I have always thought that Valentine’s Day was the worst sort of holiday. For one thing, many people do not have a Valentine. For another, lots of people forget to do something for their Valentine. So I’m not sure that, on the whole, Valentine’s Day is much of a celebration for most of us, and it is awful for some of us. But, nonetheless, I still buy the card and the candy and stick it out on the counter on the 14th, wondering if I took it too seriously or not seriously enough.
I’ve never understood why we celebrate it. The Christmas/Hanukkah/Solstice/Kwanzaa complex seems difficult enough without adding another Hallmark holiday, like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. But at least everyone has had a mother and a father at some point, unlike the Valentine’s Day situation. So even if you hate your parents, you can appreciate that you are here because of them.
The 4th of July is a great holiday because you don’t have to clean the house, cook dinner, or buy presents. Labor Day and Memorial Day are at least days off, even if we don’t have fireworks and they don’t demand cooking. New Year’s Eve generally sucks, for some reason. It never feels jubilant. Chinese New Year comes at a better time of year when we have all recovered from the big holidays. Also, like Valentine’s Day, it is a red-themed holiday. So, I say, let’s skip New Year’s Eve next year and go for the New Year in February, just when the days get noticeably longer but before Daylight SavingsTime.
The Chinese also use red for funerals as well as the New Year. So, flowers you buy on Chinese New Year can do double duty for Valentine’s Day was especially difficult for a close friend of mine who lost her husband this week, and my mind, naturally, went to how to create a loving death for someone you care about. In earlier blog posts on http://www.dyingwithwisdom.com, I have suggested that a good death has to do with the chance to tell people how much you love them, to forgive them whatever trespasses you still hold onto, ask forgiveness for your own trespasses, and to connect to those you should have forgiven a while ago.
My friend’s husband hadn’t eaten or taken any water in eight days when he died, even though Google assured me people couldn’t live for more than 4 or 5 days without water. The record belongs to another friend, Debbie’s grandmother, who lived for ten days without food and water before she died. Bill could no longer read or write, care for his needs, or get out of bed. But he could listen. So, I built him a playlist on Spotify and sent it to Katrina. It was a good, long listen to some of his favorite bands from the 70s and 80s. He was listening to it and holding Katrina’s hand when he died.
If you are lucky enough to be given time with a dying friend, what can you do that might help? What could you say? Do your best to remind that person of what you know of their life. What good times did you have together? What challenges did that person overcome? What were the accomplishments they achieved? What were the things you saw together? What were your plans? If you have photographs, bring them. If you have the time to put a few songs on a thumb drive, do that. If you know of a book or poem your friend loved, read it aloud, or sit quietly and try to “be” with the person, not thinking about what you need to do next but noticing the feelings that come up and acknowledging them to yourself and your friend.
The Buddhists believe that a person enters the Bardo after death, where they will make the decisions that determine the focus of their next incarnation. That’s why it’s important to remember your own life when you are dying. After all, living can teach you a lot about life, and you want to take that with you when you go. On the other hand, Christians believe that we “slumber” until Judgment Day, when how we lived our lives will be judged for all eternity. That’s a long time, so you should have your defense prepared!
Knowing that a friend has died is a difficult moment for all of us. As I made the playlist, I had a good cry about losing Bill. Pushing 80 pretty hard now; I know this is just the first in a long line of funerals. I’m lucky enough to love many people and be loved in return. Someone once said, “When you love, you can smell the roses at your own funeral.” Loving is risky. Loving many people is riskier yet because there are more losses to suffer. As Tennyson put it, “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” That says it all, I think.
Not long ago, I read that one-half of a cohort (people all born at the same time, say, 1944) die between the ages of 76 and 82. Of course, most people I know are middle-class, relatively healthy people who are likely to beat the odds, but none of us can count on that. The people I know who are a few years older tell me they spend all their time going to funerals. Someday that will happen to us all if we live long enough, so it’s good to take a moment to think about how that will play out, maybe even think now and then of our own obsequies (fancy word supplied by my editor on this one, Daniel).
Choosing to have someone die at home can be a great way to start a good death. Having someone there who can work with the palliative care person to make sure the person who is dying is conscious and willing when friends and family come to visit seems essential. Reliving the life you had together, reflecting on both the good times and the challenges, playing the music that served as the score to your life together, and re-reading the books you enjoyed are all can contribute to a good death.
Valentine’s Day can remind us of all the love we have had, still have, and will find in the future. It can remind us that love is the answer, even if it’s not a romantic time in our own lives. Some love transcends romance. Some love transcends life itself: love of family, love of country, love of God. There are loves for which we are often willing to lay down our lives. So, every day, let’s celebrate every kind of love, even if it isn’t Valentine’s Day, for without love, there is nothing much to celebrate.