Sullivan's words rang true for me. Over the years, I have adopted the idea that you go to the funeral or the visitation, even if it is a hard thing. This has been a deliberate decision because I have friends and family who stand squarely on both sides of the issue - to attend or not. The reasons behind their decision make sense - it can be an inconvenience and an emotional event that is hard to manage and you can always just send a card. At the same time, it can mean so much to the family to see people show up...just to show up and be there in the space, to provide solace and to stand together. Even if you don't know what to say, I have found that "I am so sorry for your loss," may be all that is necessary.
How do I draw the courage or overcome the inconvenience? I say to myself before and after, "This is a hard thing. We do hard things." One of my favorite authors Anne Lamott in her book, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers talks about doing hard things. She reminds us about hard things like picking up the "two-hundred-pound phone" to call a difficult family member to ask after them, even if they are long-winded and have some quirkiness. We all have those refreshingly odd, or annoying, or simply crazy relatives who need our love and attention. In Sullivan's words, "the small gesture that you don't really have to and definitely don't want to" make.
In her essay, Sullivan recalls as a young woman attending "calling hours" for a former teacher. It made me think back to attending the first funeral I can remember. I must have been three or four years old and my grandparents were watching me during the week. My mom was perplexed. My grandma had an appointment and my grandpa was planning to attend a funeral and he said he would take me along. My mom wasn't sure. She didn't want me to be traumatized. My grandpa negotiated - we would arrive late and sit in the back and he was sure it was a closed casket. I listened while the adults talked through the situation and I was fascinated - this must be a big deal given all of the discussion. I felt special that I was going to get to go. My grandpa asked me if I thought it was ok to attend. I responded in the most inappropriate way, "Yeah, it will be fun!" My grandpa couldn't help but smile and then he gently explained that it wouldn't be fun, but rather sad and he made sure I understood. I remember getting dressed up and singing along with hymns while we stood at the back of the church because we arrived late enough for the casket to be at the front of the church. Standing room only - the sign of a good funeral.
As my grandpa grew older, he continued to go to funerals. He would sometimes confide that the crowd was getting smaller at each funeral because all of his friends were passing away. He was outliving them. Still, until his own funeral, and the short time before when he was unable to leave the house, he went to the funeral.
Sullivan's essay reminds us to "always go to the funeral" for the family and to also use this practice as a guide for life. She says,
"Always go to the funeral" means that I have to do the right thing when I really, really don't feel like it. I have to remind myself of it when I could make some small gesture, but I don't really have to and I definitely don't want to. I'm talking about those things that represent only inconvenience to me, but the world to the other guy. You know, the painfully under-attended birthday party. The hospital visit during happy hour. The Shiva call for one of my ex's uncles. In my humdrum life, the daily battle hasn't been good versus evil. It's hardly so epic. Most days, my real battle is doing good versus doing nothing.
In going to funerals, I've come to believe that while I wait to make a grand heroic gesture, I should just stick to the small inconveniences that let me share in life's inevitable, occasional calamity.
On a cold April night three years ago, my father died a quiet death from cancer. His funeral was on a Wednesday, middle of the workweek. I had been numb for days when, for some reason, during the funeral, I turned and looked back at the folks in the church. The memory of it still takes my breath away. The most human, powerful and humbling thing I've ever seen was a church at 3:00 on a Wednesday full of inconvenienced people who believe in going to the funeral.I am being challenged to do the hard thing in a couple of other areas of my life - to show up when I would really rather not. For several weeks, I have been trying to justify and find a way to feel ok about not showing up when I know it is going to be inconvenient and uncomfortable to be in the space. This essay came along at the right time to remind me to do good instead of nothing.