When I was but a wee thing . . . ok, maybe not so wee . . . maybe more like nine . . . or ten . . . possibly eleven . . . my maternal grandmother lived in an apartment above what we now refer to as the old funeral home but which was the actual funeral home at the time. She never learned to drive so she never ventured far from her apartment unless someone else provided transportation, but since the building was situated on Main Street, just a block or so from the only shopping district Savannah had, she would on occasion stroll down the street to pick up a few things.
My mother worked at the funeral home, as did my father, but evidently on this particular day, neither of them was present, because I got a phone call. My mother was just a bit concerned because she had been trying to call my grandmother for most of the day . . . but no one was answering the phone. So I was dispatched to investigate.
Really? You have a whole building full of live, adult-type people and you call the kid?
At that age—and to some degree today—I had what might be described as an over-active imagination. Couple that with the fact that my life, even then, seemed to revolve around death and you have the perfect recipe for a horror movie script.
A not so small child is sent to the upper recesses of a funeral home in search of an aged and frail (at least in my mind) woman who, unknown to her family, is deceased, probably having been that way for several days so decomposition has already begun (actually, I think she kept us the night before while my parents were out, but that was irrelevant). The child grasps the ancient door knob, twisting it until the massive door to the woman’s abode opens, the hinges creaking as it slowly swings inward (informative side note—this was originally a Victorian home so the ceilings are twelve feet high and the doors are sized accordingly). In fear and trepidation, said not so small child creeps into the apartment, cautiously entering each room . . . dreading that moment . . . that terrible . . . horrifying . . . moment . . .
I’m not sure where my grandmother actually was that day, but I didn’t find her decaying corpse. I did, however, find all of our Christmas presents laid neatly across the bed she didn’t use—a fact I smugly disclosed to my mother as I reported on my assignment. Needless to say, I was not sent back to the apartment and my grandmother got a stern lecture about literally hiding things in plain sight.
Now, my adventure turned out to be rather non-adventurous, but until I actually knew that, I was terrified of what might be waiting for me on the other side of that apartment door. Sadly, there are people every day who are the unlucky ones—the ones who happen upon someone they love who, for whatever reason, has died alone. It may be from natural causes, possibly expected or not. It may be from a horrific accident or a violent act, but whatever the cause, the discovery of that loss sets off a whole series of physical, mental, and emotional responses, none of which are the same for everyone and all of which are normal . . . and unpleasant. Those responses can range from quiet sorrow and acceptance to screaming rage and denial—and everything in between. Combine that with the shock of the discovery and the confusion and flurry of activity that often follows, and the one person who will struggle the most becomes the one person who can be the most forgotten.
The loss of someone we love is always difficult and life-altering, but to be the one who walks in to find Death’s handiwork makes it so much worse. Whatever the circumstances, please remember those people will need extra care and attention as time passes. While the rest of us may be able to dwell on the good times and happy memories, that person may see one thing and only one thing when they close their eyes. And they’ll see it for a very long time.