February 2011

I Don'€™t Know Who Any of You People Are

Not long ago I attended the funeral for the mother of a colleague. My colleague has two children, an eight year old girl and a seven year old boy. Their maternal grandmother lived nearby and was a frequent and hugely meaningful presence in their lives. The funeral was well-attended with mostly middle-aged and older adults from a lifetime of family, community and church connections. Following the service, my colleague and her children along with other immediate and close family members stood in the lobby outside the church sanctuary and received expressions of care and sympathy. The area was crowded and I waited my turn to offer additional condolences to my colleague as her children stood at either side. I had met her children briefly on a couple of occasions but they felt more familiar because of the kid stories my colleague and I had exchanged. Wanting to acknowledge the children's presence, but as mostly a stranger to them and having no good words to offer, I softly touched each on the shoulder, looked them in the eye and nodded. The girl said nothing but the boy held my gaze and said with exasperation, "I don't know who any of you people are." No more than waist level to the crowd of mourners, I leaned down and responded that I worked with his mother at the hospital. He responded in frustration, "I still just don't get it."

Along with a renewed appreciation for the unapologetic honesty that seems to be found more in children than us older folks, these comments set off ripples of other thoughts and considerations. One is how many people our lives impact and how little we understand about that. Of course this young grandson did not know who all these people were and how could he? Even adult family members at funerals find themselves asking each other, "Who was that person who came up to you or was in the gray sweater or had the mustache or signed there in the guestbook?" How could we possibly know all the lives we touch over a lifetime? At my own mother's visitation before the funeral, people I did not know came up to me to say, "I know your mother had lots of friends, but what we had was something special". We touch more people than we know and more know who we are than we know them. It happens all the time. And this means that we regularly underestimate our impact and importance in the world. We, you and I, matter more than we understand.

Another rippled thought is that we don't have to fully understand to participate. It was a good thing that these children were present at their grandmother's funeral. They didn't comprehend everything that went on but they were an important part of what happened that day. Years from now they will participate in the conversation about that time in their family's life knowing that they were included and not left out. It was an important event and it was important that they were there. Truth be told, how many adults were in total comprehension of what happened that day and what it all meant? Anyone? While there is a necessary place for preparation and preliminary understanding for children attending funerals, adults buying a home, high school seniors accepting a scholarship offer, and anyone taking a job or getting married, who understands fully what it will mean to participate in the process and living to follow? Life is too much to be understood on the front end and much of the understanding that we do gain comes not from preparation but participation. It is in the doing that we learn most of what we get to learn. Much, if not most, of the rest is guesswork.

There is another ripple of a consideration to acknowledge from this encounter: When confronted with situations which defy understanding like illness, dying and death, we can get angry. Who likes to be befuddled about such important things? It is frustrating and can be maddening to have no good explanations to the important things which affect our lives. We look around and think about it but we still just don't get it, at least not enough of it for comfort and satisfaction, which leaves us feeling lost and confused. What understanding we have is limited and what understanding we eventually gain doesn't fill in all the gaps. We have a right to be upset, and right or not, we are upset. This is our reality.

But we are not alone, and in this there is potential for great comfort. Presence makes a difference. Reflecting on funerals for friends and family, we don't generally remember much of what people said but we remember that they came. We look over the guestbook and see names of those we didn't know were there, and it comforts us to know they were present.

The most powerful presence is that which continues, people who stay or stay open to us and our pain in the days to come. For this seven year old boy, it will be his mother, his grandfather, sister, aunts, uncles, and cousins who will be present with him as he understands more about who his grandmother was and her legacy in the world. They will stand with him as participates more fully in the life of his community and gains the deeper understandings that come with such participation. When times are hard with pain and anger, they will be there to insure that he is not alone. There will be others who befriend him-who choose to be a friend-and walk with him in the rough places as well as the smooth. And his life will touch others in ways that he will not imagine, as it already has, and as it just did.

Greg Adams
Center for Good Mourning

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Arkansas Children's Hospital - Center for Good Mourning
1 Children's Way, Slot 690 - Little Rock, AR 72202
501.364.7000 - adamsjg@archildrens.org

The Center for Good Mourning is supported by the generous support of the Arkansas Children's Hospital Auxiliary.