when loved ones return to the stars

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For the last three months, I’ve been visiting a woman with Alzheimer’s. Every Wednesday, we’d sit at her table, watch Today, drink coffee, and talk about the same things over and over – where she grew up, her kids, her grandkids, her sparkly purple sweater, the garden, the white car across the street, going to school. I’d ask her how old she was and she’d say, “old enough,” and we’d laugh.

My job as a hospice volunteer is just to provide company and friendship to patients. I don’t take care of them, feed them or give them medicine. I don’t have any sort of medical certificate. I’m just supposed to provide company for those who may leave this life soon.

This morning, I found out this cute woman I’ve visited for the last little while has moved on to join the stars, to hopefully shine her light on her family and friends she’s left behind. Over the last few months, I’ve gotten to know her sweet husband who walked her down the aisle 60 years ago. They were two kids in love – she was young enough at 19 or 20 that state law required her to get her parents’ permission to marry. And they’ve been together ever since, living in different states out east, volunteering at their church and raising their family.

Her husband told me he asks God why he’s still here, living in his 80s. Then he’d point to his wife and say, “I’m here for her.”

It breaks my heart to think of this man alone now – a man who told me just last week his house felt too empty when his wife moved into an assisted living facility a few days before. She didn’t have the highest quality of life anymore and would sometimes do things that confuse those of us who have more control over our minds. But I wonder what it must feel like to have the love of your life – 60 years of your life – gone overnight.

The last few years, death has started to enter my life. I realize the longer I live, the more I’ll experience it, but it’s not easy. Losing my hospice patients affects me differently than losing other people in my life, or learning the tragic stories of lives ended too short. But with every death, there is a little heart ache, a little confusion, and wonder at how someone can be here one day and not the next.

If I get to be with my husband for 60 years, I’ll consider myself one of the luckiest women in the world. But as I’ve seen with hospice patients and my grandparents – it doesn’t matter how long you live; it always seems too short.

A little over a month ago, a friend and I were emailing each other about how hard death can be after we learned our college professor’s wife died at age 58, after battling an illness that took her away. We both said death is so hard and surprising and shocking every time.

Life is so strange. It’s long and it’s short. And it’s hard when you’re the one living. It’s like in the last Harry Potter movie when Dumblerdore says, “Do not pity the dead, Harry, pity the living. Above all, pity those who live without love.”

I think the only good thing about acknowledging death is that is makes you live life more fully because you realize nothing is for certain, not even tomorrow. And some days that helps me put things in better perspective. But most days, I’m not to the point of feeling that comfortable with it. Mostly I just fear it. And instead of worrying about me dying, which would probably be the most beneficial because then I’d really make sure to take advantage of every moment, I worry about losing the ones I love.

I also wonder if it’s hard for the one who dies. Wouldn’t that person miss the same things? Wouldn’t that person hate leaving families and friends behind knowing they are suffering? 

And when I think of my problems, I think they are so small. Really, people are dying everywhere, every moment, and people are crying over them. Since I work in news, I read all these stories of children and young people dying. I read about those who die in the most horrific ways. And then there are wars and there’s sickness and it’s all over the world and if I think about it too long, it’s too overwhelming.

I do believe there is a God and that he watches over everyone before, during and after this life. I do believe there is something wonderful after this life, too. I’ve never blamed God for anything, but that doesn’t mean I understand why some people leave the earth early, either. And I really do believe death can teach us how to live. But all the other parts in between can be very agonizing and painful. I think maybe death helps us look out for each other, which is a silver lining.

When my friend and I were emailing, I stumbled across this quote from the book “Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can’t Avoid,” by Lemony Snicket. I think it’s fitting.

“It is a curious thing, the death of a loved one. We all know that our time in this world is limited, and that eventually all of us will end up underneath some sheet, never to wake up. And yet it is always a surprise when it happens to someone we know. It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark, and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things.”

I’m so thankful for this life – for its twists and turns, and mostly for the love within it. The beautiful thing about love is it lasts beyond life. It can live anywhere – in  the sun, in warm summer breezes, in those moments when our hearts are so full they feel like they are going to explode. Love is in the sky and in the stars that remind us of heaven. It’s in the faces of our family members, friends and even strangers. It’s in life and in death.

Though I don’t know if there’s anything more difficult to handle or understand than losing those we care for, maybe love is the point of all of it.

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