You can take as long as you’d like to plan a wedding. Funerals on the other hand, require you to plan within the span of a few days what can be a huge event (in numbers and emotion), bringing the most honour to the entire lifetime of somebody you love dearly, while you, at the time, float in a cloud of shock and unreality, forgetting how to answer the phone or put food in your mouth. Funerals are crazy.
I have sporadic memories surrounding the planning: Writing an obituary, touching petals in a flower shop, a plate of food put in front of me, someone answering the phone, someone telling us what else had to be accomplished, digging piles of pictures out of photo albums, sending someone to buy paper… The hundreds of tiny moments wove themselves together like a high-speed video, and then came to a record-scratching halt as we found ourselves staring down that long aisle, waiting for our cue to enter the service.
We walked in to a lovely song called Come and Listen (I’ve attached it here if you want to listen while you read). It made me smile as much as feel hot tears behind my eyes – it was a statement that as many good things had happened as bad. It was also exactly what we were there for, to come and listen; to hear about a soul that touched so many people’s lives. The huge number of faces that surrounded us in that moment were there for one lady; they were there to take her in one last time, to dwell in how beautiful she was. For me, this made the funeral one of the easiest parts of losing her. In a way, I wanted to stay there forever. As long as we sat there, she was with us. As long as we didn’t leave, she wouldn’t leave. I knew it would all “begin” after the funeral.
Sitting in a pew where you have seen other families sit at similar occasions is of course surreal. The whole room looked different from that row. Seeing her face on the giant screen in front of us didn’t make sense – photos of mom belonged in albums and on Mother’s Day cards, not there. What do you do during a funeral? Nobody gives you lessons. Should I let myself cry? Let myself not cry? Laugh? Are hundreds of people looking at us right now? Should I look at anybody? Is everyone wondering what it’s like to be us?
Funerals are like any other major event that carries with it expectations or preconceptions. Moments just happen, you try to grasp on to what you can, and you piece it together down the road to form a congruous event in your mind.
A year after the funeral, we put mom’s ashes in the ground. There were only a few of us there, it was full of love and quiet support. It was the closure I needed before moving cities the following week to start school.
Another year later, her headstone has gone up. I haven’t been to see it yet. I’m used to visiting her graveside when I travel home, it’s peaceful, however when I drove by the cemetery last time I couldn’t bring myself to go in. Maybe due to years of watching A Christmas Carol, a headstone makes everything so final. I’m not quite ready to see my mom’s name etched in granite. I will be one day. All’s felt when it needs to be.
The goodbyes come in stages. Looking back, what have I learned about these experiences?
First of all, on a practical note, the more prepared one is, the easier it is for those who remain. It no longer seems grim or wrong to talk about what a loved one’s wishes would be if God-forbid something happened. Some decisions (organ donation) were difficult because we had to choose for mom. Others (music at the funeral) were special because we knew we were honouring what she wanted. Perhaps this is something we should all be keen on thinking about at some point, especially in financial or legal matters.
Second, and I will probably mention this over and over, emotions are not on a timer. The funeral for me was one of the easiest days in terms of loss. I enjoyed revelling in the spirit of my mom. It gave me energy. I smiled, I laughed. Watching the DVD of the event at a later time was impossibly difficult though. All’s felt when it needs to be.
The last thing that stands out was the need to be firm with my boundaries, including planning “escapes” when I needed a moment alone or a break from people and sympathies. I didn’t do this well enough. The outpouring of love from people can be the most life-giving or draining thing one will experience during loss. Most people have beautiful hearts that are breaking for you, but some people have less intuition about their own boundaries and can leave you exhausted. I remember after visiting for hours at the funeral, going home to a house full of people. A person I hadn’t met before cornered me to discuss such things as Christian Science and education – for a long time. My mind went into a mode of fuzzy confusion, the room seemed to spin around me and the hardwood under my sore feet was causing tears to brim up in my eyes. I was trapped. It was one of the deepest lows I’ve experienced. When he walked away for a moment to get something I literally ran away and hid. I called a friend, I jumped in my car, and I left. Parts of me fought guilt for leaving my Dad, but I realized that his spirit was being fed by the people there and that I would be of no use if I had a major meltdown. Escape, escape, escape when you need to.
The times we say goodbye can be scary. Then again, sometimes fear is what we are afraid of. A truth that has arisen over and over is that it’s best to let things play out as they will without trying to fit you or your experiences into a box. You just need to get through it; you will have time to pick it apart and sort it out later. All you can do is keep breathing and show up, the rest will follow.
Today my family says goodbye to our grandma, who passed away not long before her 95th birthday. You were fiesty till the end Grandma, just like your daughter. I wish you a beautiful reunion. XO