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Have You Lost Someone You Love? This Life Coach’s Beautiful Insight Will Help You Keep Them Close

Have You Lost Someone You Love? This Life Coach’s Beautiful Insight Will Help You Keep Them Close

By Nancy Steiner
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On the morning of November 1, while at the gym, kvetching about shoulder pain to my trainer, my cell phone rang. It was the nurse caring for my mother.

My mother, just shy of her 97th birthday, had dementia. Her strain of the illness was gentle and slow. It had not gotten to the point where I was unrecognizable to her.

The nurse tells me that if I hurry, I can get to my mother before she dies. Suddenly my shoulder pain is not worth another second's concern.

I arrived at my mother's house twenty-five minutes later. She was in her bed, her favorite place, in the same house she's lived in for 68 years.

Letting go of the house is almost as sad as letting go of my mother. They have both offered me the extraordinary experience of always being in my life. No matter what happened in the world, or simply in my day, no matter where I was, I always knew my mother was at home, our home, where very little had changed.

That house, where my family of origin thrived, remained intact. Piles of New Yorker magazines, some dating back 80 years, filled the attic. Books sat on the shelves like soldiers, brittle, dusty relics of a world gone by. Record albums from as far back as the 1920s were reminders of life's constant changes. There were pieces of a chessboard that stood as throwbacks to the days when cigarettes were placed on end tables in small glass cups. In the kitchen, the Settlement and Betty Crocker cookbooks, with their splattered pages, remained. In the sunroom, I could still smell my father's Cuban cigars, even though he had passed 20 years ago.

And so, there too, was my mother, about to pass away, where so much time and love had passed before her.

My sisters were both out of town, so my mother and I had the remarkable experience of sharing her death—just us two—as it crept upon her. I entered her room, where I had sought refuge from imagined burglars and fighting sisters, where I came to confess my sins and deliver my report cards, and where I learned to "knock before entering."

Only this time, I did not knock. I walked to her bedside, crouched down, lifted her, and held her frail, bony body in my arms. I spoke my final words, unrehearsed yet satisfying. She was still warm, and that was how I knew she was still there, whatever that meant. I seized the moment and I quietly sang to her "Till There Was You"—a song we both love.

My mother loved to sing and was a sort of savant who knew all the words to the American Songbook—by heart. She was rarely off-key. Even during the deepest days of her dementia, she and I would sing songs from the 1930s and 40s. I knew the words because my mother would let me stay up late to watch reruns of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies. She never missed a beat.

One time, she landed in the hospital because of a fall. When I got to her gurney, I found her happy as a lark and unafraid. We sang together the old standard, "Isn't This a Lovely Day," and I recorded her on my iPhone, covered in her hospital gown, as though she was singing in a cabaret. She had no clue where she was; it could not have mattered less.

Our singing together was the glue that kept us connected. Even when she was so far gone in her demented state, she was present when we sang, in a way, and proud to join me and be in tune with the joy.

And so I sang to her next to her as she lay in bed. I never let go of her hand until the time came when I had to.

I knew my mother would die, but I never knew when. I had prepared myself, or so I thought, since the onset of her dementia eight years earlier. Each time I saw her, I sensed her slipping down a slope from which she would not return. I was at peace with this because she never was in pain.

My mother's death brings home to me a love I know well: the love you discover in death. I have lost many close friends before they turned 60. No one I know has lost as many friends to early deaths as I have. Once a friend of mine joked, "Gee, maybe I am at risk just by being your friend." I never thought that was funny.

So I think about death a lot, not because I am afraid, but because it has been such a part of my life this past decade. And also because five years ago, I almost died at 59, when a case of diverticulitis caused my colon to rupture, and there was an accompanying abscess right next to it. I went from feeling so unlucky that such a bizarre thing happened to unfettered gratitude for being alive. I don't think I have loved life more than when I nearly lost it and every day since.

There comes a profound affection for those I have lost after their death. Who knew you could find happiness in your heart after someone you love leaves? I am here to tell you, you can, and if you desire, you will.

Loving someone who has died is a blessing. You find the person all around you in the biggest and smallest signs. Take my mother: I never realized how much of her I carry in me, in my house—the way the curtains are designed, the way I do not like bold primary colors on pillows or rugs or walls, that my go-to dinner of "spaghetti pomodoro" matches hers. Whatever restaurant she was in, no matter the menu, she would ask, "Can you do a dish of spaghetti pomodoro?" She usually got her way and relished the meal. "This is a poem!" she would say, and she meant it.

I hold onto my late loved ones because it keeps them alive inside of me. I appreciate them in a new way, an active way, a memory-savoring way that never dies.

My husband asked me recently if I had gotten to the point of grasping the "never again" factor with my mother's death. I said, "No, because there is no "never again". She is with me, always and forever.

When someone dies, if you try, you can hear their voice, speak to them in the shower or while driving or walking alone, or remember their expressions, hear the sound of their sneeze, their sighs, the inflections of their tones, and hold tight to their details of distinction. I do not let go! I do not consider them only a part of my past. In loving them, I am with them.

I tell you this so you, too, can find love in death. It is right there. Don't look any further than the front door of your heart. It is, after all, your home. Open it, and seize the sensation of being able to carry on in a brand new version of your past as present.

There is no trick here—no secret formula—no other person who can take you to the place inside yourself that can bring to life your beloved in death except you.

I invite you to join me, to open the valve, and let the love live.

Nancy Steiner is a master-certified life/executive coach and the founder of Steiner Coaching Solutions. She is a mentor/coach at The Harvard Business School and a coach to a group of women ages 60-plus seeking comfort and joy through a safe and supportive place. To learn more, visit

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