One month ago, I lost my partner of 30 years. Since his death, I have been plunged, like so many other survivors, into the immediate demands such a loss produces--the planning, the problem solving, the comforting of others. Beyond that, there's the need to handle all the tedious, essential, and often overwhelming unfinished business of his life. As any survivor knows, it's a grinding process of interactions with friends, acquaintances, vendors, lawyers--a painful addition to the misery of longing and sadness as I take the steps necessary to keep my own life going.

As difficult as all these challenges have been, I knew to expect them. I was not prepared, however, for a particularly unsettling situation that occurs with disturbing frequency. I have been astonished to find myself confronted over and over with a question that both offends and confounds me. In a variety of ways, and with a fascination that appalls me, people ask,"What did you inherit?"

How could anyone consider the possibility of material acquisition more important than the hole in my soul?

Though I have written repeatedly about the intrusive curiosities sparked by death, I never realized before how terribly cruel such questions can seem. To one who would give anything at all, any material possession imaginable, to have the loved one back for five minutes, the question of inheritance is both incredible and agonizing. So it is not a question that merely asks for basic information; it is a question that inflicts presumably unintended pain.

The final blow came last week when a woman acquaintance saw me crying as I left the photo shop where I'd learned that my film had not turned out, that the last photographs of my loved one were blank. When the acquaintance asked what was wrong, I told her about the death. She stepped up close to me, leaned forward, then asked, "Did you get any money?"

Dumbly, I stared at her as if she were a ghoul. How could anyone consider the possibility of material acquisition more important than the hole in my soul?

Carol Staudacher is an author and grief educator whose regular column for Beliefnet focuses on the adult grieving process. Her books include 'Men and Grief,' and 'Beyond Grief: A Practical Guide for Recovering from the Death of a Loved One.'

I knew I needed to come up with some way to transform the question when I heard it, to allow it to make sense to me. So I thought about it: What did I inherit?

Many, many gifts. Among them, I inherited a fervent conviction about the importance of education. As a child, my partner never had a bedroom, rarely enjoyed recreation of any sort, was not encouraged to follow any dream, however slight. At the age of 15, he left home to work in a factory. Yet he became dean of students at a university, an art professor, a playwright, a painter, a designer. He spoke five languages, told jokes in three, and could match almost any symphony with its composer. Most important, the deprivation of his early years made him especially alert to the struggles of those around him. He became a mentor to anyone lacking a path ahead, actively recruiting people into the realm of their own possibilities. He was evangelical about school, urging it on everyone, from the gas station attendant to a hard-pressed mother of five. He got them into college, then praised and encouraged them, genuinely delighting in their progress. I inherited the joy of those renewed lives.

When he met me in my 20s, his enthusiasm and encouragement were a major force in my own life as well. I inherited his faith in my creativity, the absolute conviction that I could achieve any reasonable goal. I inherited his assurance that the slightest pinpoint of an idea could become a reality.

Even though I was already in love with the written word, I inherited from him an increased respect for books. My partner's library had over 7,000 volumes, each one carefully and lovingly selected. Before buying a book, he would pick it up, delicately lift the bookjacket to reveal the cover, would run his hand over the embossed title, remark on the texture and tint of the paper, point out the credit given for cover design. Each precious volume became a familiar friend to be admired, visited often, sometimes even memorized.

I inherited the memory of a particular wild winter day shared on the Mendocino coast of California. Because the two of us rarely had time off, we were determined to remain on the beach despite a heavy storm. We built an immense barricade of driftwood, nursed a spindly fire, then scrunched together to watch the roiling sea until the sky turned black, until we could only hear the churning surf in the darkest distance.

I inherited the impulse to share a comical encounter, a fine wine, an unusual piece of architectural design, a poem, an insight, a political perspective, the taste of sautéed salmon, a view of the wooded hillside in the snow.

During our last long conversation, he quoted a line to me that he had just read, a line he'd discovered and, characteristically, wanted to share. It was "Wonder occurs when there is an inability of the imagination and intelligence to fuse."

Now I can assert, without hesitation, that the gifts he left me give me a sense of wonder--because they do defy both my intelligence and my imagination. They are abundant and rich beyond measure.

So when people ask you what you inherited, don't recoil. Tell them. Tell them, because each of us has our own precious pieces of a unique legacy. It is a legacy of the heart, the mind, and the spirit. No one can buy it, sell it, or trade it. It's ours. And it is the only inheritance worth talking about.

Do you have comments about this column, or questions you would like Carol to address in future columns? While she cannot respond personally to each message, Carol will select representative questions to answer in her column. Send an email to:columnists@staff.beliefnet.com. And be sure to include "Carol Staudacher" in the subject line.

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