The most important thing that you can do for someone is to attend the wake of their parents. At least that's what a Jesuit told me while I was an undergraduate at Fordham. He often encouraged us to attend wakes and funerals of our classmates' parents and grandparents. It was something that many of us found as a difficult thing to do.
So I have tried to heed his words and have found the good Father to be very wise indeed. Yesterday, I attended the wake of my college roommate's father. He was a wonderful guy, who flew for Pan-AM for ages, retiring, not easily, in his older years. He learned much from his travels which literally took him all over the world, making friends and acquaintances that he would cherish and tell stories about every time I had the pleasure of being with him.
Obviously the apple hasn't fallen far from the tree. This big, warm, Italian family (Joe--the roommate in question) has 7 brothers and sisters all of whom are close with one another, is a collection of brilliant, friendly and respectable people--just like dear old dad.
Joe's dad lived to be nearly 89 years old. When I met him he was 71 years old with his youngest son just starting college, and I, sharing a room with his crazy rebel son. These were two men who came to know one another well--traveling to Australia, starting a family foundation, generously helping many in need with the family name curiously in the background--never hogging the limelight.
Often, we are all dumbfounded at what we should say or do at a wake or funeral. I keep a running collection of stupid things people have said to me at a wake or a funeral. We are all uncomfortable with death and it seems to bring out the worst in us...we are often at our most awkward moments while others are similarly at their most vulnerable. I can even remember saying some weird things to people myself when they lost a young person--especially if they died unexpectedly (see, 11, Sept. 2001).
So what should we say when someone's life ends?
The same Jesuit had the wisdom that I close with today:
"You need not say anything. In fact, saying something is often meaningless as people tend not to remember what you said..."
"What they do remember is that you were there."
If you would, please remember Phillip Patane, Sr. and his family today in your personal prayers.
And when you can...attend a wake.
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