Finding the right words isn’t easy, so it’s no wonder we don’t always reach out after a death, despite our best intentions. Luckily, it’s never too late to write and reminisce.
Who among us hasn’t had the best—but unfulfilled—intentions to visit a dying friend or relative? Or even to pop a card or note in the mail just to let them know they were in our thoughts? It’s human nature to procrastinate, even with easy things. So when it comes to the difficulty of putting words to a sensitive situation like illness or death, it’s no wonder we don’t always follow through.
It happened to me not long ago. Even though the person who died was not a close friend, he was a familiar and cheerful one: J.P. (not his real name) greeted me daily on my early morning visits to work out at my local YMCA.
When my work schedule changed, I stopped going to the Y. And when I heard a year or so later that J.P. had died, I felt negligent for not having checked in.
After the funeral service, I wrote the following note and sent it to Mac (again, not his real name), another Y staffer and morning greeter:
You should be beaming up there if you were looking down on your Methodist church today. There were pews packed with people who respected, revered and loved you—and most of us weren’t even relatives! There were fun stories from your sister, your awesome son, your first girlfriend, your volunteer devotees and people who worked with and worked out with you at the Y.
And that was, of course, where you and I overlapped many years ago when I first joined the Y and you got me all set up on the machines. Motivating, not nagging. Pushing and raising the bar but never beating anyone up with it. You were never too busy or too tired—even at 5:30 a.m.—to return a smile, answer a question or share a story.
I loved your emails to me when I was writing for the paper—you were so supportive of my work and writing. I thought it was cool you even paid attention. But that was what you did. For so many of us and that really hit home today.
I regret that after I left the Y—for a new job that made the round trip impossible—that I wasn’t paying more attention myself. Oh, how I regret!
I regretted that I hadn’t been better about checking in when I thought of you, which I did often and fondly. I regretted not making a special trip to the Y with the annual Hershey bar on my dad’s birthday—Oct. 8. You always seemed so appreciative of that and I appreciated so much that you totally “got it” what it meant to me to keep that memory alive.
I really regretted it when I saw Mac and it brought back all those early mornings, quick conversations, leaving Sudoku, trading camaraderie and quips. All in fun, all in good spirits. Always upbeat, always positive.
The truth is your not being here doesn’t end our bond—that lives on forever. And you will never be forgotten by me and hordes of others.
Aren’t we so proud of Mac and how well he’s doing and where he’s headed? I hope to stay in touch with him, follow his career and happinesses as I know you’ll no doubt be doing, too. We’ll stay connected through him, perhaps, until we meet again on the treadmill in the sky!
By return mail, I received the following from Mac:
Thanks so much for the note. It meant a lot. I know by you writing it and sharing … it will help us both never forget about J.P. … It truly put a smile on my face. You made me reminisce about your father’s Hershey bars … That made me laugh. Those mornings were a lot of fun—things and days that won’t be forgotten … He was so strong till the end and such a positive role model for how to go with class and dignity…
His letter meant the world to me and helped me realize that it’s not just the obituary writer who shapes the memories to leave behind. There are many other ways, before and after, to celebrate a relationship and, even, ease the pain of grief and regret.
Susan Soper is the founder and author of ObitKit™, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she was formerly the Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called “Living with Grief” shortly after her father died. Susan lives in Atlanta with her husband. Originally published March 4, 2011.