Living With Death: A Suggestion
[This piece is written in celebration and memory of Tibor Klausner, who died this week. He was the beloved father of Ellie, Mirra and Serena, and husband of Carla Klausner, my dear childhood friends, and a towering presence of our childhood. He embodied what it means to live life at full tilt, filled with melody, love and family.]
Some kids are scared of spiders.
Some kids, of dogs or clowns or monsters under the bed. When I was a little girl, I was terrified of death.
I can remember being about 7 and lying in bed one late night with my grandmother, Estie, during one of her long visits from New York.
I could talk to Estie about anything, and that night as I tossed and turned, she forced me to unload upon her my latest existential crisis.
I opened my mouth and shouted into the dark, “One day you’re going to die, and I’m not going to be able to live without you!”
“Jula,” she purred in her thick Hungarian accent. “Vee born. Vee live. Vee die. It’s natchural. You want that I live forever? Don’t curse me.”
Throughout my childhood, Estie and I had this conversation––verbatim––over and over again.
Looking back, I realize this was her version of cognitive behavioral therapy. She was helping me get used to the fact that one day, yes, she would be gone. And I would go on. And it would be okay.
Many years later, the day came. It was one day before her 93rd birthday, and Estie lay in a hospital bed. Now I was 34 with two small kids of my own, and I wasn't really ready, but I was trying.
"Jula, take the phone," she said.
I picked up the phone by the side of her bed and then, one by one, Estie had me dial up her shtetl of friends.
I'd hand her the receiver—because they had those then—and she held it in both hands, speaking into it in a low voice that was somewhere between conspiratorial and mischievous.
“Hildele, I vill die tomorrow. Sunday vill be my funeral. Don’t schlep, Hildele. Stay home and enjoy your life. I love you and I see you soon.”
Imagine coming come home to that on your answering machine.
I know Estie wasn’t trying to, but right to the end, she was showing me how to make death a natural part of life.
Twenty years later, I had my next test. It was a much worse test because it was my little brother, and he was only 26. Beyond the anguish and grief, what I remember most was being overwhelmed at the prospect of living the whole rest of my life without him.
One day, I knew, my memories of Danny would fade. The sound of his voice would fade. The stories would fade. His friends would stop calling me. And I’d be left with…what? I didn’t know.
As the first anniversary of Danny’s death approached, I was filled with dread, as well as a need to do something for him—in real life—that would bring our relationship alive somehow.
So I went shopping for him. I walked into a store and read through dozens of cards until I found one I knew he would love.
And you know what else I found? An inexplicable comfort in shopping for Danny, returning me to a moment in our relationship where I was just like everyone else browsing in that aisle, dutifully shopping for their loved ones, except mine wasn't going to receive it in the same way.
I drove to the beach and sat in the shelter of the grassy dunes. There, I rested in the vastness of the ocean. I looked through old photos and read the cards we had received when he died. And then I took out the card I'd just bought for Danny, wrote to him, found my grief, brought him back to me.
This ritual has grown into a secret, trusted refuge, shared just between us.
Every year on that annivesary, I clear my calendar just for Danny and drive to the same beach. I sit with him and the memories of all the years we spent together.
I read through my cards of years past, and then I write him—now letters instead of cards, because cards can’t contain all the years I have to reflect upon. I catch him up.
I feel his love––and his life––anew. I feel his presence everywhere. This May, it’ll be 24 years that I’ve lived without Danny. Knowing we’ll always have our annual retreat together has helped me to keep him close.
Loss is inevitable. Sometimes it feels like we’re standing on a chessboard, looking around, wondering who will get swept off the board next. And our losses evolve over time; each new milestone––birthdays, weddings, the birth of a child––brings alive the absence of our lost loved ones in new, painful ways.
We have no control over any of it. Except one thing. We have the ability to choose how we maintain our relationships with those we’ve lost.
Years ago, my friend Sarah and I went to Oaxaca, Mexico for Día de los Muertos, known to most of us as The Day of the Dead.
It was a revelation to me, the way the Mexican culture views death, not as an event to be feared or denied, but a natural part of the human cycle that is celebrated and exalted. (If you want a wondrous window into this culture, see the phenomenal Pixar film, Coco.)
On this day, all across the country, music floats through the cities and villages and the streets fill with colorful parades, designed to help “wake up” the spirits of the dead, inviting them to join their families in a celebration of the lives they had lived. It is an act which is thought to help the dead’s spiritual journey beyond physical life.
At night, everyone flocks to the cemeteries, transforming them into places of joy and remembrance. The hallowed space becomes a field of candles and flowers and food. Tiny bands stroll though the graveyards with live music.
Each grave is encircled by family and friends, who spend hours gathered around on folding chairs, children on laps, eating their loved ones’ favorite foods, singing their favorite songs, laughing and sharing stories.
The spirits and lives of the dead are brought alive because the people who love them make it so.
“Vee born. Vee live, Vee die,” Estie said. “It’s natural.”
She’s right, you know.
And it’s our choice––and opportunity––to keep our loved ones with us, to enjoy and relish their company in new ways after they’ve left us here on earth.