Death: Do we save the best for last?

Two weeks ago, I received more feedback about my column-writing than I have in the year since I began writing it.

Ironically, it was the first time my column didn’t run.

The omission was an oversight, though I must admit I wondered what about that particular column was so scandalous that it got yanked. To my relief, there was no drama involved.

Several of the people who asked about the missing column are regular readers who engage me consistently. However, some comments came from people from whom I had never heard before. I heard some of the nicest compliments about my work during the week when I hadn’t done anything.

This got me thinking about what it is concerning us as human beings that causes us to save our best accolades until something which we value is gone.

Funerals sometimes exemplify this regretful hindsight.

In the best cases, a memorial service is a celebration of a full life, as well as an opportunity for those present to grieve the loss of someone they love. Regret sneaks in when the absence of our loved one makes salient the realization that there were personal matters left unshared or grudges left unresolved.

Why do we hesitate to say the things we wish we could? It’s a risk to lay our feelings bare, even to those closest to us, because there’s a little voice inside of each of us that warns us we’re at risk of getting emotionally trampled.

When I was a teenager, my grandfather was dying of cancer. By the time I got excused from school to visit him, he has wasted to about 80 pounds and he rarely left the living-room couch.

He was an emotionally reserved man, and he and I had never been close. But during that visit, he told me stories about his service in World War II, and shared more about his childhood than I had heard in 13 years. Then he did something he had never done before: He told me he loved me. I gratefully did the same, and we shared a wonderfully unfamiliar embrace.

I have another relative for whom I was assigned responsibility for their estate at death. During one particular visit, I mustered the courage to ask them their views on everything from long-term care to life support and burial plans. It was a conversation I dreaded, but one that I knew was necessary.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get the kind of answers I had hoped for. In a nutshell, the person has no long-term care plans, short of living life in the manner they choose until money, quality of life or other factors dictate otherwise.

Then they plan to “take care of things” themselves. Ever since, I have lived with a lingering cloud, wondering when I will get the call to clean up the figurative or literal mess left behind. My only other choice seems to be to divest myself of the role of executor.

I have been blessed by nearly seven years of fulfilling marriage with my wonderful, loving, beautiful wife, Amy. Though she is very comfortable expressing her feelings, I am the stereotypical awkward male who would rather fix problems instead of talk about how I feel.

I struggle past my masculine ineptitude on occasion, but there are some days when I don’t tell her exactly how much I care about her. For some reason, I still get anxious about emotional vulnerability, even with people like her who pose no reasonable threat. So I balk.

We all do.

Consider this the next time those words catch in your throat: Expressions of love and honesty may make for a lovely eulogy, but they always sound better live, in person.

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