Melissa missing Joan: Sudden death vs. long goodbye

I’ve been thinking a lot about how Melissa Rivers lost her mother, as a lot of my friends and clients have – suddenly, with no warning and no time to say goodbye. I’ve also been thinking of the way I lost mine – to Alzheimer’s Disease, slowly, over years, with plenty of time to say goodbye, and then plenty of time to say things but without understanding.

This is not a conversation it’s usual to have, as we all know two things – first, one way cannot really be better than the other as they each have their particular pains and graces, and second, we don’t get to choose. But perhaps we can comfort each other a bit by recognizing the small graces in each.

Melissa went from one day having the most vibrant, vivid, alive mother imaginable, to suddenly a gaping absence. I loved the report that she did have enough time to have a celebrity designer in to make the hospital room a fantasyland with lights and decorations her mother would have loved. I hope that’s true. Anything we can do to keep our loved one’s spirit alive we should do.

And then Melissa and Joan’s friends did that with a memorial service that reportedly rang with laughter and barbs. Who else would bring Howard Stern in as a eulogist?

Ours was different. I watched my funny (okay, not as funny as Joan… but who was?), smart, independent mother fade and glimmer out over eight years, more like ten as I look back now. She outlived her friends, and had retreated in her later years. So we planned the right memorial for her. My kids, my husband and I, along with our long time minister, sat alone in the church sanctuary on a Sunday afternoon. We sat in a circle that included a picture of her, and took a look at some of the things that told her story.

I’d found a poem on yellowed paper entitled “A Prayer for Courage,” and wondered out loud when in her life this had originated – when she left her hometown to venture into the wider world, when my father died at 34?  I asked one of the kids to read a letter she’d sent home to the family from college, and another to read a message she’d scrawled on the back of a deposit slip in purple ink: “One day you’re a peacock, the next day you’re a feather duster.” We told stories, chuckled, cried a little but not much. She would have loved it – a quiet, low key affair with a small guest list.

For those differences, Melissa and I have this in common – we are both only children, of mothers who were single for most of our lives. We owed a lot and gave a lot. Which was worse, and which was better, her sudden shock or my slow goodbye? Her vast, inclusive sendoff, or my small intimate one? Neither – as we just get what we get, we try to fit our response to their legacy.

Would it help Melissa to know that it was sort of a blessing that she didn’t have to watch her mother decline for years, relinquish her independence, suffer the indignities that come with a slow demise? Not at the moment probably, but over time, it may be a thought with some comfort in it.

Would it have helped me to lose my mom suddenly to avoid all of that? No, of course not. I wouldn’t have agreed to give her up any sooner than I had to, any more than Melissa would. It’s a good thing we are not called upon to decide.

So, maybe today Melissa would like part of my mom’s tattered poem, author unknown:

Make me braver. Life brings

such blinding things!

Help me to keep my sight,

Help me to see aright –

That out of dark, comes light.


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