The Mourning of Strangers

People tell me they couldn’t do my job. What is my day job? I help families during one of the hardest moments of their lives. I help them establish memorials at WSU. While it is difficult, it is the most humbling, yet gratifying job I’ve ever had. I have the opportunity to be with people, complete strangers, when they are vulnerable and heartbroken. And I consider it a privilege. I stay with them, a constant, as they grieve, and help them to obtain one aspect of closure, move through one stage of grief,  as they see their memorial come to fruition. It is remarkable.

I have cried with many of them. Over the phone as I open the memorial and let them pour out their anguish to a stranger’s voice. In my car following a funeral service, a service for someone I never knew and knowing that my tears are not only for the loss of the family, but for my own loss at never having known this special person. At their kitchen tables, as we finalize the memorial, our tears mingled in the joy of the outcome, that a legacy, a memory will continue through the lives of students.

But what touches me most are the stories. And I find myself wanting to capture each one. To write a book about all the people we should have taken the time to know, the people we should have sought out, the people we should mourn fully. If only we’d known them. What an incredible book humankind would make if we were able to share our stories. All of us. Each one.

Part of my job is to check the obituaries each morning. What I love most is when families take the time to tell a story. Rather than give obvious information, such as date of birth and death, town where they were born, those who survived, and if a memorial was established, my heart skips a beat when I read a story. That Herman loved to fish, always wearing his beloved Detroit Tigers ball cap. That Roy will be missed greatly by his longtime companion and best friend, his beagle, Oscar. And that Lewis built B-29s during WWII, as well as race cars and Victorian-style dollhouses for his grandchildren. That Katharine loved books by Russian authors and Esther helped her neighbors plant tulips each fall. Those few sentences open up a life.

And I ponder the smaller details, like Wilma who was predeceased by three sons. Three sons. What pain Wilma lived with, a mother without her children, and yet she lived to be 92. Or when a young person dies, someone in their 50s, 40s, 30s, and I try to understand why certain lives are so short. And I can feel my heart break all over again when I read the story of a young woman who died suddenly, and I say a silent prayer for the family who is feeling her loss throughout their entire beings, and will for as long as they continue to walk this earth.

I think of the children who have lost a parent, the spouse losing a spouse, and the person who leaves this world all alone, no family listed. I always want to attend the services of those with the tiny announcements. Surely they had a story. Maybe there was just no one to tell it.

I’ve discovered in a recent strength finder assessment that one of my greatest strengths is empathy, the ability to put myself in the place of others. To understand their feelings. I’m sure I’ve always had this trait. I’ve been accused of having a warm heart, which is maybe why I cry at commercials, sporting events, concerts, performances, listening to music, reading a book, or while reading an obituary of someone I don’t know.

I didn’t choose my job. It chose me. As if it knew this person with the warm heart who always thought of others needed to be here in this position. This place. Five months after I took this responsibility, I lost my niece. She died on Christmas Eve 2007. And what I’ve learned is the saying “time heals all wounds” is incorrect. Those wounds never heal. We just learn to live with them. And what I’ve learned is while I can never know someones personal grief, I can understand. And the final thing I’ve learned is that while I am acknowledged for my efforts with these families, my sensitivity to the situation, my ability to support them, what people fail to realize is that these families are helping me. In our combined grief we are helping each other. Each time I take a phone call, each time I cry with strangers, attend a funeral, or read an obituary, I am caring for my own personal wound.

More importantly, I am keeping Andrea’s story. Her book is not closed so long as someone continues to share her story, and this is what I do with the families at some point in our relationship. I tell Andrea’s story. And what I see in their eyes is what I felt in my heart when I learned the story of their loved one. It isn’t just the loss we share. It’s the need to keep the story alive. So long as we continue to share the story, our father, our mother, sister, grandmother, brother, uncle, niece, or child, will always be near to us, always with us. Like a book we keep in the pocket of our heart.

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