Death of a Parent
Yesterday, the lovely Jessica Jensen gave me my 1,000th “Like” on my Confessions of a Funeral Director Facebook page. In honor of the 1,000th “Like”, here’s my first article that I posted on the Facebook page back in December of 2011.
I picked up the phone with my rehearsed, “Hello. This is the Wilde Funeral Home. Caleb speaking.” The voice on the other end says abruptly, “I have a problem … my son-in-law was killed in a motorcycle accident yesterday.”
Now that I know the nature of her call, the next five or six sentences are as rehearsed as the first.
“I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you” she says.
I pause … waiting to see if the silence elicits any farther response; and, at the same time I’m contemplating if I should deviate from the script and ask her about details of the death.
Keeping with the script, I continue on, inquiring about the hospital he’s at, the name of her daughter, her daughter’s phone number and then the hardest question of them all:
“Do you know if you want embalming or cremation?” I say with hesitation.
And what proceeded was her only scripted response.
“It depends on the condition of his body. The coroner told us he slammed into a tree without his helmet on, but they wouldn’t tell us anymore. If he’s bad … cremation. If he’s okay … embalming.”
We then went over the plan of action, which consists of me calling the hospital to see if her son-in-law’s released, calling the coroner to inquire about the condition of the body and then calling her back to let her know a time she could come in to the funeral home and make arrangements.
I called the coroners.
Got the release from the hospital.
And an hour later I was standing in the morgue unzipping the body bag to see if the body of this 40 year old man was viewable. It was the back of the head that hit the tree … something we could fix for his wife and four young children (ages 5 to 13), so they could see their husband and daddy one last time.
15 hours of restoration. He still didn’t look right. Dead people never look right. We’re so used to seeing them alive that dead is never accurate … but this was different. This was a motorcycle accident that threw a man into a tree.
We gave the wife the choice to continue on with the public viewing or close the lid and she chose to keep it open, sharing the reality and source of her pain in all its distortion … sharing it even with her four young children and all their schoolmates that came out in support, many of whom saw unperfected death for the very first time.
The scheduled end of the viewing came and went but people kept coming to view.
Finally the last person filed past the casket and the family knew the time to say their last good-bye had approached.
The viewing was held in a church, with the casket positioned at the front of a totally full sanctuary. As a way to provide privacy to the family, we turned the open casket around so that the lid blocked the view from the pews … creating a private space where tears could be shed in all their honest shock.
The sanctuary echoed with the cries of four children and their mother.
And the sanctuary echoed with the cries of four weeping children and their mother … making time stand silent.
Until the grandfather came up to the casket, wrapped his arms around the children and said, “This is hard for you to understand.” The tear soaked porcelain skin cheeks. The last look of their father’s physical body save the memories their young minds have stored.
In those moments as the sanctuary resounded with the cries produced by an inexplicable death, there wasn’t a person in the room who understood.
In these moments — as we watched these young children — we all became like them. With all the well intended cliches emptied of meaning, we allowed our minds to reconcile with what our hearts were telling us: we simply can’t understand something that doesn’t make sense.
There’s a reason why so many choose to symbolize loss with a tattoo. When it comes to death, many of us try to forget, so that we can forget the pain … only to remember years later, that what we fought so hard to move past and “forget” is something we should really remember.
It’s an innate desire for humanity to remember what we can forget with symbols. It’s an innate desire for us to remind others with symbols.
In Judaism, observant Jews wear a phylactery around their heads and their wrists. It’s both for themselves and for others … in order that they (we) might remember.
Religion has always used symbols. And these symbols are often deemed as “holy” because of what they represent and what they remind us of.
Like religious symbols, there’s a sense that when tattoos are used to remember the dead, those tattoos are holy … maybe even just as holy as religious symbols. Memorial tattoos symbolize our heritage, our love, our loss in a way that we and others must remember what we too easily forget.
Here’s some examples of holy tattoos:
Bio: Robert Martin spends his days as a computer software tester for a company in the suburbs of Philadelphia, PA. When he is not commuting back and forth, he spends time with his wife and kids and as the Christian Education Chairman for Bally Mennonite Church. As of right now, he is finishing a Master’s of Arts in Missional Ministry from Biblical Seminary. From there, when asked what he’s going to do with the degree, his standard answer is, “God hasn’t shown me that far yet.”
Mother’s Day, 2007, my world was turned upside down when my mother fell ill. Three months later, it wasn’t just turned upside down, it was shaken, rattled, and destroyed to utter rubble when her diagnosis turned terminal.
As we as a family grieved, there is one phrase that I’m so glad no one decided they needed to tell us.
“It’s all in God’s plan.”
But we can’t say that for sure. We are not necessarily privy to all of God’s plans. For that matter, can we say that it is God’s plan for someone to experience the pain and grief of such a loss? To say so is too simplistic, I think.
I think the evil, pain, and loss that comes from living in this broken world is never part of God’s ultimate plan (if so, why would the final new Creation be a place of no tears?). The world is broken, so broken things happen. What IS in God’s plan is redemption, taking broken things and using them to bring about good, like the hope of a new life, or the ability to speak love, hope, and compassion into the lives of people who have experienced a similar kind of loss.
The good that happens after, that is certainly God’s plan, but the event that caused the pain? Not sure…
Now, Christ’s death…yes, God planned that. But in his ultimate plan, did he ever want to have to do that? From the beginning, his intention was for us to live in communion with him.
Christ’s sacrifice was a broken thing that had to happen as part of a broken world and the choices of broken people, but God used that brokenness for a wonderful thing to give us hope that such brokenness is only temporary. That’s the beauty of Easter. That the pain is only for a time as there is something more to come that will blow our socks off…
For me, my mother’s death was one that struck me to the core. We prayed…and prayed…and prayed FERVENTLY that she would be healed. In the midst of the ICU we prayed. On the road back and forth from Hershey and Chambersburg I prayed. Every night during that horrible 3 months I prayed, “God, heal my mother. I know you can. Don’t take her from me.”
And she died anyways.
Over a gall stone.
How absolutely stupid, non-sensical… Seriously?!?! A GALL STONE KILLED MY MOM!
God, how could you?
Was the sad thing that happened to me part of God’s plan? Or was it simply a matter of the fact that we live in a world that is cracked, broken, damaged by centuries of sin and that her death was just one in a whole litany of lives taken that should never have been lost?
God’s plan… we like to say that nice little “pat” answer “Oh, it’s all in God’s plan.”
What a load of crap.
The broken world around us was never part of God’s plan.
But God is bigger, stronger, better, and wiser than that. He takes even something as stupid and horrible as my mother’s slow fade into morphine-steeped oblivion and turned it around into a passion and a fire in my soul as I saw her life reflected in the lives of others and realized how significant one life lived passionately for God could be.
Her death was never part of God’s big plan. But my life is.
And this is what we must remember: what is important is not figuring out why the sad thing had to happen, but what is our reaction to it. Are we going to continue living in that brokenness? Or are we going to live a redeemed life?
For me, as Joshua said, and my house…we’ll serve God, even in the midst of brokenness.
Today’s guest post is from Kristie West, a grief specialist who focuses on helping those who have lost parents. The advice Kristie gives in this post is helpful for anyone who is experiencing the bereavement of a loved one.
How to move beyond grief when you’ve lost your mum or dad and why it’s NOT about emotion
I know what you’re thinking, “How on earth can you say that, Kristie?! Do you have any idea how I am feeling? It’s all about emotion!” Well if you’ve read me before you know I don’t throw out weird-sounding statements without explaining what I mean. So here goes…
I get asked all the time about where emotions fit into my work – am I encouraging them, suppressing them, ignoring them, allowing them to be released?
Every time I am asked this my brain blows a big raspberry at me, my mouth opens and out come some words that fit together, and the person I’ve been speaking to walks away thinking they know my position on emotions….even though they can’t possibly…..because even I am not sure what I said. And I am left feeling like a lemon.
But there is hope -I’ve finally figured out what the issue is. It’s because when I am asked about how emotions fit into my work my brain frowns and asks, in a confused way, “what does it have to do with emotion?”
So…where does emotion fit in then?
It isn’t about expressing or suppressing your emotion. You do need to let it out – yes. Cry, scream, write, move your body, have massages, whatever works for you – all that emotion gets stored and your body doesn’t want to hold it. So expressing your emotion is great, don’t hold it in, but simply expressing your emotion is not how you heal completely.
We’ve all spent plenty of time expressing a great deal of emotion over a great many things…enough to know that, while useful, it doesn’t take the problem away. The emotion is not the problem. The emotion is just a symptom.
Hold up a second….
Now let’s just stop for a second. Grief and all the emotions involved can seem beyond comprehension or rationalisation when you are in that space and it can be very tough to be objective about something so big and overwhelming, so to make sense of this let’s step away from grief for a second and use an easier example.
We often berate modern medicine for treating the symptom instead of the problem. Your doctor might give you paracetamol for headaches without trying to find out why you are getting them, or they might throw anti-depressants at you without once asking you to examine what thoughts you are thinking when you are depressed and do something about those. Treating the symptom helps alleviate your symptom. But the real source of your pain hasn’t been touched so the symptoms will keep coming in some way or will come back.
This morning I went to my chiropractor as my neck is hurting me. The pain isn’t the actual problem (though yes, it is what I am immediately experiencing as difficult and what is alerting me to a problem). The real problem is the source of the pain and that is why I go to my chiropractor. I don’t just start bunging on arnica cream hoping that will fix the problem for good. I do use the arnica (because having a sore neck feels horrid) but I know there is something causing this pain…and that is the thing that I need to work out.
How does this apply to grief?
Your grief is the same. Expressing your emotion is wise….but it won’t totally heal you. Because the source of your pain (and the source of your emotion) is your experience and understanding of the loss of your mum or dad. And that is what you have to change to move beyond your grief. Because you can let out all the emotion you like, scream it out, exercise it out, write it out, tap it out….but doing this won’t change yourexperience or perception of your loss. And as long as the source isn’t touched you could potentially be dealing with a bottomless cup of emotion. Yes it feels better to get your emotion out today. But what happens tomorrow? Or next week? Or in 10 years time when you talk about the loss? More emotion. More ‘symptoms’…….because the source, the root, the cause of your pain, is still exactly where you left it.
A new way of thinking
I know this is totally different to probably everything you’ve heard or read. If it’s healing you want, then just working with your emotions – no matter what you do to them – won’t provide that. You need to go much deeper. Because here is the thing with your emotions: when you go deeper than them, when you get underneath them, and change your experience and understanding of what has happened in your life….then the emotions change. And this is where true healing happens.
Are you ready for a new way of thinking?
It can seem an impossible journey to reach a different understanding and perspective of your loss. But it starts with the first step…and though deceptively simple, that step is profound and powerful.
The first step is to ask yourself whether you are prepared to try a different way of looking at your loss. And to be able to answer ‘yes’.
If a new perspective is possible….are you willing to look?
If a new perspective can move you beyond your pain….are you willing to look?
If a new perspective can allow you to talk about, remember, and love your mum or dad without it hurting you….are you willing to look?
If a new perspective allows you to feel closer to them than you imagined was possible… are you willing to look?
And don’t stop asking until your answer is yes. Because that is the first step in an incredible journey….and your journey cannot start until you take that first step. And this journey will change your experience, your life and your connection to your mum or dad for good.
Kristie West is a grief specialist. Her experience with the death of six family members (including her father) in a four month time span and her personal journey through those devastating months provide her with a unique position to speak about this tender subject with objectivity and sensitivity.
Head on over to her website and sign up to receive her free e-book, “The Seven Biggest Myths about Grief”.
Today’s guest post is from Lisa Colón DeLay, who describers herself as “CREATIVE, NINJITSU INTERVIEW PRACTITIONER, IMPROMPTU HUMORIST, DISPENSER OF FREE SAVVY, SPIRITUAL FORMATION PROVOCATEUR.” You can stalk her on Facebook, follower her on Twitter and visit her blog. But, be forewarned, if you attempt any form of stalkery, her Ninja skills will find you out.
The long and drawn out precursor to my father’s death is something out of a bad made for TV movie. It has all the twists, turns, and unbelievability that would make a most incredulous 90 minutes on the small screen. After all, how many people do you know incur a brain stem infarction (kind of like a stroke, but much creepier and not nearly as well-known) only to live through it, become permanently brain injured, and profoundly disabled (think: Terri Schivo). Then comes the 11 year grieving process as he physically wastes away in a nursing home, battling countless infections. At the onset, I was 20 and my father was 44. You can’t make stuff like this up. And I didn’t even mention the lawsuits.
Death and its many friends wreak havoc on an already shattered family. The details are scandalous, but not as important or profound as a memorial service with no body with whom to part. The trouble isn’t so much the service or the memorializing, it’s not being told where they laid him. It’s not just me–it bothered Mary Magdalene quite a bit too. My step mother still sends Christmas and Easter cards, but she’s never told me where my father’s ashes are buried. He could be on her mantle, for all I know, or interred at a secret place as a result of paranoia. A bit of spite can go a very long way.
And so what resurrects is not a hope in seeing my dad’s resting place, but rather in understanding that many, if not most things in life remain outside of my control. Even things one would consider simple and common.
I’ve thought about what I’d do if I knew where my father was buried. In the movies it’s always raining when they bury someone. Later when people visit the grave, it’s usually breezy. It’s warmer out too, which is nice. I would pick a mild day. 72º and mostly sunny. I’ve pictured myself putting notes, or flowers, or photos near the headstone. Praying as a sit in the grass near the site, or singing. A grave doesn’t help the one who died, I’ve realized. It helps the one who’s left behind.
Transforming from the bruised hopes of a missed connection with a departed loved one, I think more about the living now, not the dead. And about my own living. Some of that I can and should control. Photos and memories take the place of a gravestone, and I try to do right by how my dad would want me to think about the situation.
He’d want me to be gracious. He’d want me to remember not where he was buried, but how he loved me, and the better parts of how he lived. And that is actually the same thing I want for my own children. The bigger lesson is in the living memory, not the ground marker. (I say this to myself when I’m feeling particularly strong.)
Maybe the marked spot would trap me somehow the way an unknown spot never can. Maybe it’s not so savage after all. Maybe I can find a gift in the pile of manure. With a Living God this is possible.
I wish for everyone to get whatever they need in the process of grief. I understand what mementos mean. They are precious things because they signify something that mattered. They honor what was lost. But for those who have nothing to call a burial place for someone they love, I wish for freedom from that sort of extra hurt. I wish for something bigger and life-giving to grow out of that tender spot.