I’m fascinated with how we humans handle death. From a young age, I have thought that what makes humans human is the fact that we have a wide variety of rituals and practices surrounding death. I used to be surprised that death became my topic, but upon years of reflection, I no longer am. This coming month, I will be focusing my energies to putting my writing together to create my little book on life and death. I hope this will be something that will be cohesive, informative as well as amusing. Thank you for all your support. Let’s see what I come up with.
On perhaps one of the worst days of our lives, my husband and I sat side by side at his father’s funeral listening to the priest give the eulogy. The previous day, my mother-in-law and her sister-in-law had sat together writing the eulogy. Mama had decided that the story of Tata defecting and landing in prison only to defect successfully once released was not to be included. It was somehow disgraceful to mention he was imprisoned for his beliefs. No mention of how a boy too poor to attend school ended up learning five languages. We did not hear that his one dream of having a family living in freedom was realized through amazing feats of self-sacrifice and determination. What we heard was a tribute to my husband, who was horrified. Afterwards, he told me that under no circumstance was there to be a eulogy at his funeral since he already had one. I have no idea what my father-in-law would have wanted to have included in his tribute, but I hope he would have wanted one that highlighted his time on Earth or one that demonstrated how much we loved him and appreciated his hard work and love towards us all. He was a wonderful man and I miss him dearly.
With the advent of social media today, we are inundated all the time with media. Because of this we are more likely than not to have a multimedia tribute included at a wake or funeral. For those of us who were born and had a whole life before social media, so much of our life is left undocumented. For most of us who fall under this heading we don’t mind too much. On the other hand what this means for our family and friends is that when we die, they might be left wondering what to include in our story. When you make your plan for your funeral and burial, include biographical information. It does not have to be every little thing that you have done, but perhaps it could include things that you are most proud of, interesting information about your achievements or ideas you have held dear to your heart. Some people might write out their eulogy, but not everyone feels comfortable with that process. You need only create a document that is easy to read; it does not need to be a narrative in any way. You could also make a data base of old family photographs. Most of us have a hard time saying good things about ourselves, but don’t let that hinder this process. Think rather that you are making a document for the future, a document that might help people frame your life, and a document that might help others remember the fun things of your life. Through this documentation those who love you most will have a starting point to remember you through laughter and love. Remember to save the document in more than one place and in more than one way. Make a hard copy as well as a digital copy. Put it in a place that it will more likely be found. Tell at least two trusted persons where to locate your final wishes. Remember when we plan, we make things easier for those who are left to make the choices for us after we are gone. We cannot control what happens - we can only make it easier for them.
This last week, my family said good-bye to a statue of St. Margaret of Scotland which had resided with us for decades. My father saved it from a convent years ago when I was in High School. I cannot recall the convent’s name although it was probably St. Margaret. She was not always in her full glory as the entire pedestal and canopy was over seven feet tall. Only when my parents moved to Illinois years latter was the whole pedestal and canopy assembled and she stood in the family room. We have a family saying that goes something like this, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth over doing”. I think that describes what it was like living with this statue of St. Margaret. My children have grown up with St. Margaret, and she has become part of our stories. Knowing that this beautiful piece belonged where she would be loved in a living community, my sister, Margaret located a lovely thriving church and school which desired to have her. Last weekend, my sister and her husband brought St. Margaret to that community. To say that it was not a loss would be a lie. I have loved sharing living space with her and she was quite beautiful. In the end, she needed to be loved by more than just us, and now she will be.
Life is a series of letting go. At birth we must let go of living in our mother’s womb to begin our own lives. We must let go at each stage to embrace the other until we let go of this life all together. Letting go is the very mode of living fully. Sometimes letting go is small like when you know you need to pass something on to someone else. Sometimes we have to let go of habits which no longer serve us. Those can be very difficult to let go of. In a sense these little letting goes are like little deaths. We need to go through the process of letting go and then allowing something new to enter our lives. I am at the point in my life where I need to let go of more and more things. I am not the biggest fan of that process, but I know that my life will be fuller once I let go of unnecessary things. Letting go of things and habits allow new things into our lives and connects us even more to those around us.
I realize we have entered June only when I feel this great lingering sadness. Dad died nine years ago at the end of June. In June I have to face Father’s Day, his birthday (this year on the same day) and the anniversary of his death. It feels like a rat-tat-tat of grief throughout the month. I have lived through a few of these Junes. I know what to expect now, but that has not always been so. A few years back, I tried to ignore the grief and it only came out in odd ways. My back went out and my sleep was terrible. I tried not looking at the grief, but realized I was just making myself sick with grief. One year my friend suggested I have a memorial for him at church. It helped me a lot to have something to focus on and prepare for. This year, when I began to feel that old familiar feeling, I remembered that and called the church to set up the memorial for Dad. The challenge this year is that we have changed parishes and I needed to know how they did things. I set the date for the memorial. I do not feel so uncomfortable because I have taken action to deal with my grief.
I have a tradition to follow that works for me. For me having this tradition means that I do not have to create my own way. I do not pretend that this works for everybody. I know people who enjoy making their own rituals and practices. If you know that an anniversary is coming up and that you find it uncomfortable, discover a way to make it less uncomfortable. You could visit the grave. Not everyone has a grave and even if there is a grave, you might not live nearby the grave. In this case, choose something else. You could hold a gathering with you family or friends to remember your loved one. I know one family that sets the birthday aside and they gather for a meal to share stories. You could also do something special that reminds you of the person. If they loved nature, be in nature. If they were an urban lover, go to their favourite spots. The thing is to take action on an anniversary. That action can be what you feel will work for you – even if it ends up being a peaceful moment standing in your bedroom. Be creative with your love for the person who has died. When someone dies, we do not stop loving the person, we need to figure a way to live without their physical presence. This can take time to figure out. It took years for me to acknowledge that June caused me difficulty and that ignoring my grief was just not the way to go. Be gentle with yourself. Grief is not fun. Sometimes it takes a while to figure out what works best for us. Figure what works for you and do this as an act of love for your loved one and an act of love for yourself. Your loved one would probably not want you to be in anymore pain than is necessary.