Today, the world says goodbye to one of our best known idea people, Dr. Stephen Hawking.His thought provoking ideas has served to challenge and enlighten. He will be missed, but his ideas and how he lived his life in the face of health obstacles will remain. I cannot hope to cover his life and achievements better than the myriad of articles being written today. I just want to say to him, thank you for your ideas and spirit.
When I am not fighting the good fight for family’s rights in death, I drive a school bus. I love the bus and it allows me to have enough free time to commit to my death work while I raise my family and care for my mom. I have a full life. I love it. On the bus I love listening to my little ones as they begin to put together ideas they have learned in school. Sometimes what they say is so thought provoking because they see things from a fresh point-of-view. I also enjoy how the bus route becomes a community. Throughout the year and year to year, the route takes on an identity and hierarchy asserts itself, and I, as the driver, must be on the top of that hierarchy or chaos reigns on the bus. The community on the bus is never stagnant. Children graduate and move on, while new younger students arrive to fill their spots. I find this all very fascinating. I have a route which I have had for years. This year, I had fewer stops than in previous years which made my mornings and afternoons easier, but also let me know that larger changes were coming. The school year progressed as it always does, but by the end of January, I began to see some changes in behavior I had not seen in a long time. Then last week one student left the route. The following day, the other kids were more chatty than they had been in long time. They let me know that more than a few would be leaving the school at the end of the year. Then it hit me. The “band was breaking up” and these kids were going through a grieving process. Luckily for them, they have a driver who knows a thing or two about grief. I was then able to read the situation for what it was—grief. Once I was able to interpret their behavior, things settled done. Children feel things deeply, but might not always be able to express them in ways adults can understand. We need to be open to what they have to tell us when they are ready to reveal their feelings. I am not a counselor on the bus, I drive them and keep them safe as best I can, but I can and do lend an ear to their concerns and they know that I listen to them. Sometimes the kindest gift we can give- is to allow people the space and time to tell us what they need to when they are ready to tell us.
Most weeks the idea I present for this blog kicks around my head for some time until it becomes fully formed. Sometimes, however, I wake up on a Wednesday morning and have no idea what topic I will write on. Today was one of those rare days. I have a topic I am working on, but it is not ready. The idea needs more research, and so I was left without an idea. This morning at my day job I asked two of my friends who know what I do, “Give me a topic on death. What do you want to know that you do not already know?” They looked at me with such shock and horror streaming from their eyes. It was as if I had just committed some taboo, which of course I did. I forget that even when people know what I do, and know how important this topic is to my heart, that they themselves are not comfortable talking about death. This reaction also told me I need to be more open myself with the topic of biological death. I need to be more attentive to those who appear open the topic. I hope one day that the topic of biological death will not be such a taboo topic. Sometimes I feel dejected by the work I do. Sometimes I feel that the work it too much and wonder what change can I really make. When I meet up with an experience like I had this morning, I am reminded of the importance of my work and how suited I really am to it. I must encourage people whenever I can to talk about death so that when they must deal with death, they might have some place to begin their work. To be fair to my friends, once the horror of my question passed, they were able to give me suggestions which I might cover in the future.
What happens when you must plan a funeral for someone you love who has died with little to no planning for his or her funeral? If we have done our homework, and researched what we want to happen in our time of death, we can use that information to help plan for the funeral. If we know our rights and are aware of the sales techniques of funeral directors and family service counselors (cemetery sales persons) we will be better able to plan a funeral from scratch. We will have a leg up on the rest of the population who may not know their rights in death. Knowing what awaits you in a funeral home’s or cemetery’s office allows you to make informed decisions. Knowledge gives you options even if you do not feel like you have many. Knowledge is power especially in a situation where a provider does not expect the consumer to have much of knowledge. This is the good news.
What happens if you have all the knowledge and still the options available are not ideal? What if time is an issue? What if you want to spend more time with your family and shopping around for a funeral is not what you want to do? What if you have to cross state lines with a body? What if the options you had hoped for are hard to come by, are too expensive, or you cannot find a funeral director who sees your vision? We then take a deep breath and put things into perspective. We decide what is most important. We choose an option we can live with, even if it is not the best. We do our best that is all we can do. We ought not to spend our time trying to do this funeral thing perfectly. That might just be an impossibility anyway. The end of life happens once in a lifetime. We must honor this time. It will not come around again. Planning a funeral takes a lot out of a person emotionally. When you have to plan a funeral at the time of death, planning a funeral is even more difficult. Be gentle with yourself and do not let the planning get in the way of connecting with those who have come to remember your loved one.
Today is St. Valentine’s Day and the whole world seems to be absorbed in romantic love. If you have a sweetie, the world seems so bright and the day filled with promise. Not everyone, however, has a sweetie and the day can then seem so cruel. On Valentine’s Day we might feel more alone than on any other day of the year. Valentine’s Day should not be a day of sadness. It should be a day of love. Today, let us not focus on romantic love; instead let us focus on those we love – those who fill our lives with beauty and joy. Perhaps we might think of those who need our love, but are so hard to love. Perhaps today we might begin to lighten their load. Maybe we could show love to our friends and family. Love binds us one to another through millions of acts of l love and brings light to some of our darkest days. Love ties us to each other in this life and connects us through the generations. Today, let us act in love with purpose this Valentine’s Day.
When planning your end of life plan, you might want to include personal information for your obituary. This aspect of planning might have an unexpected impact on how you live or view your life once you begin thinking about what information you might want to include. You might include the name and birth and death dates of your mother and father. You might also include your date of birth. As it stands, this basic information might sound sterile. You might want to produce a more personal document. What about your life story? What about who you are? You might next begin by considering what kinds of other things you might want to have people remember about you. Consider looking at some achievements or important moments in your life you would want people to know about you. Death planning can be so heavy. You look squarely at your life and acknowledge that the you as we know you will one day no longer be. That is a huge shift in thinking and often once you acknowledge this, and begin planning your life will take on a more focused attitude. You might see your life more clearly and begin doing those things you have put off doing. Writing your obituary or providing information for your obituary is an interesting exercise. All it takes is you sitting down with a pen and paper or like me a laptop and begin to tell the story. If telling a story is too much, make a list of what you want remembered of you. There is no wrong way to do this. This process might help focus on what you find most important and you might see a pattern emerge about yourself. This process might just give you more insight into your daily life and your inner workings. As the other aspects of end of life planning, this process should enhance your life, not detract from it. Remember this is about things you love and your achievements. These things do not necessarily have to be worldly achievements; they just have to be those things you feel most proud of or things that have given you great joy. Just begin.
There is a TV commercial these days selling end of life insurance. The commercial claims that the average funeral costs over $8000. The true cost of an average funeral is closer to $10,000, which does not take into consideration the cost of burial. How have we come to a place where dying costs so much? How have we come to a place where we require people to hire a private entity? Makes me wonder how state governments who have imposed such a heavy burden think of the people they serve. They must either have no regard for the people, or they must think that their people are just not intelligent enough to fill out paperwork. My heart is so heavy for those who cannot pay the high price of death. Some must leave their loved one’s body behind for the local government to care for them. Some families go into debt just so that they can care for their loved one’s body in a manner they deem worthy. Some must make choices in death care that they would rather not make, just because the price is easier to manage. The industry seems to chug along with only those who see the destruction and corruption stand up and try to make a change. I think $10,000 is too much for an average cost for death. Do you? If you do, write your representatives on the State and Federal levels. Tell them what you think about this practice. The average cost is too high. The average cost leaves out so many of our fellow human beings. The average cost is too high, and absolutely unjust.
For the last few weeks, I have been grieving a monumental change in my daily life. I am not, nor are those close to me facing imminent death, but the loss feels monumental none-the-less. When I lived in Canada, my father loved going to my local grocery store, Fortinos every time Mom and he would come to town. My father waited almost five years before a fabulous grocery store, Joseph’s, opened in his own town. I remember vividly Dad taking my first born and me to Joseph’s. He loved store’s dedicated aisles to different ethnic groups, its produce and meat department. Joseph’s had a wide variety of unusual products. If needs be, you could purchase a pig’s head. I am not too sure what one does with a pig’s head, but I knew where you would need to go to purchase one.
When I moved here, I felt the loss of my dear grocery store, but I had Joseph’s. Through the years I shopped there regularly. When I need to make a Serbian dish, I could go there and know they would have the ingredients that a “regular” grocer would not carry. The store allowed a person to explore a variety of different ethnic cuisines. If you were adventurous, you could begin your culinary journey at Joseph’s.
Then, about two weeks ago, I walked into Joseph’s. I noticed many shelves were empty. I could not purchase any canned tomatoes and the pasta isle looked like locusts had descended. I found what I needed, and then I went to check out only to find one checkout lane open. I had been there a just few days before. I had chatted with a butcher who told me a product I was interested in would always be in stock. It was not like I had been away for weeks. I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach. I went home and check out the Facebook page, rumors were swirling about its closing. I went into denial. It took me a week to get up enough nerve to ask someone at the store about the rumor. Then the news hit the papers. I spent time purchasing food that I could freeze or store. I bounced around denial, anger and bargaining for more than a week.
Why would a store closing cause such a disruption? I have been through stores closing before. While that is often a sad time, I am not usually disturbed by it. Then it hit me. I am responsible for making sure family recipes remain part of the family. I am the one left standing who plans the feasts and prepares the food to create and maintain family tradition. Because of the family I married into, there are important ethnic recipes that I make. These often have components that the mainstream North American grocery store would not carry. I loved having a local store where I could go and get these so that I could keep the Serbian flavour in the family. The other aspect of the loss has to do with losing my father. Going there would remind me of him. I miss him. Losing this store reminds me keenly of the loss of my father. The closing reminds me of how much I have already lost, and how I have tried to maintain connection to those I love.
This week, I have decided that since Joseph’s is breaking up with me, I need to see other stores. I am currently on the lookout for a new ethnic store. I have already looked about a bit, and I am planning in the next few weeks to check out more stores. I have come to accept the reality of my present circumstances and am moving forward. I will broaden my horizons and maybe I can find an even better shop that will meet my needs. Maybe I will take my friend up on teaching me how to ferment my own cabbage leaves. We will see. Sometimes it takes a while to sort through feelings before reaching acceptance. I have to say, I like living in acceptance more that the grief process, but the process often teaches me things I would not otherwise have seen or known. I will miss the convenience of Joseph’s and the memories I have of shopping there with Dad.
Change is like a little death. We live through constant change on a daily basis. We move through these little changes – changes in the weather – changes in the way the light shines –changes in our outlook—changes in so many different ways. The small changes we take in stride. It is what we do. Parts of our lives, however, settled in becoming essential parts of our story. These things become so much a part of our lives that when change happens it unsettles us. We can mourn these changes. It is really an ok thing for us to do. Sometimes we get the message that we should not mourn changes. Those in our lives tell us that these changes are just a part of life, and so get over it. Sometimes people in our lives find witnessing mourning uncomfortable. Witnessing loss might remind them of their own grief or loss. Do not take their words to heart—take care of your own needs.
I remember talking to a social worker about September 11. I found it hard to manage the loss of the World Trade Center. I felt so stupid and heartless because I felt a loss of a building when so many actual people had died. The building had become so much a part of my story of living in New York, and my time with my husband, that the loss was so great for me. This woman worked with many children in New York following the attack. She told me that children in New York felt the same way I did about the loss of the building because the World Trade Center was like a person to them. Many New York children would nightly say goodnight the World Trade Center. The losses of the buildings were very personal for those children—and me. I was grateful for her words, and allowed myself to grieve the loss of the buildings, even if those around me did not understand. Sometimes, we just have to allow ourselves to grieve when we feel a loss, even the small losses or the unusual. Denying the loss does not help us move forward anyway. What does it hurt to acknowledge the change and mourn the way things were? Having done that we can move toward accepting the truth of the reality of our new lives. Isn’t that a much more healthy perspective?
Last week I wrote about how to make and revise your death care plan. I know that this kind of document might be difficult for many of us to make. Many of us would rather pretend that life goes on and somehow we can beat the odds. We might be convinced to make some kind of plan for after our death. Maybe we can make a plan of what to do with our bodies and maybe what kind of memorial we want. Can we really plan for the kind of death we want? Sure, one never knows when death will come and that is what makes planning so difficult. What I mean is that we might take the time and think about what kind of care we wish to receive if we face a long term illness where death appears to be most likely. Sure, we need to be aware of the medical options we face, but that is different. This process is more about the way you want to approach death. This is about a different kind of care planning. This care planning focuses on what feeds the soul and brings us joy.
Questions We Might Ask:
This planning gets overlooked so often. We go along living our lives, hoping that we have time. What we miss is that when we think about what we want to surround ourselves before death, and the kinds of things we might need to take care of, we notice that this list is more about living than death. Why then do we not live life according to what brings us joy? That is the question of the ages. I do not know the answer. When it comes down to the brass tacks, this kind of planning says more about what kind of life we want. Perhaps this process might focus you into living a different kind of life. Perhaps it will just intrigue you. I do hope you find value in this process.
Even if we cannot manage to live life the way we wish, we need to allow ourselves permission to think about the kind of death we would want should we have the chance to plan such a thing. No one of us knows when the end will come. We do not know the circumstances of our death, but we can take time to think about the kind of care we would like to receive from those who love us best. Our ideas might just give them a chance to focus on the joyful times and maybe give them a direction to help them deal with the prospect of our death. Leaving a caring word might help them more than us. All death care planning is for those who will have to do the work, more than it is for us anyway. I wrote a letter to my family. I do not pretend to know the best or the only way to convey your thoughts and hopes, but I trust that we each have a good and creative way to get the job done. Take heart. The process of making a death care plan might just free you from some of the fear and anxiety you have in facing death.