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“This is not just a piece of paper: It is my mom.” The words came to me in a moment when I could say nothing else. My mom had just died, and I was going through the bureaucratic details that one has to deal with in the aftermath. I had discovered the paperwork of endings, the conclusion of a person’s life, is not for the faint of heart.

It was different while my mother was dying. Though the preparation was at times unbearable, the strength to continue came from the support and care of loved ones. And, if you are lucky, there is also the boundless support of dedicated caregiving professionals. Without them, my mom’s final days would have been a worse nightmare of indignities and ever-increasing pain.

It is in the shelter of this warm cocoon, with hugs, tears and expressions of condolences, that a bereaved person is sent into the real world to set in motion the unravelling of a person’s life: cancelling of this, stop payments on that – satisfying the legal requirements of the law. Nothing can be initiated until the process gets under way.

Often, this means communicating with people you don’t know. You need to find the words to convey your purpose and intent, while struggling with the reality of why you are doing it. You can only hope to meet with a little compassion and empathy along the way. A “sorry for your loss“ to make the unbearable, bearable.

The first time it happened I thought it was an aberration. I had walked into a bank to inform the teller I needed a bank draft to pay for my recently deceased mother’s cremation. I handed over the death certificate and the contract with the funeral home, identifying the exact amount required. The transaction was completed in silence, the papers returned. “Did I need any cash?” I was asked. “No, thank you,” was my response. I walked away thinking, how unusual. No condolences for my mother’s very recent death. “Oh well,” I thought. Perhaps the teller was uncomfortable.

The second time it happened I reacted differently. I had to meet with a bank representative to review the joint account. Upon providing the death certificate and a brief summary of my purpose, the meeting was instantly all business. No mention of my mom, no “sorry for your loss.”

I felt indignation burning in my gut and knew I was faced with two choices. One was to leave immediately, never to return, and the other was to speak for my mom, to establish some dignity for her departed soul.

In choosing the latter, I defended my mother. I said that the death certificate was more than a piece of paper, that it represented my mom. Acknowledge that I am here for her. That her life mattered. Acknowledge that it is a difficult time for me. And please learn that when someone hands you a death certificate, stop. Consider this life that was. Pay respect to the bearer of that certificate. You don’t know their pain. I apologized for the bluntness of my message but said I hoped it was a life lesson for the recipient, and would help others that may follow me.

The third time it happened, I handled it differently again. I had learned from my father’s estate that one arm of the government does not necessarily speak to another. So, naturally, I had to seek the service of the federal government to close out my mother’s files. After a lengthy wait, it was finally my turn. I introduced my mother’s death, produced the paperwork in question and provided a reason for my visit.

The clerk glanced briefly, and then asked me “What is all this for?” and had I filled out an application? I had no idea what application was being referred to. I only knew that, once again, my mother’s death certificate was not acknowledged, her life was already without form. That I, the bearer of that certificate, was merely a vessel – just another person in the lineup that had to be processed. The insensitive response sent me into an instantaneous feeling of deep loss and despair.

I asked him, “What has happened to people’s manners? Can no one respectfully acknowledge a piece of paper that certifies the end of a person’s life?” I was there to tidy the details of my mother’s life because I needed help. But I also needed to have my mother acknowledged.

Immediately following my third encounter, I was waiting in a grocery-store line. I noticed the young cashier looking at me and smiling. I returned the smile, and when it was my turn, we exchanged pleasantries. Then she said, “You know, you really have the most beautiful eyes.” My eyes filled with tears. I thanked her, and told her how much I appreciated her compliment, but that today my eyes were sad because I had just lost my Mom.

Although the cashier couldn’t have known this, I have my mom’s eyes. She noticed them, and took the time to tell me so.

I left the store feeling stronger because one busy stranger made a tiny difference. She wasn’t handed a piece of paper, but she saw something in my face that must have alerted her to take a second look. And she saw. And she expressed feeling for my loss. Because of her kindness, my journey for that day was made lighter.

How many times we look but don’t see, listen but don’t hear. Often we speak, or don’t say a word, without considering the impact our words could have. You never know when a simple smile, gesture or kind word could make a world of difference.

Lynn Krzywiecki lives in Sarnia, Ont.

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