I don’t know if I can do this, I thought as I stood staring into the water-filled eyes of my family. My Grandfather lay next to me on a gurney, shrouded in paisley-printed garments sheltering his cold body from the living. A brumous chill swept the sky that Sunday morning complimenting the various shades of black and grey that walked into the funeral home that very afternoon.
My Grandpa had passed not even 24 hours earlier, sending my Nana into a paralysis of grief while my mother and her two sisters were left to arrange the details of the service. As death goes, into our life enters a barrage of strangers disguised as distant relatives who were now being hosted in my Nana's home. "We'd like you to give his eulogy. We think you should do it because you do this kind of thing all the time," those closest to me requested.
I didn't do this kind of thing all the time. I speak in front of people, yes, but not pertaining to a subject so personal. I’m not usually required to be this vulnerable, this raw. And with less than 24 hours to prepare while being a newly single mom of a one-year-old, could I pull this off? The pressure mounted as I thought of the life I now had to commemorate in 10 minutes or less. Would I fail my Grandpa? Could I make my Nana — an articulate storyteller herself — proud? Would my words resonate with anyone else, breathing life into the memories that they all held so dear?
Let me explain their request. My vocation is in social services where I serve unemployed and underemployed individuals as a Career Coach. This role enables me to help others identify within themselves the power of their narrative as it applies to their search for a fulfilling career. With a background in supporting survivors of human trafficking, helping individuals find meaningful, valued and dignified work carries a twofold purpose for me. To do this, I teach self-marketing classes at both a local non-profit and a community college in my city. So, I am in front of people speaking for six months out of the year. Piece of cake, right?
I'll admit that public speaking is not foreign to me, albeit somewhat fear-inducing regardless of the situation. However, putting my heart in my mouth and gnashing through pain while choking back tears of loss as I stand emotionally naked certainly is. I get vulnerable in front of my classes but not this kind of vulnerable.
I thought of my grandmother, Nana. If this could help her — if I could lift just one burden from her heavy heart — I would do it. So, I wrote. I attempted sleep. Then I wrote again.
While delivering my Grandpa's eulogy, there were tears laced with laughter. Laughter, what good medicine. My grandparents' song played through the speakers as I returned to my seat next to my Nana, wiping the streams from my eyes and nose with a sharp, crumpled tissue. Clutching her hand harder than when I was a child on my first day of school, I recognized our roles as they mirrored each other. Her, then, not knowing the bullies that awaited me. Me, now, not knowing the anguish she will experience in the coming days. My Nana erupted in heaving sobs so violent that I could almost feel her soul split in two. While she recognizably remained, the other half — the half who had created 44 years of life with my Grandpa — drowned beneath her sorrow.
United in our grief, we returned to my Nana's home where there was food, a comfortable place to sit, and where I was thanked by many for my words. People shared with me their memories of my Grandpa, memories that illuminated the pieces of his life to which I was a stranger. Throughout these exchanges, life was poignantly affirmed.
The next morning, I found myself in front of a class of all women who were struggling to find jobs. I don't know if I can do this today, I thought once more. I didn’t feel strong enough, whole enough to empathize with each woman in that room. Some were facing the loss of their home, others enduring an existential loss of self. My loss was different still but we were all grieving.
During a visioning exercise, I asked each to pick three photos representing one of the following: 1) Their current situation in life. 2) Their dream job. 3) Their next step toward that job. Voluntarily, one-by-one, they all held up their three pictures and explained the meaning behind each. I stood humbled, enveloped by their courage. With every reason given for choosing a particular image, my strength was restored. The students imbued such beautiful stories into the photos, all unique and carefully crafted. They supported one another completely, allowing their perceived differences to fade as they unified in their suffering and in their perseverance. One held up a small Polaroid photo featuring an outstretched arm holding onto three red balloons juxtaposed against cotton ball clouds and cerulean blue skies. She simply said, "This reminded me to let go. Just let go and let god."
I'm not particularly religious but I suddenly found myself resisting the urge to burst out in tears. Or was it laughter? Of course ... of course! My ubiquitous teachers — my students.
The women in my class that day have no idea how they helped me move through my own loss and begin to heal. It was the sharing of their experiences and the compassion they had for one another that gave me the strength I needed to push through the day. How silly of me to so easily forget that Monday's are my favorite days of the week and that I inevitably get more than I give in my work. Those resilient women are my why; why I love my job and why I feel such a strong sense of purpose in my work. How fortunate I am to see suffering made useful, and to be reminded that we are here to live and love and lose and then live some more. Were it not for suffering, how would we truly know joy? I left class that day encouraged to celebrate this one and precious life because it is fleeting and fickle and fabulous.
Suffering takes many forms. Compassion does, too. Aren't those the most beautifully coalesced partners you’ve ever seen glide across the dancefloor?
That evening as I wrapped my spirited, fiercely bright daughter tightly in my arms, I reflected on the message I delivered in closing at my Grandpa's funeral:
"This reminded me of what matters most in the end: our stories. Our stories have the power to unite, to remove bias, to ignite empathy, to fuel joy. If you were to write your own eulogy, would it consist of a list of accomplishments and accolades earned or rather the life you changed? Is it the family you not only created but nourished? Did the people you love know just how much? Did you rise in the morning with a sense of purpose? Did you go out into the world to fulfill that purpose? Have you shown compassion to those suffering? Have you lifted sorrow from a heavy heart? Did you laugh often and with wild abandon? Did you take risks, leaving not one regret behind?
In honor of my Grandpa, I implore you to ask yourselves these questions. What really defines a life well-lived? And then go out and live that life.”
I hugged my daughter even tighter. I then turned on her favorite song, put her small, pudgy hands in mine and we danced together — giggling, shimmying and shaking in the living room with our dogs at our heels.
Dance on, Compassion, dance on!
Tasha McGhie is a Career Coach for a non-profit organization. She works with individuals on their journey toward finding fulfilling employment, helping them overcome crisis and experience financial well-being and sustainability. A lover of cheese, both literal and figurative, she laughs her hardest when watching dark British comedies. Finding that smiling elevates her mood, when she’s not writing, you may see her with a pen in her teeth while driving during morning rush hour. She believes that happiness is contagious, perception is everything and loves reading limericks to her daughter.
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