I was recently at a memorial service for a longtime family friend — an occasion that is happening with altogether too much regularity in recent years. I’m at an age where my parents’ generation is failing, and these past few years have brought a steady stream of passings and, consequently, memorials, celebrations of life, and other opportunities to remember those who meant a great deal to me and the people I grew up with.
The gatherings have also brought a reminder of our own mortality, since — as one friend grimly put it, upon hearing of yet another elder’s death — “we’re next.”
These memorials are in some ways grueling. It’s heartbreaking to witness a grieving spouse stand bravely, wondering who he or she is without this life partner of 50 or 60 years; to see friends lose parents and children lose grandparents.
But the memorials are also undeniably wonderful life experiences. Those close to the deceased tell stories that are, in turn, funny, irreverent, surprising, poignant. Celebrating lives through stories and memories makes us experience the people anew through all of their phases of life, infusing our memory of their failing days with a fresh perspective: our loved ones as teens, as young parents, as complex and competent and vulnerable people doing their best with their lives, just like the rest of us.
At these gatherings we see old friends and classmates with whom we’ve lost touch; we meet their children and their spouses. We reconnect with former teachers and coaches. We interact as adults with people who were merely our friends’ parents when we were growing up. We see our roots, our foundations — the people who nurtured us and sent us out in the world to become whoever we were going to become, knowing that we carried a little part of each of them inside us.
We see — as another friend remarked after the most recent memorial — “the good people who raised us, taught us, shaped us, and loved us.”
So we mourn the passing of each elder who moves to the other side of the veil, and at the same time we feel a little bit better, a little bit fuller, for having had them in our lives. And “lucky us!” we think. We got the chance to know these people. They mentored and supported us, and, above all, let us grow into the people we were meant to become. Despite our grief in the wake of losing these people, lucky us.