Mourning is private and personal unless, of course, the deceased is larger than life - a princess or a TV hero. Under those circumstances the whole world turns itself into a never-ending funeral cortege.
Writing about our public display for larger-than-life people who die, Thomas Lynch, author of "The Undertaking" and a funeral director as well, offered these words in a recent New York Times op-ed piece: "Perhaps if we were more willing to leave ourselves open to grief - deregulated, unplanned, unruly, potentially embarrassing - we'd have less free-floating, unattached heartache to spend on the packaged bereavement opportunities the media serves up. Maybe if we were better at wakes and funerals, those ancient parlor games by which we once buried or burned our own dead more publicly and mourned our local losses openly, we could let our princesses rest in peace."But what happens after the flowers wilt and the tears stop? What is "proper behavior" for the survivors, particularly a surviving spouse who has outlived a long marriage? It's not the public mourning but the private behavior that worries the writer of this letter:
Dear Lois: My mother died in March of '97. My dad is 82 and, until just recently, has coped very well. They were married for 55 years. After her death, he let me know I didn't need to "worry" about him. He is in excellent health and very independent. In July of this year he left for a vacation while I was out of town. He bought an RV, although he had told me he would not leave until I returned. He was gone for four weeks and called home just one time.
When he returned, he tearfully asked me if I thought it would be OK if he started seeing someone. I told him I wanted him to be happy. A few days later I learned from his golf buddies that he had taken a woman, 20 years younger, on his vacation in the RV. I also discovered he had spent several hundred dollars at a local department store in the town where this woman lives, although he met her just days before their trip. His friends say he never returns their calls. My brother had planned to take his vacation with Dad, but apparently Dad left with his new friend. Should I be worried? What should I do if he ever decides to tell me about this woman? Should I meet her if he wants me to?
Dear Carol: If I were you, I'd be worried if Dad were camping on my doorstep in his RV. It sounds to me as if your father has decided that life is for the living and is trying to figure out the best way to get on with life. I wouldn't worry in advance. Who knows? You may meet her and find her a delightful and proper companion. Since she's 20 years younger, I wouldn't guess that a 60-something woman is an inappropriate choice. I should think it would be a comfort to you to know that he hasn't been out searching for women but spent a period of bereavement and adjustment. But if you have worries, why not sit down with Dad and ask him if wants to tell you about any people in his life now who matter to him? Your father sounds like the kind of man who wants your approval but hasn't figured how to get it. Give him a hand by lending him an ear. And then greet his new friend with an open mind. You hate the idea of a woman replacing Mom (and I can't blame you), but it's Dad's life, and if you've read some of the letters from unhappy daughters and sons who are faced with handling parents who can't manage their lives and are in financial ruins, you'd be proud of your dad.
Dear Lois: I am a woman 49 years old. My husband is 59. Three years ago I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He left before my pills kicked in because he was bored with my depression. Is this common?
Dear Jane: Unfortunately there are spouses unable to deal with the alternating depressed and manic episodes caused by bipolar illness. Since you are under a doctor's treatment (I assume your pills are prescription), perhaps it would be possible for you or a member of your family to contact your husband and let him know that you now are under treatment and in better control of your mood swings and all your life. I wish you well. It's not easy to deal with mood disorders - and even more difficult when a runaway spouse is part of the story.
Dear Lois: In writing about assistance for the elderly living alone, you didn't mention what I consider the best source of assistance and referrals: the local senior center. Most urban and suburban communities have a center that is a wonderful resource for all kinds of alternatives when help is needed: referrals for potential roommates, part-time chore helpers, licensed vocational nurses, live-in caregivers. I found the local senior center a help when my mother broke her hip and needed home assistance. If the local senior center is not in the phone book, ask the county government office to assist in finding senior services.
Dear Susan: Thank you for adding that helpful information. What many letter-writers are saying these days is that it is possible to find care. What isn't always possible is a way of finding funds to pay for professional help because so many are beyond the budgets of retired persons living on limited incomes.