“Sudden massive coronary events” are dominating my thinking lately. I am reading Joan Didion’s account of her husband’s death in The Year of Magical Thinking and recently browsed the pertinent pages of Ekaterina Gordeeva’s book My Sergei while waiting for Steve to glean salable items from Good Will on Tuesday. I am also writing my own memoirs of my husband Jim in a Continuing Ed course. What struck me this morning was the role of the grieving person’s best friend as hero. Not the knight-in-shining-armor type hero, but the simple, calming presence modelling a way to be. In a moment when shock obscures all notions of how to act, having a trusted person exhibit some caring, helpful behavior is a distinct grace.
My mother was that hero to me when my sister was killed in a car crash. She and I were traveling across country together, enjoying the freedom of being 20 and (almost) 17 when it happened. My mother cobbled together connecting flights to reach me in Nebraska the next morning. She got me discharged from the hospital and set up in a hotel with her while she went through all the details of bringing Alice’s ashes back to California. We went to the mortuary the next day. I was still rather zombie-like while my mother handled the business. Then the director asked us if we would like to see the body. “Absolutely,” was my mother’s reply. For some reason, I hadn’t realized that was why we were there. I hesitated. Mom led me into the room while the director closed the door. “Oh, honey,” she sighed as she approached the table. “No, she’s not there. She’s gone. Look here…” she began to comment on Alice’s wounds, on her swollen face and how old she looked, as if she were a battered wife decades in the future. My mom said something about all the suffering her daughter had been spared. Then she tenderly bend down and kissed that pale, waxy forehead. My mother has never looked more beautiful to me in all my life than she did at that moment. Strong, compassionate, wise and incredibly beautiful. I wanted to be like her, so I kissed my sister’s forehead, too.
Gordeeva writes about her coach, Marina, prompting her to go into the ICU room where her husband lay. “Don’t be afraid. Go talk to him. He can still hear you.” She goes in and begins to unlace his skates, a normal gesture that helps loosen her words, her tears, her emotions. I remember our priest asking me and two of my daughters if we’d like to anoint Jim with some olive oil, bathe his face, and prepare his body to be taken away. It was a relief to excuse ourselves from the people downstairs in the living room and go up to him together, to say our goodbyes together, to touch him one more time. I am so grateful someone thought of allowing us that right then. We had another opportunity to say goodbye to his body at the funeral home later when my two other children came home. By then, I could take the lead with them and encourage them to approach. I can’t remember who started humming “Amazing Grace”, but we all joined in, musical family that we are, and swayed together, arms and bodies entwined.
In the aftermath of Jim’s death, my youngest daughter and I fought frequently. I didn’t know how to talk to her, to listen to her anger directed at me and recognize that she wasn’t hateful, only grieving. Steve was the one who suggested that she was hurt, not hurtful and agreed to sit by me while we attempted an honest conversation. My instinct was to run away. I was grateful to observe someone who could be calm and present, reasonable and compassionate in the face of powerful emotions that frightened me. He is adamant about not rescuing me, but equally determined to be the best friend he can be.
I hope that I will have opportunities to be a great friend to someone in grief. I would like to be a conduit of such grace.