I drive to the church and enter the foyer, joining the line of mourners waiting to pay their respects. The length we wait will increase through the morning, a testament to a life well-spent.

The flowers and photographs have been arranged to keep us engaged as we alternately step and pause on our way to speak to loved ones lined up along the front. I wave to old friends ahead of me. They smile but it doesn’t reach their eyes.

I let a woman pass me so I can speak to a friend in line behind. We talk about other deaths and funerals, the importance of letting others know you care.

That’s the thing about helping someone else grieve. It brings back every parting. I can’t help thinking of my own losses. Time has faded these, but there are moments like this, that they sharpen again.

I remember being in that receiving line, surprised by the faces that came into view, touched by those who came based on childhood friendship.

I say, “I know it meant a lot to me that so many showed up for my father’s funeral.”

My friend agrees, and then we talk in low voices about our families, his new job, because everyday life goes on.

This is one of probably hundreds of visitations I have attended. As a teacher in a small town I have a wide circle of community.

As a child, I went with my father to pay our respects to any extended family member who passed away. In my stiff, black patent leather shoes and scratchy tights, I’d look up at the adults talking over my head, faces serious. Later were the deaths of the great-uncles and -aunts that readied me for the more difficult goodbyes. My dad taught me to honor the dead.

But my mother taught me that visitations and funerals are for the living. Although I was acquainted with the man who died, I am here for his children, who are old friends. As I near the front, I hear snippets of stories.

We tell our own life stories, until the end. Death is one story we can’t tell ourselves.

This man lived a long full life and has a large, loving family mourning him as a legacy. Many are not so fortunate.

I have known people who knew it was time to go. But even after a long illness, their loved ones rarely seem to feel the same. No matter how much or little time we get, we always want more.

I reach the front, holding hands and expressing sympathy, then hugging as I reach the friends I am here for. I remember them when they were young and joyful, then young parents, and now, the generation between. They have been greeting and shaking hands for an hour now and, like pros, steer the conversation to the periphery of loss, the flowers, their kids, introductions to the next down the line. How else to get through a day like this? I feel their grief, but know that with time, life will go on.

Back in my car, I drive home, the whiff of a woman’s perfume following me like the scent of grief.


The Universal Language of Loss

It was the day after I found our dear black lab dead next to the road. The day after my husband had to leave work to bury her, before the kids would have to see her there.

They had seen me cry. Our five-year-old was old enough to grieve with us, but we didn’t think our two-year-old could understand.

That day after, we played outside in the sunshine, being normal though it didn’t feel normal without our dog running with us.

Out of breath, I boosted myself up to sit on the tailgate of our pickup. My littler girl reached her arms up to me. I picked her up and sat her next to me.

She had few words at that age, but used sounds and gestures to let us know what she wanted to say.

She patted my leg to get my attention and said her word for our dog’s name, “Detta.”

“No,” I answered. “She’s gone. She can’t come back.”

“Uh,” my daughter said pointing to a passing truck. Then she slapped her own leg.

“Yes,” I agreed. “A truck hit her.”

My little girl pointed at me. “You,” she said, then ran her pudgy fingers down her cheeks and whimpered.

“Yes,” I said. “I cried.”

When she wrapped her little arms around my neck, I knew she understood after all.