When Dealing With Death and Loss, It's the Big Things That Matter
My best friend is a funeral director. We talk about death — a lot. Over the last decade of our friendship, I've watched as she expertly moves through social situations, carefully choosing to reveal (or not reveal) what, exactly, it is that she does for a living. For all of pop culture's normalizing of one of the world's more misunderstood professions, there's still an element of creepiness associated with being a funeral director. In reality, the work is an emotionally gripping experience, a job that takes a calm, even-tempered and sensitive person to navigate.
Because she and I talk daily, we discuss death daily. Not gory details or even remotely personal ones, but the emotional stuff. She shares with me the special lengths that she goes to in order to make people whose loved ones have just passed feel like they haven't totally lost their grip. Sometimes the tales she tells are funny — dove releases can go wrong, caskets get dropped, and people have had some interesting embalming requests. (One I remember from years ago: "Can our dad be in his casket with his middle finger up for the viewing?")
Most of the time, our conversations are about families and friends and how people deal with death. She sees people at their most vulnerable; she helps them through the process of finding the right way to memorialize a person she's most likely never met. She takes personal details and turns them into beautiful, elaborate celebrations of life. We've all had the "This is the song I want played at my funeral" thought; she's the person who makes sure that happens.
Over the last few weeks, I've seen a lot of people I know suffering through the unfair losses of people they really loved. Across Facebook I witnessed beautiful tributes to the wave of creative folks who went missing from Denver forever. Comedians, bar owners, musicians, actors — for some reason, we lost many recognizable souls in a short span. Dealing with loss is always difficult, but when it feels like there isn't enough room between losses to even breathe, it strikes us as unfair.
But here's the thing: Death isn't personal. It happens every day. There are no guarantees in life, a lesson I've learned over and over as I've lost loved ones myself. But it's through this relationship with my best friend that I've really come to understand how impersonal death is. We can't predict life's outcomes; when we leave this planet is one of the greatest unknowns. It doesn't make processing loss any easier to know that we can't control how and when people we love pass, but it has helped me to understand that it's just not personal. It happens every day for many reasons — mostly reasons we can't anticipate.
My best friend will be the first one to tell you that she's no expert on death and grieving, but for a person who has navigated loss for hundreds of peoples' families and friends over her ten years in funeral service, she is able to see the common threads that make us human. Recently she told me this: Life is not about the little things. Spending time and energy fighting or being angry over minute disagreements is one of the biggest ways we can waste our time together. When people die, all of that is gone. No small argument or judgment matters. It's about the big moments — the times when we loved and uplifted each other with all of our might.
She said this revelation came to her last week as she was running the funeral services for Gary Lee Bomar. He created a home for many people in his bar — Gary Lee's Motor Club and Grub — and that's something that doesn't seem to happen as much these days. She said she's done funeral arrangements for lots of beloved people in the community, but this loss was particularly heavy and hard. It was so moving to see the crowds come out to give Gary one last thank you, she told me, but it was also moving to witness just how many different kinds of people appeared. As she drove the hearse down Broadway with Gary's dog Clarence in her lap, the waves and cheers were a great reminder that when it is all said and done, people came out because they loved him. It didn't matter what their last conversation or interaction was with Gary — all that mattered was that he made them feel welcome.
I, too, had a lot of thoughts about what we as humans mean to each other when I was putting together a story on the passing of actor and all-round funny dude Corin Chavez. Just days after his passing, his best friends were able to articulate what Corin meant to them — something I have never thought about having to do. But somehow these young men managed; when our loved ones die, we are called on to share their major stories and accomplishments with the world. There was no doubt that the picture Corin painted through his life was big and bright.
The advice to "hug someone close to you and tell someone you love them" has never resonated with me as a way to deal with the loss of someone else. We can't substitute a relationship with the living for the loss of a relationship with someone who has passed. Treating every day like it's the last time you'll see someone isn't a healthy way to go about things, either. Still, the next time you have a disagreement with someone close to you, think about whether or not it is worth it. Because in the end, the little things don't count at all: The big, broad strokes of love are what leave a lasting impact.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Denver art and theater scene.