a memorial service for a relative of a friend who died too young.  The woman who died was in her 60’s, a highly regarded mental health professional, very active in her community and in her synagogue, known for her good deeds and exemplary behavior.

She received an unexpected diagnosis of a terminal illness and soon after started to blog which she kept up regularly until shortly before her death.

At her memorial service family members stood up at the front of the room, taking turns reading excerpts from her blog.  She wrote beautifully about coming to terms with her illness, making peace with her impending death and learning to accept the care she received from those she had previously cared for.

Her words were elegant, deeply felt and often profound. I’d never met her, but came to know her through what she wrote. I was struck by how she remained larger than life through her writing (a cliché somehow appropriate here) – finding meaning in her world as it narrowed as she grew sicker and sicker.

There I sat in on a folding chair in the living room of my friend’s house hearing words from someone else’s blog – and realizing their power.

After the service ended, my husband hugged me – and whispered in my ear – “Don’t worry, at your funeral, we won’t read from your blog.”

Was I supposed to be reassured?

I know he meant it kindly. He rightly guessed, that as I was listening to the speakers read the blog excerpts, I was thinking about what I write and how lighthearted it often is. How no one would confuse me with a deep thinker  – unlike the woman we were remembering at the memorial service.

Perhaps, if faced with the prospect of my own imminent death, my writing would take a turn towards the profound? More likely, however, I would be joking until the very end, putting off with humor what I would be afraid to face.

I am, as you may have guessed, the kind of person, who likes to laugh – loudly – at anything said at funerals that is remotely funny. I love it when family members and friends share humorous anecdotes about the person who died. Laughing breaks the tension, helps us cope with the loss.

And I come from a long line of funeral-laughers. At my paternal grandmother’s funeral – she of the sarcastic one-liner and critical eye – the rabbi lauded her as having a personality as sweet as the flower for which she was named – “Daisy”.  My father, knowing his mother far better than the rabbi did, turned to me and whispered – “the rabbi never met my mother. sweet she was not.” Yes, I laughed aloud at my grandmother’s funeral. (Perhaps a possible title for my yet-to-be-written-autobiography?”)

Maybe I should have cautioned the students in my Blogging 101 class that the words they will write in their blogs-to-be might have unexpected permanence?

I loved teaching this workshop and in true Sally Field fashion, was touched by the appreciative notes my students sent me last week after the final class. A dose of humor while leading a Blogging 101 class is appropriate. And if when the words flow, the humor naturally flows with it, that is appropriate too.

Yet I am still thinking about the words I heard at the memorial service. No humor there. Perhaps looking towards death took the humor right out of her system. Or perhaps the woman who died wasn’t a very funny person to start with. Instead of being semi-envious of her ability to create meaning from the most serious of circumstances, I should just accept that we all cope in different ways with tragedy.

Still I hope my husband is right. That no one thinks it is a good idea to read out loud from my blog at my funeral or memorial service. But if they do, please laugh, loud and often if you happen to be in attendance. Think of me, floating away on a cloud somewhere, chuckling along with you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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When a Friend’s Mom Dies “Old” – and Yours Died “Young”

 

 

 

Mom at party

 

I was standing in my kitchen yesterday when my close friend Liz called. Her mother had died. She was 92-years-old and was in failing health.

My mom died in 1981 when I was 28 and she was 54. She died “young”. I guess you could say that Liz’s mom died “old.”

Does it make it easier on a daughter (or son) if your mom dies at a ripe old age?

Or does it make it harder to lose her since you had her in your life for many more years?

When I sat down earlier today to write Liz a sympathy note – yes, handwritten, yes on personal stationery, yes, very old-school, just the way my mom taught me to do – I wasn’t sure what to say.

In my head I think Liz was pretty lucky. Her mom lived to see grandchildren. Mine did not. Her mom was around to answer questions in Liz’s young mom days. Mine was not. Her mom was an honored guest at the weddings of two of her grandchildren. Mine never had that chance.

I’m not sure Liz saw it that way. The last few years for her mom were rough ones. No matter the number of calls or visits, and Liz was a most devoted caregiver, her mom was always lonely. Liz was busy, worked hard, had her own life; her mom’s life had narrowed.

Perhaps Liz doesn’t even remember what her mom was like in the prime years of her life.

Whereas that is the only way I can think of mine. Age 54. Active, vibrant, on the go. Back to school to get another master’s degree in education. Volunteering in good causes. Taking on leadership roles in non-profits. Hosting family holidays. Watching my sister and I move through our twenties into grad school, boyfriends, marriages, lives.

Then on a random Tuesday – poof – my mom was there one night and the next morning she was gone. I didn’t know she was dying. She didn’t either. (I hope) Am I jealous that Liz got to be with her mom to ease her through her later years as best she could? Or am I secretly jealous that I didn’t have to bear that burden of elderly care-giving?

Likely I would have had many less than admirable caregiver moments. I can be impatient. I might have thought it a personal imposition to give up my time to meet my aging mother’s needs, to take her to endless doctor’s appointments, to deal with insurance, hospitals and aides. I didn’t have to deal with any of that. As Liz ably did.

What do I write to Liz?

“Sorry for your loss.”

Ridiculously trite and also untrue because while I am sorry, and it is a loss, her mother is not going to ever be found. She is permanently gone. There is no death lost and found of which I am aware.

“Hoping your memories will be of comfort.”

This is a phrase I have trotted out before. It is marginally helpful because memories over time do provide some comfort. But then they start to fade. In the first few years after my mom died, she made regular appearances in my dreams. But now I must look at photos to recapture a sense of what she looked and can only guess at what she sounded like.

What I like to do when I write notes of sympathy is to share my own memories of the person who died.

Recalling how Liz’s mom would show up for a visit carrying packages of chicken in her suitcase because the chicken she could buy in New Jersey tasted better than anything you could buy in the DC area.

The time we took Liz’s mom to the beach for the weekend; she loved seeing the ocean again, told me it reminded her of living near the shore when she was raising her family.

When Liz’s mom was in the hospital, I visited her and brought her some chocolate truffles. Liz’s mom, like Liz, was a chocolate connoisseur. After eagerly accepting the candy, she promptly hid the box in the top drawer of the table next to her hospital bed. She did not want to share her chocolates with anyone. I liked that about Liz’s mom.

I happened to be in her hospital room that day when a doctor stopped by – and he stood by the door, barely inside her room. He didn’t even greet Liz’s mom, just started to bark out information and orders.

Not on my watch. I spoke right up and urged the doctor to come in, to stand right next to her bed, I told him that Liz’s mom had very poor eyesight and hearing. She couldn’t see or hear him. He needed to walk into the room, all the way, please, and stand by her bed.

The doctor asked me who I was. I admitted I was not a relative. He finally deigned to stroll into the room to stand next to his patient’s bed and talk directly to her – not at her. A small victory.

I didn’t do much for Liz’ s mom over the years. Not as much as I should have or could have. I listened to Liz when she called me, when she was worried about her mom and when she complained about her, too.

I don’t know that I would have done as much as I should or could have for my mom either. Had she lived. But she didn’t. Liz’s mom did. And Liz now has her memories which I hope will be of comfort.

 

 

 

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Keeping Secrets that Shouldn’t Be

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It was likely not intended to be an ironic gesture when my parents gave me a “Chatty Cathy” doll.  At age eight having to pull a string on a doll’s back to hear a saccharine voice say “I love you” and “please take me with you” grew old quickly.

While I didn’t particularly like little Cathy, I did identify with her chatty side.  Growing up, I became very familiar with the terms “talkative”, “gabby” and less kindly said, “blabbermouth”.

As someone who over-shared long before that term was invented, I wasn’t very good at keeping secrets either. I did not share them purposefully, nor because I liked to gossip, but because of my tendency towards candor. For ill or for good.

I had learned to hold my tongue by the time I became a lawyer. Client confidentiality was Law School 101. And 102, 103, 104, et al.

(A reassuring note here to my former law firm clients: my lips were always zipped and remain so.)

And it wasn’t only clients who shared their secrets with me.  Across from my desk there was a chair I had silently labeled the pregnancy chair. Female associates would take turns coming into my office, closing the door, sitting down in that chair and saying –

Nancy, I need you to keep this confidential.”

Probably they told me their mom-to-be news because I tend to give off those maternal vibes that invite younger women to confide in me. I kept their happy secrets, even though the rest of the firm had already guessed by seeing their sudden interest in baggy blouses.

I am also the frequent recipient of other kinds of secrets. Secrets that I also keep, all the while thinking they should not be so. Those secrets that arise out of feelings of social stigma.

Such as:

Please don’t tell anyone, I’m just not ready to share, the rest of our family doesn’t know that Sam has been diagnosed with bipolar.”

And:

You can’t let any of our friends know that Rachel had to leave college because of her depression.”

And:

My niece Emily has an eating disorder. My brother’s in denial. We don’t know what to do. Please don’t say anything.”

I get it, I do. Strangers, acquaintances, friends feel safe confiding in me the news that mental illness has reached their family because I’m an involuntary expert, an advocate for awareness of and an advisor on young adult mental health.

But it makes me angry, I admit, when people imply or outright tell me that mental illness should be kept a secret. That it is something that you don’t want to tell anyone for fear others will judge you, or wouldn’t understand or think less of you or of a member of your family.

I recently went to a funeral of a young woman who had mental illness. She did not take her own life but she did die as a result of her illness. It was, as we learned in law school, the “proximate cause” of her death.

Many friends and family shared their memories of her caring nature, her warmth, her intelligence. One or two of those who spoke made vague references to her “struggles”, to the “challenges” she had faced in the past few years.

But not one of those who offered tributes mentioned the words “mental illness”. Not one.

Yet all of the people who got up to speak were also intelligent. People with the best of academic pedigrees who well knew the meaning of the words “mental illness”.

What were they afraid of? If she had died of cancer or diabetes, surely the cause of her death would not have been hidden.  Do we fear talking about mental illness because people with cancer or diabetes don’t act oddly or worry to excess or often have to leave college before they graduate?

Of course, it was the choice of this young woman’s family to characterize her life – and her death –  in whatever manner they wished. Who am I to judge, I said to my husband when we talked after the service ended about what was said – and what was not said.

And I don’t judge, I never would. I know how extraordinarily hard her family tried to help her.

I am still left with this feeling of sadness, not only at her tragic and premature loss but that I know why she died as did probably every other person at her funeral.

Everyone kept it a secret. That secret that no one wants to talk about. The secret that too often keeps teens and young adults from seeking help, that stops families from reaching out, that limits the research that needs to be done, that prevents each of us from supporting each other when we most need it.

Far better, I think, if we all became Chatty Cathies as to mental illness.  If we can talk about it, the shame lessens, the stigma dissolves and young women and men might not have to die.

 

 

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Farewell Fred. Regards to Ralph. So long Sandra. Obits I have known.

 

 

 

shakespearebooksReading the obituaries is an acquired skill.

And one of my daily pleasures.

Coffee, newspapers, read the obits.

Start with a quick scan to see if my name is mentioned in any of the bold print.

So far, it has not been.

It occurs to me that if I am able to read an obituary, it is likely that I am not (at that moment) going to be the star of one – but I hedge my bets.

Then a second quick scan to make sure that the names of the recently departed include mostly people called Leonard, Murray, Joan and Lois.

So far, so good.

When I start seeing Cheryl, Sharon and Susan on the obituary page, I will know our boomer round is up.

Then I settle in for a more leisurely reading of the person’s life story.

What do I enjoy about reading obits?

I love learning about people’s lives.

Don’t you?

And what matters to them – or doesn’t.

Starting from day one (unless you are a celeb) – you get only a few chances to tell the world your story.

So word choice matters.

“I’m here”, says the baby announcement, albeit written by someone other than the child her or himself.

Baby announcements don’t tell you much.

Height, weight, name.

(the latter is a fascinating subject on its own. A parent invests their hopes in a baby’s name. Tyler? he will be a star soccer player. Naming him Samuel? please, please let him be a doctor.)

Years after baby announcements come the next public notices of your life story.

Engagement and wedding announcements.

For reasons unclear to me now, my parents thought it was important that my engagement announcement appear in the New York Times.

The fly in the ointment was that my younger sister (thanks, Judy for ruining my solo moment!) decided to get engaged at the same time.

The NYT chose to publish the announcement (yes, the acceptance standards were no doubt more relaxed back then).

And the headline read: Wolf Sisters to Wed

Years later I wondered – what were those copy editors thinking?

Two animals getting married?

Sisters engaged to each to other?

Engagement and wedding announcements are mostly about colleges attended, jobs held and who your parents are or were.

But obituaries top my list for what they say or don’t say about how a person lived her life.

Those captain-of-industry types now passing away in their 80’s and 90’s?

Their obituaries begin with a long list of their important jobs and titles, right up until that top executive chair.

Mentioning family comes in the last paragraph. Does that mean that he viewed them as the support staff in his rise to prominence?

Check also the order of the list of “survivors”.

If a relative is listed in the “Also survived by” section, it means don’t bother to attend the reading of the will. You’re not in it.

The obituaries that worry me the most are the ones that lead off with –

“After a long valiant battle with cancer” or “Following a courageous fight against his heart disease” or “Her grace and determination as she struggled with her illness was an inspiration to all of us”.

For real? They were that brave? Always?

If I die from a dreadful, painful disease, I fear my obituary – if the least bit truthful – will more likely read:

“Nancy complained about her illness for years. She could not tolerate pain of any sort and let her family, friends and all medical professionals within shouting distance know loudly and often how she was feeling.”

My husband enjoys his dental visits. I once bit my dentist’s hand. Hard.

I can’t do pain. Must my obituary state that I am courageous when I will definitely not be?

But apparently truth is a relative thing in obituaries.

“Everyone who crossed her path was better for having known her.”

Everyone? I doubt it.

“He was invariably kind to all who knew him.”

Let’s not ask his kids.

So if you are reading this, future obituary writer, please feel free to take a bit of liberty with mine.

You can say that I loved my husband to pieces, adored my kids and that my grandson was the light of my life.

All true.

But please leave out the part about my drawing blood from my dentist’s hand.

He isn’t likely to come to my funeral anyway.

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