A guest essay by Paul Vang
Dad and I were talking about the “kaddish in two-part harmony” project the other night, and he muttered something about spending a career dealing with death. I’d never quite put it together that his thirty years in the Social Security Administration had had him dealing with death all the time—well, duh! So I asked him to write a guest essay about what that was like. Here it is. And for those of you who are keeping score, when Dad says “Dad,” he’s talking about my grumpy grampa. —Erin
A few years back, (five years exactly, but who’s counting?), we made a visit to my hometown in southern Minnesota and while there went to the cemetery to visit my parents’ graves. It had been a while since we’d been there so we wandered through the cemetery for a while before we found the graves.
What struck me, in our meandering walk, was that just about all the adults I remembered from growing up in and around this small town, plus a lot of contemporaries from my youth, were out there. There were neighbors, Sunday School teachers, classmates, mayors, community leaders, and business people. If I needed reinforcing of the basic fact that our time on earth is temporary, that was it.
I didn’t need reminders. Dealing with death and grieving had long been a part of my life. I spent a long career with the Social Security Administration, from 1961, when I started work just out of college, until my retirement in 1995. I know that most people think of Social Security as this pie in the sky retirement benefit. Look a little closer, and it’s also survivors and disability benefits.
There is never a shortage of death, whether it’s elderly people, teenagers, or young adults. Highway wrecks, job hazards, wars or illness – they’re all parts of the picture, and most of those grieving families filter through a Social Security office, with many of them sitting down across my desk to file claims for survivor benefits.
Many of us, reading the morning paper during breakfast, would routinely scan the obit page, mentally noting whether the last names were in our section of the alphabet (a common way to divide the workload). We learned to anticipate cycles of death. “Just watch,” one veteran employee in my first duty station said cheerily, “people die off like flies right after Christmas and after spring comes. These older people hang on because they want to be there for one more Christmas, or to see the end of winter.” And, yes, after a long North Dakota winter you do look forward to seeing robins and green grass.
So, the long parade of grieving people became part of the daily routine. Young widows and widowers wondering how they’re going to cope with the sudden challenge of being a single parent. Older people coping with the loss of their partner of half a century. Some would come alone, others with family members to support them. Some would come, still numb with shock, within a couple days after death. Some people would express relief that a long, hopeless wait was finally over, or even that the mean, worthless bastard finally did the right thing and died.
For those of us interviewing these survivors, a challenge was getting some of the basic information on how their loved one died, even when you’d just as soon not know. I think of the Air Force aircraft mechanic who died on active duty. The newspaper story just reported the accidental death. It didn’t prepare me for the young widow blurting out that he’d been sucked into a jet engine.
Some respond with anger, lashing out in surprising ways. One year I came home from my first try at downhill skiing with a broken leg, and went to work the next couple months with the leg in a plaster cast. It was a conversational icebreaker for many people who would joke about it. Then there was the widow who said, “You probably broke your leg when you were skiing and having fun. I hate you.”
Some would make us laugh. One coworker got to tell a widow that we already had a survivor claim filed for a child with another woman, and this was the first she knew about it. “That sonofabitch!” she said. “I’ll piss on his grave.”
I’ll always remember the widower who related how his wife had never gotten over her mother’s death, and he started weeping bitterly when he said her dying words were, “Oh, Mother, I’ve missed you so.”
Often we shared the grief of our customers. We might have gotten to know the deceased person when he retired, or helped them through a disability claim a few months earlier, hoping that this person suffering the ravages of a terminal illness might somehow survive long enough to collect at least one check. If you’re in Miles City, Montana, for example, after a year or so there aren’t many strangers.
Dealing with death on a day-to-day basis can be trying and I’m glad that it was just part of the job. I remember a small town mortician who quit and sold his business. He’d buried so many of his friends that after a while he just couldn’t handle it any more.
As for that long walk through the cemetery, we had a good laugh when we finally found the granite stone marking my parents’ final resting place. My dad was a farmer and he spent his working life fighting weeds. After he retired and moved to town he spent many summers fighting dandelions. At the base of the stone was the biggest, healthiest dandelion you ever wanted to see.
Some people push up daisies. Dad’s pushing up dandelions.