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August 6, 2009

This Wonderful Life: Open letter to a friend whose mother is dying

There is nothing good or right or fair about this. Until it happened to my husband and then to me, when I heard someone speak of losing a parent, I did not appreciate the full weight of what they had lost. Now I wonder how something so commonplace can be so excruciating.

It seems that its everydayness should dull its edges and turn it into a tumbled stone you can carry in your pocket or plonk into your jewelry box, where it will sit silently until you have the need to feel its glassy, cool weight in the palm of your hand. Instead, it is a sharp and heavy thing with unexpected spines and razor edges. You forget that it’s there, then you cut yourself on it while fishing in your purse for quarters or lip gloss.

It is unbelievably hard - an emotional tri-athalon - but it gets easier. In the meantime, if you are looking for someone who has been there and is happy to talk shopping or gossip about celebrities or just send you clips from Marx Brothers movies, I’m here.

Finding a good, small-batch whiskey and a couple good friends with sympathetic pouring skills is a perfectly reasonable response. So is climbing to the highest peak in town and throwing rocks at God. I’m up for either, and God is certainly strong enough to withstand whatever we can deliver. Remember that you are surrounded by people who love you and would give anything to know how to make this easier for you and your family.

The vast majority of people our age, which is to say somewhere around 30s and early 40s, never learned the delicate art of Bringing a Casserole. We want to help, but we don’t know what to say. We don’t want to intrude on someone’s private anguish. And we sure as hell don’t know what to do.

We are so steeped in irony and cynicism, we think things like, “Why would I think a casserole would do anything to ease her suffering?” We don’t understand that the casserole is a sort of tasty Trojan horse that will get a person in the door, where she will get a much better view of how she can be useful.

You may have to help them help you. When you find yourself with a fragment of a moment illuminated by sanity and reflection, write down a list of five or six things that could really make your day easier.

Maybe someone could feed the dogs so you could stay all day with your mother without having to watch the clock. Maybe someone can bring you a CD player and music that you and your mother both like. If you think of something you’d like or need to do, but don’t want to waste any of these moments with your mother, write it down.

The next time someone says, “Is there anything I can do,” give them an assignment from the list.

Your friends will be happy to put their hands to use.

Let them carry you a little way, if you can. There’s something holy that happens when we take care of each other, and it’s important to spend time on both sides of that equation. Equally holy is the sorrow you’re feeling now and will feel for a long time to come.

There was a time when I had no conviction about what happens to us after death. My existentialist attitude was that it didn’t matter, and that it’s our lives that define our existence.

I also used to wear tight black turtlenecks and smoke like a chimney, so it was all part of the package.

My experience has not borne out that philosophy. I know my mother is with me. I can’t tell you exactly how I know, although I could point to a thousand little things. It’s a non-negotiable fact. I feel it. My brother feels it. My son feels it and even my daughters who never met her feel it.

That doesn’t make what you’re going through now any easier. I wish I had something to offer for that - something more substantial than small-batch whiskey and the Marx Brothers and my love.

Then again, what else is there?

Elizabeth Trever Buchinger has a full file of casserole recipes, if ever you should need one. You can connect with her at