Once upon a time, I was in my early twenties, fresh out of college, in search of work. I put my resume and application into a senior volunteer program who was in search of a Program Assistant. The job was paying $10.08 to start and that was unbelievable to me, I had never made that much per hour in my life so I figured it was a long shot I'd even get the job.
As it turns out, the Program Director loved me and hired me on the spot. I was over the top excited to start my first "real" job post college, long before my student loans were going to be due.
On my very first day, I got a brief orientation of what I was going to be doing (a lot), we went shoe shopping, and I dropped off dry cleaning (which I had never done before so that was kind of exciting), and I learned that my first job every morning was going to be to read obituaries. Not just the local ones, but the ones from each county and city we served, which was a pretty vast area. I was to look at the names and compare it to the active and retired volunteer list to see if we lost anyone. At first, it wasn't a big deal because I had never met these people and I didn't have any kind of connection with them.
Fast forward a year and I had grown pretty attached to the volunteers. I'd talk to lots of them daily, some to call with questions and some who were clearly lonely. I was getting married shortly after starting so some would call and offer me advice for becoming a new bride and potential mother. I'd see them at monthly meetings and they'd tell me I'm losing too much weight or too thick in the hips, ask me about my husband and when were we going to have kids. Every month these men and women became like surrogate grandparents for me. They took an interest in me, I heard some fantastic stories, and I gained a better understanding of aging that I never would have had without this job.
Then I went to the very first funeral I have ever attended in my whole life.
It was for a volunteer, died of natural causes, alone at home. I knew she had children and I thought I would have the opportunity to tell her children what a difference she made in the lives of children at the place she volunteered but also, what an impact that she had on me. She told me of her struggle raising her children alone, being widowed before she was 40, and living off her husband's social security in her final years (she never worked, so she didn't have a retirement fund or her own social security) and how she made it on $310 a month. To me at the time, I couldn't fathom this. I couldn't wrap my head around not being able to buy food when I was hungry, or heat my home when I got cold. I learned a lot of things from her, and some people thought she was gruff but I thought she was amazing.
Except the only people at her funeral was the pastor of the non-denominational church she sometimes attended, the woman who lived across the hall from her in their senior apartment complex, and the complex's secretary. That's it. No children, no friends, just these few people, my boss, and me.
I cried for her. Not because she was gone, she had lived a long life and she went peacefully. I cried that, as it turns out, she had some kind of falling out with her two children years ago and they didn't even care enough in the end to visit their mother. Their mother. I don't care who you are, I don't care what your family has done, that's your mother. Is holding a grudge really worth it? I mean, sure- maybe if your parents were violently abusive to you, I'd get that. But there is a freedom in forgiveness and these people will never have it.
So as I sat at the graveyard, because she didn't have a service- straight to the grave for her, I thought about all of the people in my own life that would die the same way. I thought about death, and how maybe having a painful death was bad, but maybe being all alone in those final moments is the worst that could happen.
There is an interesting article in the New York Times today that talks about this very thing- dying alone. I really recommend it as a good read and maybe keep it in mind when you think of estranged family or others in your life who don't have a large circle. Be a part of that circle. One of my favorite songs of all time is by Death Cab for Cutie and it's called "What Sarah Said", has a line that says, "Love is... watching someone die." and damn. Isn't that true? Think of how awful WE feel, letting that person pass to somewhere we can't go and leaving us here with all of these emotions, last wishes, things we wished we could have said. That's true love- being the one to sit with that person and helping them pass. To me, that is what sums up love. Love is being selfless. Love is giving what you've got to someone else when they need it. Being that person that someone can depend on, even during the worst of the worst.
So maybe think about that. The next time you run into a senior who gives you attitude- think of the life they've led. Think of the possibility, they may be alone. They maybe have faced tremendous hardships that you can't even imagine. They might be dying alone. Think of that when you ignore your parent's phone calls or texts. And then always ask yourself, who will watch you die?