“You go for the living, not the dead,” my mother always told me about condolence calls. So I always assumed that was the proper etiquette.
When my son’s allergist died suddenly, I wanted to let his family and his co-workers know how much he meant to us. We witnessed his life and he witnessed ours, and that was something I felt needed to be acknowledged.
Dr. Smith watched my 12-year-old son grow from a happy-go-lucky little boy to a pre-teen who answered “I hate school” whenever the subject came up. I always wondered if the pain in my heart showed on my face when he said that. Did he notice?
We happened to be at his office the day he died. I saw the receptionist in the lobby, crying and talking on her cell phone. While my son sat on the examining table, waiting for his shot, I asked the nurse why the receptionist was so sad.
“I shouldn’t tell you,” she said, “but Dr. Smith died suddenly today.” The room became silent. The nurse’s eyes filled with tears. My son lowered his head to his chest, to hide his tears. I was shocked. I knew it wasn’t appropriate to ask, but I did anyway: “How did he die?”
She shrugged her shoulders and said, “I don’t know.”
I saw his obituary in the newspaper and noticed something about him I never did before: He was handsome. It contained information about the memorial service. I felt compelled to go.
The church was filled to capacity, with additional rooms opened for mourners to view the service on television screens. Dr. Smith’s partner in the practice, an Orthodox Jew, was the first person to notice me. “It’s so nice of you to come,” he said, before walking away with his head down. I saw the nurse who broke the news to me — we said hello but nothing more. It was awkward. I felt out of place.
I sat down and introduced myself to the woman sitting next to me. “How did you know Dr. Smith?” I asked her.
“I didn’t,” she said. “My cousin did and he can’t be here today. So he asked me to come and represent him.” Hearing that made me feel more at ease — maybe it was right that I was there after all.
The service was beautiful. There were moving speeches by friends and relatives that painted a picture of the person he was outside of the office — a person I didn’t know. His private life was separate from his work life, and I had crossed the border without his permission. I felt like I was invading his privacy. When the priest said, “He died by his own hands,” I regretted being there. It was none of my business — this memorial service was a private matter.
After that, I didn’t hear another word the priest said. His voice sounded like Charlie Brown’s teacher to me. I kept thinking, “How can I go back to that office and face all of his co-workers? They know that I know — and that I shouldn’t know. My mother was wrong.”
After the service, I found Dr. Smith’s son in the crowd and did what I set out to do in the first place: Give the family, or at least a representative from the family, my condolences. He reached out to me and I hugged him. He felt hollow, as if he were empty inside. “Your father cured my son of his cat allergy,” I said nervously. He looked at me and attempted a smile. I kept talking: “He always treated him like an adult, not a child, and that was really something. We’re going to miss him.” The grieving young man nodded his head and disappeared into the crowd.
That evening, I told my husband about the funeral. “I shouldn’t have gone,” I told him. “It was none of my business.” He assured me that I didn’t do anything wrong but I didn’t believe him.
And I had to face my mistake. I didn’t have a choice — my son needed to resume his allergy shots. As we walked through the door, the office manager smiled warmly at me and said, “It was really nice of you to go.” I was surprised — I hadn’t even seen her there, but the nurse or the other doctor must have told her. She even shared a funny story about the doctor with me, smiling at the memory. And yet, I still felt embarrassed for going.
A few months later, I was back at the doctor — this time it was my annual, well-woman exam. As my doctor prepared his instruments, we made small talk. The difficult Chicago winter came up, and I blurted out, “I think my son’s allergist committed suicide because of it.”
My doctor looked at me in disbelief. Stunned by what I just said, I confessed to him how guilty I felt for attending the memorial service because it was none of my business. “You did the right thing,” he said, and began to cry. “When my father died, and his patients showed up at the funeral, it meant a lot to us, to know that he was important to people outside of the family.”
I started to cry, too. He handed me a tissue. As I wiped away my tears, the guilt I had been subconsciously holding onto melted away. And I realized, at that moment, that my mother had been right: You go to a condolence call for the living, and not the dead.