Slightly Off Center

Slightly Off Center: Mourning the Living

By Dennis Hinkamp

We are all perishable goods.
by Dennis Hinkamp
There is always symmetry to life if you look for it. It’s hardwired into our genetic operating systems. We look for clouds that resemble faces and connect bright stars into fanciful creatures.

In 1980 I drove from Missouri to Utah with all my college bum possessions crammed in the back of a U-Haul trailer. Last week I pulled a U-Haul trailer from Missouri to Utah with the last of my parents’ possessions. The only difference is that I now have more money, less hair and a dog. The strange physics of life dictates that stuff is neither created nor destroyed, it just moves from one place to another; mostly in U-Haul trailers.

In the past 53 weeks, my parents have both died— their bodies reduced to boxes of ashes, their stuff to a 5×10 trailer. The crumb trails of their lives are left to be interpreted by a warped only child.

You would think there would be a better playbook for something that happens to everyone, but there really isn’t. We are living in such a state of denial that most of us no longer know what to do or say when people die.

I’ve been on the aboveground side of two funerals this year, and I’ve jotted down a few notes.

A few tips for the living

1. Don’t say this: “I want to remember [blank] the way she/he was.” This is just silly. I want to remember myself as the 25-year-old statuesque track stud that I was, but unfortunately I have lived 27 years hence. The mirror is a constant reminder that some of those years weren’t too kind. We all want to be remembered differently. If someone is in the hospital, go see him or her anyway. It should make you uncomfortable. It should make you think about your own tenuous mortality. We are all perishable goods.

2. Don’t say this, either: “If there is anything I can do.…” This is a note to myself as well as to the rest of the world. The single most difficult thing to do when someone is dying or recently deceased is making one more decision. If you joke that “Well, I sure could use a bottle of tequila and a hooker right now” most people won’t take it well, because they think mourning people aren’t supposed to really want comfort and distraction.

So, if you are on the receiving end of this inane question, you had better have a little list of more appropriate things in your pocket. “Yes, please mow my lawn, fill the bird feeders and hide all the firearms.” If you are tempted to be on the on the giving end of this question, think of something you can do and just do it rather than asking.

3. Remember the two-week rule. I’ve heard there used to be customs dictating that grieving people wear black for a year. Now, I think you get considerably less time. The official policy where I work is: “three working days of leave if an immediate family member dies. Immediate family (including step-relatives) for this policy is defined as employee’s spouse, son, daughter, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, foster child, parents, parents-in-law, brother, sister, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, grandparents, grandparents-in-law, grandchildren or any person living in the employee’s household.” So, you really need to be a speed griever.

Beyond official leave, two weeks seems to be about the median window for missing work, acting absurd and forgetting appointments. It’s true, everyone has relatives who die and you just have to get over it.

Likewise, the last thing a grieving person should have to do is dive into a housing market that is deader than your loved one. All you realtors, investment counselors and other hearse-chasers need to respect this two-week time period and just back off, at least until the funeral flowers have wilted.   u

Dennis Hinkamp thanks everyone in the community who has offered their sympathies.

This article was originally published on August 1, 2008.