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Be a Lighthouse Like Patti

(This essay originally aired on Tri States Public Radio. Click here to listen.)

Grief has struck again. I just lost my closest friend in Iowa, Patti Durflinger, to cancer. I was by no means Patti’s only close friend, she was a good and true friend to countless others. She was also a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a sister, aunt, and a daughter. She was a lighthouse, living her life in service to others, a beacon of hope and light for anyone drifting in darkness. She had owned a hair salon in her early career, creating beauty and lifting the spirits of her customers. She went back to school for a master’s degree to become a teacher, mentoring high school students with social challenges whose lives were changed by her patience, wisdom, and guidance. She had served on city council and on the board of a nonprofit organization to make some desperately needed improvements to buildings on the rural town’s main street. She was involved in the performing arts, raising funds and sometimes doing the hair and makeup for various plays. She played piano at her church every Sunday. She participated in philanthropic organizations like TTT and PEO. Like sunshine in spring, she brought goodness and growth to everything she touched with endless optimism.

Even after she got diagnosed with Stage IV cancer, she continued to work tirelessly on umpteen committees, kept doing generous deeds for others, and started working on a book about the town’s unsung heroes. She continued to listen to everyone else’s problems while almost never talking about her own—even when going through chemo and radiation. She was smart, gorgeous, and funny. She could make me laugh harder than anyone else I know, a kind of shared laughter that is the best kind of medicine.

In the last weeks of her life, a hospital bed was set up in her living room. The cancer had advanced to the point where she couldn’t laugh, let alone talk, but you could see she was still present. Visitors, often bearing gifts of casseroles, cookies, and bouquets of flowers, came in droves. At one point I counted ten people packed into her kitchen alone.

There were so many people coming by I wondered if it was too much for Patti. She needed to rest, I thought. But whenever someone new came in the room, especially when it was someone she hadn’t seen in a while, her face would light up with a smile. When several people told me they were hesitant to visit because they didn’t want to impose, I told them, “Don’t worry about that. Just go see her.” So they did. And she smiled at them too. That smile tells you everything about Patti, that even as she was in pain and dying, she still radiated her signature positivity.

In the end, no one will say there were too many visitors. They will say, “Look how deeply she was loved.”

I had never seen such an outpouring of love. This was clearly a direct correlation to how Patti lived her life. She gave so much to others and now everyone—not just from her small town but from across the country—was showing up to thank her and say goodbye.

On April 23rd, the day came when the goodbye was the final one. I haven’t been this crippled by grief since my dad died in 2017. But I’m finding some consolation in the friendships, the kindness, even the laughter I witnessed at Patti’s house in those days leading up to her passing, continuing all the way through to the lunch after the funeral, and still continues. There’s a European proverb that says, “A sorrow shared is a sorrow halved.” I was not alone in my grief over losing her when I had so many others to share that grief with, and leaning on this knowledge has lightened the burden enough to get through some unspeakably difficult days.

If someone you know is sick and dying, go visit them. Don’t wait. Visit them even if they’re not sick or dying. Be the person who shows up with a casserole, cookies, flowers, or just a smile. Better yet, be a lighthouse like Patti and make such a positive impact on your community that you too have people lining up at your door when it’s your time to depart.

Rest in peace, Patti. And thank you for being the best friend I could ever ask for.