Friday, March 5, 2010

The Culture of Death

I've never dealt with death head-on...I'm really an avoider what it comes to tragedy. My paternal grandfather died when I was 8, and while it hit me hard and was very sad in my little life, my family never involved the children in the cultural expectations of a death. My brother and I did not go to the viewing, the funeral, or the wake for my grandfather. My mother strongly believed (and still does) that a child should remember a loved one based on the memories and experiences they have built, not me being left with the final image of my grandfather in a coffin.

My maternal grandfather died of cancer during the first week of my senior year of college; he was in his early 60s. And again, while this was another tragedy to our family, I was relieved my grandfather was no longer suffering. He also was not big on how our culture reveres death and donated his body to scientific research; he figured why would he need his earthly body when he had already passed on to be with his divine creator- God. It ended up that research could not accept his body due to the levels of toxic chemo drugs remaining in his system, so he was cremated. He did not want to be buried, nor to extend the obligation of visiting/upkeep of a grave... "Do not stand at my grave and weep. I am not here, I do not sleep..." His memorial service was so beautiful- full of photos of him from his childhood up until cancer robbed him of his vitality- healthy, shining, and bright. It was a beautiful way to say goodbye, and after the service, his brother took him for one last ride on his Harley. Yep, you read that correctly. The box containing my grandfather's ashes was strapped to the back of his favorite Harley and he was taken for one last drive.

Almost exactly two years later, my parents placed the call I think every parent must dread. I was in my apartment, in my second week of my second/final year of graduate school, and I received a call from my parents that my best friend had committed suicide. To this day, a part of me remains empty from that loss. But again, why focus on the death instead of the beautiful life? Like my grandfather, my friend's family hosted a beautiful memorial service, my friend was cremated, a tree planted in his honor, and a wake followed at the family home, to draw together and remember how this one life touched so many others along the way.

My father-in-law passed in '99, my brother-in-law a couple of years later, and two of my uncles and a dear family friend after that. I fully respect that how I was raised to work through loss/death is different from what "the standard" is, but I make no apologies for that. I traveled with M when his father passed, we could not afford for me to travel when M's brother passed. When one of my uncles passed, I was not able to travel to the funeral, and thankfully, my family was very understanding of such. Another uncle passed and I was able to travel and participate in the funeral and wake. When a dear family friend passed in 2005, C was only a few weeks old, which also meant I was also only a few weeks past a C-section and not very mobile. The funeral required a drive of 3.5 hours each way- 7 hours round trip with a newborn. It just was not feasible. And it wasn't just about C's age or my surgery...this would have been the first time many would meet C, and I didn't want him taking the attention from an event that was intended to focus on our loved one. I chose to stay home with C and my family and friends fully respected that decision, no repercussions or hard feelings. We lost M's 14 year old nephew in January- M attended the viewing and I joined the family the next day for the private burial. I hope it was not offensive to the family that I did not attend the viewing; that was not my intention.

Why outline all of this? Tragedy has struck again, followed by judgment with how Mark and I have chosen to deal with it. I think the Irish have it right- throw a party, celebrate a life well lived and, hopefully, the deceased entering into heaven. I've verbally shared with my family, if and when I go, put up some photos of the good time, have my pastor host a memorial service at our Baptist church, and throw a HUGE party afterwards, focusing on the positive and the good, not mourning, not focused on death. No viewing, no burial, etc. Focus on the good times, cremate me, and do what you will with my ashes. Scattering them at the tide line sounds good to me.

Last week, we surprised C with a trip to Disney World- all out! This time we stayed on property for 8 days with Park Hoppers and a dining plan. It was magical and we made FANTASTIC memories with our little guy that I will hold in my heart forever. We arrived at our resort on Saturday the 20th, and late on Sunday the 21st, we received word that a family friend passed away unexpectedly. At that time, the family had not established final arrangements and all we knew is that the family was traveling to upstate NY on Tuesday to make arrangements. I should clarify, these friends are family to my husband, so in their eyes, this is essentially his "sister" passing unexpectedly.

We did not cancel our vacation. Even if we had decided to travel, we could not have done so. Not only would it have been terribly cost prohibitive, but over 2 feet of snow was falling in the Northeast and planes were not easily moving. We didn't even learn of plans until Thursday morning, the same morning as the visitation, followed by services on Friday. And while our conversation did not go there, M knows where my focus was. Our son is very much alive and we were celebrating his life, not going into a situation that could not be changed. Traveling to NY would not bring her back, would not change the tragedy that had already occurred. Because the ground is frozen until spring thaw, she cannot even be buried until sometime in April or May and we are planning to join the family for the burial, even though financially it will be challenging. Now, M has spoken with both of his "brothers" and while I shouldn't be surprised by their response, I am. Both have expressed that he should have been there- the whole family was there except for him. One was much more understanding than the other, but I know M is hurting that it now appears to be a grudge against him that we didn't cancel our vacation and travel to upstate NY, despite not even knowing the arrangements that were made. I stand by our decision, which was really a decision forced by lack of information about arrangements/inaction. But not to hide behind a lack of information, even with advance knowledge of the arrangements, I would not have canceled my time dedicated to celebrate my son. And how ironic the same "brothers" that claim to be family never recognize anything important within our own family unit, such as M's birthday, major accomplishments, etc.

What do you think? What would you have done faced with the same situation?

1 comment:

  1. Clearly I am just getting around to catching up on things... Sorry for the mass comments!

    If faced with the same situation, I think I would have handled things the same way you guys did. Each person handles grief in a different way, and no one should tell another how the "right" way is. We are all different.

    I wanted to fly out for our nephews funeral, even though I haven't seen or spoken to our brother since Dads funeral, but I was on call for a birth and committed to that months and months before. As it turned out I helped that mom on the same day as the funeral was. So, I watched new life come into this world, and yet at the same time mourned a life gone too soon.

    I feel like in some situations you are damned if you do, and damned if you don't. No matter what decision you make theres always someone else around to tell you how you are doing it wrong...

    *big hugs*