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Reflections on the Death of My Mother

Tuesday, Sep 29, 2009

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My mother, Hilda Prager, died 10 days ago.

Because she has consumed my thoughts since then, I thought I would share some of them with my readers.

1. On the age a parent dies

One of the first things most people ask when a person loses a parent is how old he or she was. This is entirely normal, yet it demands explanation. It is entirely normal because people regard the death of a 90-year-old parent quite differently from that of, let us say, a 70-year-old, let alone someone younger than that.

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For good reason. The death of a 90-year-old is not a tragedy; the death of a 60-year-old is. As the son of a woman who died at age 89, I fully recognize this. I am deeply grateful that my mother lived so long.

But while age at death is the whole story for outsiders, it is only half the story for a person’s loved ones. One does not miss a loved one less because he or she died at 89. My mind is entirely at peace with my mother’s death at 89, nearly all of those years lived in good health, and the last 69 in wedded bliss to my father, who is alive and well. But I do not miss her one whit less because she was 89. Indeed, one might argue that having lived to age 61, I have had that much longer a period of time to get used to having — and very much enjoying — my mother in my life. My mind is deeply grateful; but it also knows that my mother is gone forever.

2. On blessings coming with prices

My parents were inseparable for 73 years, 69 of them as husband and wife. That is a rare blessing, rendered even rarer by their both being in essentially excellent health for nearly every day of those 73 years. But what is most important is that they were, to use a term that cannot be applied to many marriages, soul mates.

There is a price paid for the blessing of having a soul mate: losing a soul mate. When a soul mate dies, whether after a few years or 73 years together, the hole left in the other’s life is immeasurable.

I once spent an afternoon with George Burns in his home (he listened to my radio talk show and invited me to visit). Most of the time, he spoke about his love of his late wife, Gracie, even though she had died decades earlier. When one has married a soul mate, time doesn’t seem to diminish the longing.

3. On long life as a huge advantage for a parent

From my late teens onward, the relationship between my mother and me improved steadily. As the years progressed, I enjoyed her more and, yes, loved her more. Unless either an adult child or a parent has serious psychological issues, I am convinced that what I experienced is quite common. There is an enormous amount of luck — good and bad — in life; and one of the greatest pieces of good luck for a parent (and child, for that matter) is for parents and children to have the time to work things out.

4. On guilt and inner peace

No matter how I felt at any given time, I always abided by the commandment to “Honor your father and mother.” Not only was it good for me and for my parents in life, it is particularly good now after my mother’s death. Because I was a good son, I have no guilt to work through. There are many reasons to honor one’s parents, and how one will deal with a parent’s death is one of the most compelling.

5. On mourning

I knew I would observe the age-old Jewish practice of sitting “shiva” (“shiva” is Hebrew for seven) — i.e., mourning for seven days. But I had no idea if I would come to value or loathe it. I found it invaluable. I took a week out of my life to do nothing but receive visitors — at my brother’s home in New Jersey and in my home in California — and mourn my mother. She deserved it, and I needed it.

6. On my mother being widely loved

Over 300 people came to my mother’s funeral in Englewood, N.J. This is a remarkable number in light of these facts: She and my father had lived in Englewood for only 10 years; my mother had no professional position that would have made her in any way well known; the funeral took place midday on a Monday when most of those present had to miss work; and virtually everyone there was considerably younger than my mother (her peers, not to mention those who had been in her life who were older than she, have nearly all died).

My mother was universally adored — even her pharmacists and hair stylist paid a call during “shiva” — for three reasons, as I learned from everyone to whom I spoke: She was always happy; she treated everyone as if they were the most special person in her life; she carried herself with class and dignity. If you want to be widely loved, there’s the recipe.

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