On the evening of December 23, 2014, I sat in front of my father at my mother’s favorite restaurant. It was the day before her funeral. As we were discussing the upcoming service, I started weeping. “I’m afraid no one will come,” I said, in between sobs. His lips formed into a soft smile as he said, “They will come.” “But it’ll be Christmas Eve. People are busy. What if no one shows up?” I could barely talk through my tears, but his smile never wavered. “I promise you,” he said, “they will come.”
The next afternoon, my grandfather, my brother, and I sat in the chapel at the funeral home with our families, waiting for the slow hands on the clock to tell us that it was time to greet visitors. I sat nervously, afraid that when the chapel doors opened, there would be no one behind them. A funeral director walked in five minutes early and asked us if we were ready to see friends as there were already many waiting in the lobby. My heart beat fast. Yes, we’re ready. As the doors opened wide, we saw them come in, slowly, steadily, a room full of them! People I had never met, and people I’ve known my whole life. They filled the chapel with their warmth, their chatter, their hugs, and their stories. My dad was right. They showed up.
I met my mother’s best friend and together we wept at my mother’s side. She was supposed to get lunch with my mother the day after Christmas, but that day would never come. I met her work friends and her neighbors. I even met the Chick-fil-a manager who thought so much of my mother that she spent her Christmas Eve at a funeral. I listened as her friends told me stories about my mother, things I had never known. And they all knew me and my brother instantly because they told us that she had always shared photos with them over the years. In those moments, I knew that my mother was loved.
I delivered a eulogy along with my brother, looking from the podium out to what seemed to be a sea of people. I saw my dad sitting in the pews near the back. Although he and my mother divorced many years ago, he drove 10 hours to be there for us. I spoke through tears with a smile on my face. I even laughed, embracing the relief.
When I told my dad that I was afraid no one would come, what I really meant was that I was afraid that no one thought my mother’s life mattered. It sounds silly today, but you think and worry about silly things when someone you love dies. I desperately needed to know that my mother was important to those around her, and I was afraid that others would find the holiday more important than being there for my mom.
As my mother’s family and friends walked by to say goodbye one last time after the service, I held it together as best I could. I shook hands, I gave hugs, and from my heart, I thanked every person for being there. They will never know what it meant to me that day. Towards the end of the line was my dad. When he reached me, a huge wave of grief and relief hit me all at once. As he held me in a tight hug, I breathed through sobs on his shoulder. He was right. His promise was kept. They came.
What I forgot in my grief is that people matter. We all have a purpose to fulfill. What we do for work and for pleasure and how we raise our children and treat our friends all matter. There is a circle of people around all of us who are influenced by our actions. When we die, our life will have been meaningful to them. It could be your uncle or your brother, your best friend or the girl behind the counter, your Facebook friends or your twitter followers. Your circle can be intimately small or wide-reaching. You will die one day, and your life does matter to others.
Three years later, I now make funeral arrangements with families who have the same concern I did that cold, heartbreaking Florida evening. Some worry that they won’t schedule it at a time that works for everyone. Some worry that it won’t be a big crowd because of a holiday. Some worry that a myriad of trivial things will stop people from showing up. My response is always the same. Schedule the service at a time that works for you. I promise, they will come.