How to Do a Memorial Service (in hindsight)
The widow should not be among the speakers.
I want to hear what you will say.
Do not wear brown, certainly not plaid.
I always loved you in earth tones, my Scottish lassie.
Do not let your kids sit at the back.
They can laugh as well as cry there, with their friends.
Do not mention the troubles you had together.
We did have troubles, and yet we stayed together.
Do not tell the congregation that the probability of death is 100%.
It’s the truth—I accept that now, along with you.
Altar calls at funerals are tacky.
Do not say “no thank you” when they invite you back to church.
I don’t blame you—I only went for the healing prayer.
Do not host a barbecue at your house after the memorial service.
You always did like a party; I don’t mind any more.
We should both enjoy our good company.
Tag Archives: death
I shall address this to you, DD, because I need to feel I am writing to a woman friend this time, and you have proved to be someone who allows our friendship to survive, even thrive, on truth telling. Like when I told you that I am filled with frivolous, selfish desires after the death of my husband, rather than weighty, somber pearls of wisdom won through suffering. How although I had been growing through the demands of loving service, now, with the whole horizon there open before me, and no one of whom to ask leave, I feel giddy, and eager to plunge into any number of endeavors. Such as choosing my home decor, expanding the garden, traveling, organizing my business and publication ideas, and hosting bonfires with strung lights and guitar playing.
I told you I want to keep growing, not descend into a second adolescence. So help me God, I said, I might need to suffer more, because other than mourning my husband, whom I loved, and mourning for our children, who will no longer have a father, I have it easy. He provided well for us, I have a meaningful job that suits me, a nice little house, good friends, family, and interesting prospects. I have lots of time, relatively, to write, could join a book or writer’s group, could do my Master’s degree, could try that business dream.
You told me I could do no wrong, because I am the grieving widow. Though I appreciated the grace extended, I objected on the basis that one’s duty is always to consider others, even in difficult circumstances. No excuses. I made the same argument to a friend who told my husband to disregard others’ needs and focus on his own as a man with a terminal diagnosis. I told him he still had to be nice, at least in order get better care. People have to feel appreciated. He accepted that, as it fit into his life-long drive to grow and become more like Christ. He had visitor after visitor, and nurses and physicians assistants, go away feeling appreciated and encouraged. They told me so. It was a pleasure and an privilege to be his caregiver in the last months, he was so tender and kind.
I want to honor Mark’s memory, spend time properly aware of the loss of his life with us, and the hope that he is continuing some kind of even more meaningful existence in another dimension. I sense he has been lingering in some way with the family he loves, and even checking on us. In my case, through visitations from hummingbirds, and in dreams. My daughter also dreams in that way.
I have been warned that grief takes many forms and happens on different time tables, and the fact that I feel peace, calm, and even happiness, not despair, depression, anger, or a sense of loss and loneliness, does not mean something more intense won’t arise in my emotions and/or body. I want to stay in tune, and allow the process to unfold, as well as be a support to my kids as they walk this road.
So I will do my best to resist these worldly temptations. I asked my kids to keep an eye on me in case I move to make any big decisions this year, as some kind of distraction, release, or suppression of feelings. Though I release myself to be creative with my hands and words on a small scale, to stay physically fit, to build my relationships, to have fun with my kids and extended family.
Early on, I researched houses I could buy and fix up, ways I could add on to my house, and car sales (I would trade in two for one to consolidate–maybe a small truck or VW Westfalia for the trips I wanted to take?). I bought a few new clothes. I started having a nightcap some evenings. I watched two to three episodes of Grand Hotel a night in bed. And I looked up my first love on FaceBook. He’s still the same handsome, smiling guy I fell in love with my second year of college.
I was surprised at myself—usually, in my own estimation, a level headed person. It’s not that I have felt needy; it’s been a rich time of connection with friends, and with my husband, albeit in a new way. He and I related more as friends, without the pressure of other duties. And it was a relief, not a disappointment, to not be pursued sexually by him for a while. A story related to that: He was in his wheelchair in preparation for going to the hospital for a procedure, and I was bent down putting his slippers on, and showing a lot of my cleavage (such as it is). His cancer was advanced month, and his high potassium levels were beginning to cause some delirium and odd thought patterns. As he sat, He looked down my top, as he had always done, but this time said, “I don’t know what it was about breasts–why they were so popular…”. And we shared a laugh. He also said, “Women smell so nice.”
I’ll work, come home at a reasonable time, take it easy. See how things go, behave myself. I do feel the seasons changing, and that things will be getting stormy soon.
I’m getting a lot of words drafted, but not ready to post any of it, so just a few: My husband died a month ago. We are processing, as we were when he got his diagnosis seven months ago–yes, it was a gradual thing, though not drawn out. His goodbye week was very precious, his death was peaceful and attended by me and his parents. It happened hours after we had him transported to our hospice house, where I was to stay with him and get some rest while he was attended by skilled workers. He was eating and drinking until the last day, though and enjoying time with his loved ones. He started slipping away while we were in the garden. He had reassurances from me that we all loved him a whole lot and that we all knew he loved us a whole lot, and that he’d given us a tremendous lot. And that we’d be okay, and understood if he had to go soon. We wept, comforted each other, and then bathed him and said farewell to his remains. They are now only ash minerals, in a heavy box by my bed.
We his family planned the memorial service and spoke about him, prayed, reflected, sang Be Thou My Vision, range a bell three times, projected a slide show. Lots of friends helped, as they had been doing in the previous months. My house is full of flowers and cards, and my freezer is full of food. The sweet peas outside our bedroom window that provided fragrant bouquets all summer are going to seed, producing a thousandfold what I planted.
One of the emails I received back from the death announcement I sent out read, “There are no words.” This struck me as standard polite lies. How the hell would I be able to gone if there really were no words?
But I thank you for your patience while I arrange them carefully.
The man, the legendary deceased, healed in spirit if not in body, and the tearfully thankful, grieving widow
I have put together the obituary and the bio for my husband’s memorial service. At ten days, I have nothing else to say, no angst, no heart-rending pain, no fear, not overwhelming sorrow. After he died, I felt relieved, and as if things had gone rather well, considering. Considering the different experiences of the friend who cared for a husband with a growing brain tumor, seizures, and psychoses, and my mother-in-law, who watched her strong, big-as-life husband waste away, experience chronic nausea, the insertion of a throat breather, stomach tube filled with soupy cocktails for meals, over a span of four years.
A low dose of opioids, increased a bit in the last day, had made my husband’s discomfort bearable. He was sweet and tender still, and eating, though not much. There had been no nausea for months, and regular fluid draining procedures at the hospital had eased pressure in his abdomen. The friends who had been praying for 100% healing were asking for things more along the line of soul healing, peace, joy, and rest. When nights got more restless due to needing to help my husband with essential functions he couldn’t manage any more, the move to Hospice House had promised me some respite. I brought my overnight bag and sent for a pillow and blanket from home. His mother and step-father (who was also my husband’s second cousin and part of the family by blood) came to join me there for a visit. Then, hours after arriving, my husband started slipping away while his parents and I were out in the garden and the caregivers were adjusting his bedding and tucking him under a lovely homemade quilt. We came back in the room and the young woman that was left was holding his hand and quietly said, “He’s very close,” and we gathered around him just in time to see him take his last breaths. Then he was gone, mouth and eyes agape, his face a greenish yellow mask. All the natural emotions washed over us, and we wept, stroked his cold hands, looked at each other, startled. It was finished. Only an hour before I’d said, honey, if you do have to go, I want you to know that you gave us so much, and we know you love us so much, we love you so much, and we’ll be okay. They say that’s the permission a dying person sometimes waits for. Did the experience of being carried out by six men in a soft stretcher, four of them close family, as the beginning of the big transition? Was he looking toward the light off and on in the hours afterward, and is that why he kept reaching upward with one arm or another for no other apparent reason?
It was weird to be texting on my smart phone while my husband was going, but I wanted to get through to my kids, thinking there might be time for them to be there, if they wanted. Three of them came shortly after he was gone, the other being indisposed, but assuring me she had said her goodbyes. My oldest daughter and youngest son came first, took one look, felt their throat muscles tighten, and went out to the garden with overflowing eyes, where we soon joined them. I can’t remember it all, except that my fifteen-year old son seemed so grown up, both weeping and reaching out to others with hugs. After a while they said they wanted to go, and a little after my oldest son arrived, they left to find comfort at home in the August afternoon light. Sometime in there, I called a funeral director. We drifted away from the corpse, got some cookies and coffee from the family room, sat on the benches, and later were glad to see that a hospice worker had found a way to relax and close the jaw and eyelids of the body.
We were told to take as much time as we needed, and that they offered a washing ceremony, where we’d wash with warm lavender water to warm him up a little. His mother and I participated, and found it beautiful and meaningful. They there was the option of a leaving ceremony, so when the five of us were ready, we lined up across from the staff by the entrance and he was wheeled there, where three bells were rung–one representing his birth, one his life, and the last, his death. It was perfect, and afterward we agrees that it was a blessing to have experienced the death with the support and experience of hospice workers, rather than at home. Better for the kids, especially.
It’s been ten days. Many friends, family, and co-workers have texted or emailed, a few have called and visited, and I find myself wanting to put them at ease, reassure them we are okay, and I’m using the same lines over and over. How he hadn’t been ready to go the day before because he liked his family so much, and then seemed to hear my words the last time as permission to go. How he had been a privilege to care for, and no trouble at all, how smoothly his illness had progressed compared to what we expected, how we had been carried along by grace through the help and love of friends and family, how my husband was flooded over and over with joy, thankfulness, and love for his family and friends, how the children were handling it well, at peace and secure in the knowledge that they were loved by their dad and that they would be okay. How fortunate it was that his siblings and I as well as a close friend and his parents hadn’t been working and could spend lots of time with him.
I didn’t talk about heaven, or Jesus, or God—that’s isn’t lingo I can roll off comfortably these days. But I think my story was pretty easy to digest, my way of seeing things acceptable, a balance of rational and relational. It seemed to have the desired effect.
I came home from a pizza supper one evening around nine after celebrating my daughter’s eighteenth birthday. Found I had missed a visit from a former pastor, a friend of my husband’s, PR and his wife, BB, who had left the most amazing loaf of bread, still warm, crusty and chewy, and bag of granola on the table. I texted them and they responded that were walking the neighborhood and could come back, so I invited them to do so. They get me, I thought, thinking homemade bread and granola the perfect gift, and are even willing to visit a friend after dark, which most people over forty hesitate to do.
After greeting my girls in the kitchen, PR, BB and I we sat down in the living room. The were observing me, and quiet, waiting, and I wanted to put them at ease. So I went through the same phrases, about the good death, the privilege of being a caretaker, the grace and joy, how my garden was my therapy and it was good to keep busy between feeling worn out and sad. How I had appreciated the commitment of certain members of the local congregation to keep praying for my husband.
They listened. Between the lines (to my sub-tweets, as my daughter would say). I felt it. Then PR told me that when he had received my text about my husband’s death, his phone had tagged it text #116, which was the same number as the Psalm he had read to my husband when he’d visited. He said that during the visit he had started to pray, but when he had used the language “if it is your will [God]”, my husband had corrected him, and told him not to pray that way, but to ask for healing, straight up, to believe and claim healing. PR realized then, he told me, that his role was not what he had thought, to comfort and encourage a man who knew he was dying, but to follow lead in asking for something that he wanted, specific and in faith, which is how he then prayed. Okay, he thought.
We talked a little more about how my husband had not accepted that his cancer was progressing, and his attempts to convince me of his views, my desire to avoid discouraging arguments but speak honestly. I saw how it was a good thing to believe, to hope for, and use as a basis for dreaming about the future. Some days my husband spent his mornings in bed shopping for a boat, truck, and trailer, calling to ask the sellers questions. He used his phone’s speaker, so I listened in, and wondered if I should caution him, or the sellers. He also wanted me to enroll him and the kids in a Coast Guard navigation class, but I stalled, saying we’d wait until he could sit for more than a half hour at a time. It was an all day class.
Did I believe God could reverse the cancer and heal my husband? If there is a God, then yes, of course–one can be open to the seemingly impossible. Similar things had reportedly occurred. But I didn’t expect, and this was not the end of the world to me, even considering our children. Death happens, and isn’t the worst thing, as I wrote already (here and here). But something about the visit with this former PS and BB was making me face my thoughts and feelings on that.
PR asked if he could be of any assistance in the service, which we had decided to hold in a local church building. I told him of all the pastors I knew, he was the one I’d be most likely to ask. I knew the governing body of the congregation there had caused PR, as well as my husband, pain in the past. They had fired PR and two or more other pastors they felt they could not control, and discouraged my husband from any real preaching and teaching role, though he has always wanted to preach and is qualified (his sermon was “too intellectual,” they said). They had turned us down for official church membership because we didn’t want to redo our baptisms; alas, we’d been infants at the time they had been performed and had not consented. The reasons I decided to have the service there were, one, some old friends from the the healing prayer team there which my husband had helped start years ago had been praying ups a storm for months, and Mark had gone on Sundays when he could for prayer. Two, it was very close to our house. And three, we’d lost touch with our last congregation and apparently hadn’t been missed. During the first months of my husband’s illness, we’d join in the worship time at this local place, sometimes listen to the sermon (sometimes not), Mark would go to the prayer room, and I’d walk home along the creek trail. At first he went by himself. Although there were two nice new pastors, both of whom reached out and one of whom visited several times, it was the same old theology, the kind that leads to the reading of a Jesus quote, and twisting it to fit., without even realizing it, the bias was so ingrained. Our excuse to step out was that Mark couldn’t sit that long. They prayer time was the Mark’s thing, and he didn’t care where that was.
I am a widow now. I spread a different quilt on my bed, one that isn’t really wide enough to cover two but that my mom gave me and I love for its bright and warm colors. I packed away the pills, set the walker, oxygen machine, and wheelchair in the front entry for easy removal. I answered all the text and email condolences, put the cards and letters in a box, and worked on the plan for the service–food, timing, talks, slide show, letting everyone know. Between times, I worked in the garden, visited by hummingbirds and abuzz with honey- and bumblebees.
Is this a frog in a slowly heating pot scenario? If so, ithat’s not always a bad thing. When there’s a necessity of radical change to avert disaster, such as climate change, the frog dies a stupid death. But if something has to die, if death is coming slowly closer just because it’s natural and inevitable, well then, let’s not have any shocks along the way; let’s splash around, enjoy the view through the beaker glass, and hardly feel those nerves as they cook and shut down.
Sometimes I stand back and observe myself in action, amazed. I putter in the kitchen or garden, joke with one of my kids, get irritated at a mess on the counter, post a photo online, respond to my husband calling, plunk down to chat with him, check to see whether he wants his pain meds on time, rub some essential oil onto his tailbone, all normal-like. There I am, in the moment, as if nothing unusual is going on. I receive visitors and care givers, arrange hospital visits, make up to-do and grocery lists, take my son to drum lessons, and go to bed with my husband at night. We adjust without noticing to an infinitesimally shifted normal each day. It only seems shocking and surreal if we compare our life now to a few short months ago, when my husband weighed sixty pounds more and was concerned with work, the games on TV, the newest iPhone, and trying to get the kids out skiing more, wondering how our oldest was doing in his final year of college. And staying awake to welcome me into bed at night with more than a bony, hand extended hand and a sleepy “I love you” before dropping off to a fitful sleep.
The last few days the neighbors and we have been painting our new shared fence, the one that my husband built last year, with sealer. I’m thankful the neighbor is driving this project—I wouldn’t have had the gumption, but do enjoy seeing the progress and being able to offer our youngest son some paid work. Other projects will be picked up in the wake of this—finishing the top of the new retaining wall my husband built, improving the soil by the fence, and planting some nice shrubs and flowers–some daisies, foxgloves, currant bushes, maybe strawberries to hang down by the hot tub my husband installed less than a year ago. There are the trees to prune, and next year’s…next year’s compost pile to layer up. Berries to freeze for the new year, canning and picking for the future. The future will come, and be full of more ordinary moments. Right?
Things will change soon, though–the water temperature will jump and we’ll feel it. My husband’s body continues to lose the battle to pancreatic cancer, despite his belief that he is getting better. I’m trying to prepare, trying to help the kids, and my husband, prepare, but it’s my first time with this, and I don’t know what I don’t know. I try to learn as much as I can, stay level headed, ’cause that’s what I do, as an Enneagram Type 5, but there’s no way to preview what’s about to happen, when, how quickly, or how each of us–wife, children, parents, siblings, and friends, will go through our grieving process.
The dental assistant has agreed to work me in, though I arrived, apparently, on the wrong day at the wrong time. As she sets up, I wonder if she’ll be frustrated to see me again over the same night guard, and I’m rehearsing my very amiable and kind, with a touch of convincing, cheerful assertiveness, night guard story. At the counter a man is wrapping up his payment and scheduling his next appointment. He answers the assistant’s query about the earlier conversation they’d had, “Yes, he’d flown over the ocean many times, but wanted to cross it in a boat.” Not boasting, just mentioning it, as it had apparently come up during the chat while the numbing took effect. Maybe in answer to, “Doing anything special this summer?” To which I could have said, if asked, “Yes, as a matter of fact, I’m helping my husband as he dies.”
I sat still in the waiting area, no desire to read or be busy on my phone, or peruse People magazine or Architectural Digest, I thought how I felt like sailing off with him. Sounded like he was on his own–newly retired or widowed? He was in his late seventies, I would say, so not an age-mate, but I liked his mind. And I watched mine, as, again, it went on these forays away from my current life. Not the first unfaithful thought I have had, but equally far-fetched.
That poem about everyone lying at my funeral–it wasn’t very nice, and I apologize. I think that everything you do say will be true, just as the nice things I say about you at your funeral will be true. Death, ironically, helps crystallize the love and appreciation we are all capable of having for one another. I suppose even in some cases when some abusive, selfish asshole takes leave of us. We can always say, he made me learn that I am a strong person, that I can overcome, and to be tender and understanding toward others in pain like I was. And maybe he was, in the great cycle of reincarnation, actually in a state of spiritual progress from a much darker soul, so who can judge?
I think it’s just as well that I won’t be around for the occasion, so you can say what you like without swelling my head. I never was very good a receiving praise anyway, at least beyond age eleven, when I discovered that believing the compliment most frequently conferred on my golden head was the epitome of conceit. Hearing “You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon brings that moment back like it was yesterday. So I stopped believing compliments, unless received second or third hand, and even those I view as disinterestedly as I can. When I turn fifty I intend to absorb compliments like a sponge once again. I’ll be starting a Prezi file, in fact, so that the organizers of my funeral can get a head start on something to put up on the screen as folks mill around the reception room. Don’t you just love to have something to look at when you don’t know anyone at a funeral, and the food lineup hasn’t formed yet? Except I’ll ask some boisterous friend to announce, “Come on, everyone, the mayonnaise will spoil if you don’t dish up!” If my mother could be around then, I know she’d do it.
Turns out the family tree I married into has its dark secrets, and it’s now the time to talk about those from several generations back. Years ago I attended the funeral of the relative in question, and the man was decently honored–for his musical ability, his athletic accomplishments and physical strength, his brilliant blue Nordic eyes and charm. Hearts went out at the suffering he endured in his end of life sickness. I never heard from his daughter-in-law any word of criticism. But on the way home from the funeral of the wife of one of his grandsons from another branch last week, I heard the low down from the granddaughter, who had talked to some others that knew, in order to better understand the legacy of pain that came down into the next generations. Knowing the things he did also highlighted for me the turn toward the light in my husband’s parental line, thanks to a spiritual revival in the ’70s, and lots of prayer and church support as their kids grew up. “We didn’t know how to raise kids,” my mother in law explained, “so we prayed a lot.”
My in-laws recently announced their intention to pay for a trip to Norway next summer for their three children and their spouses (which would include me), to visit the Norwegian branch of the family in hopes of helping more connections form in our generation. Oddly, I was more interested in that than any of the three in the blood line. One even thought the Norwegians might not want to welcome the descendants of someone who, years earlier, had committed some kind of assault when he was in the neighborhood. There are also concerns about leaving our kids, who are the youngest, and my pregnant niece, so we’re not sure if everyone can go. Might be able to pop away to visit other places too–I’d like to see Scotland, for one.
Meanwhile it’s time to read up–nonfiction as well as Norway-related literature and poetry. I hope we can go. We’ve never traveled all together, we eight, and, judging by what I learned on that five hour drive to the funeral with my sister and brother-in-law last week, the journey should be pretty enlightening, a good chance to get to know my American family cohort better at the very least. And I hear that the central Norwegian landscape is beautiful, and that most everyone put in indoor toilets for the previous relatives’ trip. I expect to experience some similarities between lifestyle there and that of my own family line in Newfoundland, who also know about long, cold, winters and love their fish for breakfast. And how about those fjords!