After Death : Mourn, Memorialize, then Celebrate Life!

My friend died a week ago.  Some would say she died a gentle death, since pain medication kept her unconscious as her body slowly shut down, but it wasn’t easy for her spirit to let go.  I could feel her, fighting and frantic at first as she came to terms with her body’s inability to sustain life.  She finally turned to the light, even though still tethered to her familiar flesh, and reveled in the joy and freedom she found there.  As her body grew weaker, dying by inches, her spirit spent most of the time on the other side.  Many friends and relatives came to visit her, some talking to her and praying out loud.  Others, like me, held her hand as they bent their heads in prayer or meditation, quietly connecting with her and letting her know it was okay to let go.

Knowing someone you care about is going to die does not make it easier.  On one hand we repeat the same platitudes about being glad the suffering is over, and about the soul being in a better place.  On the other hand we play the guilt game, wishing we’d been kinder, wishing we’d spent more time with them, wondering if we’d let them know how much we’d cared about them, if we’d let them know how important they’d been in our lives.  Even as we express our beliefs that they’re at peace, we wish there was just a little more time to finish all the things between us that were left undone.  We know they’re okay, but we aren’t!

Mourning is a natural first reaction after a death, as we come to grips with the reality that our time together is truly over.  Grief can be overwhelming, but grief is also a personal expression of loss.  They’re fine, but we now have to reconstruct our future without a vital part of our world.  We mourn as we think of all the “what might have beens.”

We memorialize our lost ones together with other people who cared, providing strength to one another as we share memories.  Different cultures remember and memorialize their dead in different ways, some quietly in small gatherings, others loudly in public ceremonies.  The purpose and effect is the same, to remember the life of one we’ve lost, to remember the dreams and accomplishments, to remember the stories and laughter, to take those memories into our hearts to carry forward alone.

All too often after someone close dies, we stop after the memorial service, forgetting the most important step of all.  Remembering someone we loved is important, but celebrating their lives is even more important!  If they had a passion in life, you can honor them by doing something good in their name.  Doing something they would have cared about, that would have made them happy, that makes some small difference in the world, keeps the memory alive and means they still matter.  After you mourn, after you memorialize, then celebrate your friend by your actions, so they can look down and celebrate as well.




My Friend is Dying

My friend is dying.  Nothing dramatic, no teams of surgeons frantically and heroically working over her body, no crowds of people crying and wailing about what a tragedy it is, nothing that would garner a headline in the news.  Just a sweet woman in the process of passing away, on what the hospital calls “comfort care”, which means she’s on strong pain medication to keep her comfortable, but nothing else — no food, no drink, no tests, and no medications.  Her heart and lungs are strong, not ready to give up nourishing her body as it wastes away, but her organ systems are failing her, one by one,  as the process continues.

My friend is dying.  We’ve been assured that she’s no longer feeling pain, but her family and friends are all hurting.  We remember all the shared moments, we remember her accomplishments, we remember her kindness, and we know each of us is richer for having known her.  We’re coming to terms with the reality that there will be no more shared moments with her, and the understanding that her passing will leave a void in the lives of everybody who knows her.

My friend is dying.  I spend time with her each day because it feels like the right thing to do.  She’s unable to respond with her body, but I’ve felt her spirit each time.  At first she was frantic, afraid, full of guilt for the things that she was leaving undone.  She sensed her failing body, but was unable to accept that she couldn’t go back to solve problems left behind.  All I could do for her was to let her know that her family would be okay, that all problems left behind were no longer her responsibility or concern.  Her path is forward, her spirit should be focused on the next world.  I reminded her that leaving her physical body is not an end, but rather just stepping through a door to the next phase, much like birth.

My friend is dying, but the death of her body is not the end of her existence.  One day, when I knelt beside the bed holding her hand, her spirit felt excited and happy.  I felt and heard her voice telling me that she was young and strong again!  I saw her clearly in my mind, her body no longer silver haired, stooped over a cane, every step full of pain.  Instead, dark hair swung around her face as she ran on strong legs, bare feet flying over green grass, until she plopped down to sit cross-legged and laughing in the sunlight.  She was lovely and full of joy, and I knew she was okay.

My friend is dying.  I’ll keep going every day until her tired body stops, simply because it feels like the right thing to do.  When it happens, I hope someone who loves her is there to ease the way.  When it happens, the healing can begin for her family and friends.  When it happens, everyone who knows her will remember and miss her, but also will be grateful that the process is over for her.

My friend is dying, but her life was well lived!  She made a difference to many, many people and to  many, many animals she was able to rescue.  May God bless her, and the ones who loved her, as he takes her home.


Memories and Cemeteries

Recently a read a wonderful book by Brandon L. Garrett called “Convicting the Innocent:  Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong” about innocent people who were convicted of major crimes and freed years later through DNA evidence. Many of these people were convicted by compelling eyewitness evidence.  The witnesses were sure when they testified, but the book demonstrates ways in which memory can change and be manipulated.  Even knowing those facts intellectually, we still trust memories that seem clear and sharp in our minds.  Boy, did I get an incredible lesson in how wrong a memory can be!

I am currently working on a book about my maternal grandmother, who was born in 1903 and died in 1966.  This book  requires a lot of historical, genealogical, and anecdotal research prior to the actual writing, but the cover and title have been firmly pictured in my mind from the start.  I can visualize Laura’s headstone clearly , and was planning to use it as the centerpiece of the cover photo.  The stone was a pinkish sand color, curved top with carving on the ends.  The name “Schomaker” was in large letters across the whole stone, then with Laura’s name on the left side and George’s on the right.  The birth year and death year was underneath the first name for each, with a simple dash between the dates. I had seen the tombstone exactly twice, once in 1966 when my grandma died, and then again in 1979 when grandpa George died, but just figured that the clear image in my mind was there because of the importance attached.

Last week my husband and I drove down to the cemetery to take lots of pictures of the tombstone for the book research.  Well, that was one reason.  The other was that we had talked for years about taking a day to drive down and spend some time visiting the gravesite and enjoying a beautiful, serene cemetery.  I absolutely love cemeteries, and remembered this one as the loveliest I’ve seen.  We talked about what we remembered, gorgeous old trees, emerald green grass spreading across acres of rolling hills, carefully tended plots with lots of flowers, mausoleums and monuments of every possible shape and size dotting the grounds.  We remembered being able to see part of San Francisco Bay way out behind grandma’s grave, and the sound of the delta breeze whispering around us when we stood at the site.

Prior to our trip I called the cemetery to find the location of grandma’s grave, but somehow they had misplaced her.  Well, not really misplaced her, but the staff couldn’t find the records for a few days.  Our first stop on the trip was at the office, where the staff helped us with a map showing right where to go to find her.  The place was every bit as beautiful as we remembered, lush and green with a cool breeze rustling the trees.  The major change was the number of monuments.  There were also many more buildings surrounding the cemetery, completely blocking out the old ocean view.  An awful lot of people have been buried since our last trip 34 years ago!  It looked like every plot had a stone, while we remembered lots of empty spaces.

The map was great, so we drove a short distance, parked the car and walked to the gravesite.  But something was terribly wrong!  We found the spot right away, saw “Schomaker” almost immediately, but it was the wrong headstone.    No pinkish stone with the curved top, nothing but a square gray stone with the one word on the front.  Then on the left side of the stone I saw Laura and George’s names and dates, carved in small letters near the top.  It was definitely the right place, but I actually told my husband somebody must have changed the headstone.  He said that couldn’t be it, since there were three other names on the right side of the stone, all buried more than 20 years before Laura had died.  Moss was growing in many places too, so the stone was clearly the original.  I was absolutely stunned to see that my crystal clear image was completely wrong.

Looking around, we found a stone somewhat like my supposed memory picture, but with a different name.  It looks like I’d somehow noticed that headstone and merged it with the funerals, creating a total fantasy and then believing it as a true memory.  I know I’ve forgotten things before, but to find out that I had fabricated a memory in such stunning detail was extraordinarily difficult to process.  It was humbling, shocking, and will keep me from getting into arguments with anyone unless I have documented proof of my position!  I guess you could say that my grandma had one final important lesson to teach me, 47 years after she died.