The older I get, the more people I know, the harder it is to stay connected — even to people I've known my entire life and love very much. It's hard to say exactly what happens: we get busy; our lives are crowded with people, activities, chores and events; we move far away; we have families of our own. Perhaps the biggest culprit is time, or lack of it. Recent scientific evidence proves that the older we get, the faster time passes (or so it seems so to our aging brains). With all that goes on in our day-to-day lives, it's easy to lose touch.
Then tragedy strikes — someone dies and we feel lost and guilty. When my aunt passed away last week, I drove to Michigan for the funeral. My parents came up from Florida. My brother flew in from California. The aunts, uncles and cousins gathered around to mourn our loss. Without exception, when I encountered someone I hadn't seen in a long time, we greeted each other with an awkward combination of joy at reconnecting and sadness that these were the circumstances that brought us back together.
My aunt died at an inconvenient time for most of us. I'm not being flip, simply honest. For my immediate family, it was not possible for anyone else to take time off from work or the final days of school to attend the funeral, so I went alone. In many ways, it was a blessing. I was able to spend time with my family of origin without the burdens of being a mom and attending to the immediate needs of children. I could focus completely on another part of my family that had not had my undivided attention in years.
Funerals are strange rituals, to be sure. We laugh and we cry. We tell stories and sit in silence. We are reminded of our founding families. We treasure and relive old memories. And we regret. We regret that we don't seem to make the effort to get together more often, just because we're family and we don't want it always to be at a sad occasion. We regret that we didn't call or send that birthday card or even a simple e-mail. We regret being selfish and absorbed in other things. We regret the lost opportunities, the missed chances, the unsaid "I love yous".
But I've come to have a new respect for and understanding of funeral traditions. My brother and I both commented that when we were younger, the whole idea of funerals was creepy and bizarre. As we got older, we understood that the funeral rites themselves provide comfort to many people, giving us concrete things to do in a time that seems chaotic and uncertain.
At my aunt's funeral, we came to understand that the ritual is more than just comforting to those who are mourning. We gather together at sad times to celebrate a life lived and the family that surrounded that life. Rather than dreading the occasion, I finally realized that life cycle events are what define families. Maybe we shouldn't feel guilty that we haven't seen each other since the last wedding or funeral, but rather we should celebrate that we still make time to gather as a family at these important, life-changing moments. That's what families do.
We cried buckets of tears for my aunt, who led a difficult life, didn't always make the best choices, and who died too soon. We reflected on the gifts she gave us, we comforted the children she loved (and who loved her) and we said goodbye. We also thanked her for allowing us to reconnect in her name. It was her final gift to us.