Search This Blog

August 28, 2011

Ways in Which the Service Truly Serves

Program design & background photo, Ysabel de la Rosa. Angel photo Stefan Davidson, iStock Photo.
I spoke with someone recently who said that, in the event of her husband or another family member dying before she did, she would have them buried the day after they died. She said she would not be able to stand the "stress" of planning a service and waiting more than 24 hours for it to take place. I understand that everyone has different emotional needs, but based on my experience, I often recommend to friends and family that they take their time when planning  a loved one's funeral or memorial service.  Once your loved one is dead, what's the point of hurrying or treating the service as one more emergency? The last "thing" we do connected to that person's life is to plan, attend, or conduct their funeral or memorial service. It's important, and it can be a deeply satisfying and healing experience.

I learned this not by planning. My mother died on 9/11, and we had to wait a full week for friends and family to be able to fly in. My father died close to the Fourth of July, and again, to accommodate others, we had to plan for a wait prior to the service. And I am so glad we did. These extra days gave us valuable time to consider all the elements we knew our parents wanted to include in their services.

The Gift of Time
It gave us time to wait for just the right flowers to be flown in for their caskets. It gave us time to locate old, old friends (not necessarily old in age) whom our parents had once had deep connections to. And, most important, it gave us time to make the service absolutely fitting for each of them. By the time my sister died, I knew to take our time planning her service. She had left specific instructions for us, and a few extra days gave us the time we needed to make everything as she wanted it. Even though her service lasted 1 hour and 45 minutes, it was so full of music, prayer, celebration, and memories, that the time flew by.

Last Friday I attended another wonderful memorial service. Again, due to circumstances, a little more than a month had passed before the memorial service could take place. I don't usually mention names in my blog, but I'm making an exception today. If you've ever logged on to a Windows PC with Windows 7, then you have a connection to the person whose memorial service I attended. He was Richard Gaines Russell, the author of Fast Ethernet, and lead developer for Microsoft's Windows 7, among many other programs and projects. His funeral service was held in Seattle, about two weeks after his death from melanoma, and his memorial service was held August 26 in the town where he grew up.

Richard's parents are such close friends to me that I consider them family. The loss of their beautiful, kind and brilliant son at age 49 has been a source of great sadness for me. I was nervous about attending his memorial service. Was I going to cry my eyes out? Was it going to remind me of all my loved ones no longer present? Would it make me feel even sadder--or worse, hopeless, as the death of a child at any age can make us feel?

How glad I am I attended that service. Richard's mother had arranged tables with "artifacts" and photos from his childhood and career in the church foyer. There was a wooden race car he built at age 10, his Eagle Scout sash, his first batch of "wires" from early attempts to build mechanical things, including his own computers, and awards that Richard won. It was a delight to become acquainted, even briefly, with the magic childhood of a wonderful man.

The service itself included artfully delivered stories about Richard's life, from saving his sister from a runaway bronco, to teaching himself to rappel from the third-story rooftop of his childhood home, to praising God for getting fired from a job that wasn't right for him, to marriage to a wonderful woman, becoming a good father, and being recognized as an industry leader in his field. Several of Richard's high school and college friends read selected scriptures, interspersed among the memories delivered by minister and mother. A group sang hymns and two Lyle Lovett songs, a capella, prior to the service, their voices creating a sanctuary of sound within the architectural sanctuary.

Memory as Legacy and Life
At one point, the minister said: "We gather memories as a testament to the resurrected life."  The gathering of people and of memories will be our way of keeping Richard alive and in our hearts until we, too, pass from this life.

There was much more laughter than tears during this service--and lots of smiles. We celebrated a person who transformed the lives of others with his presence, and our joy at having known him simply overpowered our sadness during this special time of remembrance. The thoughtful and person-specific service offered a kind of comfort and healing that nothing else could quite have provided.

Something to Hold and to Guide
Another important element in a service is having a printed program. It helps organize the flow of the service, helps orient the audience, many of whom are from different faiths and backgrounds, and is an artifact of remembrance in and of itself that people can take with them.  It's also something good to send to friends and family members who cannot travel to a service. I had the honor of designing the program for Richard's memorial service. I have posted an image of the front of the program above.

I wrote an earlier post on transition.  A service can be such a help in the period of transition. It is worth waiting a few days after a loved one's passing to do it in a way that is the most healing possible. Some people I've talked to who did wait a few days have found that they were more rested and more able to draw both meaning and enjoyment from the service than if the service had been held just one or two days after the person's death.

It can be good not to be in a hurry to simply "get a service done." Give it time and space to take on the right kind of life to represent the life of the one you love. Taking a little extra time for planning the service can reduce stress, give more people time to arrive from out of town, and can provide you with the soul-deep satisfaction of having made a final and essential gift to your loved one: the most meaningful tribute possible to who they were.

August 21, 2011

Reading Therapy

The August 12 New York Times Magazine has a great article about reading and how it helped a woman through a time of grief after her sister died. This woman, Nina Sankovitch, is herself the author of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading.  Ms. Sankovitch, an attorney, wife, and mother, set a goal of reading one book a day for a year. You'll see in the article just how much good this did her and her family.

I learned a lot from this article, Allaying Grief Through Books.  It's easy to succumb to a desperate restlessness after the loss of a loved one. Yes, we need to continue to participate in life, and a certain degree of busy-ness can be helpful to both body and mind. We also, however, need both grounding and flight during grieving and recovery from loss. We need to recover a sense of stability, of having our feet planted firmly on this earth, and yet we need to feel that we can escape from that very same earth-life stability for a few moments in a helpful and refreshing way. I'm not sure that any activity besides reading can accomplish this quite so easily, quickly, accessibly and affordably.

In fact, this article by Jan Hoffman serves as a powerful reminder of what reading can do for us at any time! As Jane Fonda says of her new book, Prime Time, reading (and writing) helps to "drill down" into subject matter, ideas, meaning.  Drilling down helps us focus, gets us grounded. Yet, depending on what we read, as we "drill down," we may find that our mind takes flight in a beautiful way---traveling into new ideas, a meaningful story, or an unforgettable poem.

This article motivated me to do more reading yesterday and much less television watching. The effects were salutary. I felt calmer, quieter, and more grounded--in addition to being better informed! Ms Sankovitch turned to her public library for many of her books in her magical year of reading, and she read a great deal of fiction. I lean more toward non-fiction, myself, but I think the principle is the same.

And, speaking of reading, if you have read a book that you found helpful during a time of loss or recovery, feel free to send a review to this blog, so we can share that helpful information with others.

Here's to traveling via our individual "Reading Railroads" and making our lives richer as a result.

August 15, 2011

A Brother Remembers

One of my favorite blogs is Jeff Damron's Better in Black and White. Not only is Damron a terrific photographer, he also has a unique and evocative writing voice. If you're interested in photography, you'll enjoy his blog. If you don't care a fig about photography, you'll enjoy his blog! Because. Because he traces a portrait of life in his writing and images. Because his blog is real in the best sense of the word. It's the kind of real we need more of in this world. 

Jeff's brother Steve died last May. What follows is a eulogy Jeff wrote on the morning of his brother's funeral, and a stunning photo of how that day began. More painting than photograph, the image appears to move between the two worlds of life and death, affirming one and acknowledging the other, with grace and earthly elegance. With Jeff's permission, I'm sharing this beautiful work of his with you.

Sunrise from My Deck by Jeff Damron

We held the funeral for my brother, Steve, on Memorial Day 2011.  I woke up around 4:30 am, realizing that the minister had asked for a few words about my brother that he could read as part of the service.  I knew I had to write something, and with the funeral at 11:00, I knew I didn't have much time left.  So I got up, brewed a pot of coffee, sat down at my laptop, and started hitting keys.  By 6:00, I had a short essay and I went out on my deck to read and watch the sun come up.  
Above is a picture I took with the Olympus XZ-1.  Below is the essay I wrote.  

... Steve ...

At some point when I was growing up, when I was eleven or so, Steve moved his family back to Weeksbury to help my father with his store.  It was Steve, a few years later, who delivered the news to me that my father had passed on.  And after that it was Steve, and my brother Phil, who assumed the father figure roles in my life - and “cool” father figures they were too.  

This is about the time that Saturday Night Live first hit the air, and every Sunday poor Steve would sit through me reciting every line spoken the night before.  He would actually sit there, on his carport, in his cutoff jeans and those big boots he wore even on the hottest days,  and listen to the whole thing, laughing at the jokes both good and bad.  I hope nobody ever puts me through something like that.

When I would come home from college, it was at his house that I would end up, playing Rook until late at night with him, and Billie and their oldest son David.  And later, it was to his house, and his big yard, that I would return with my own kids when they wanted to go “camping.”  Because Steve’s yard was big enough to pretend we were in the middle of nowhere, but his house was close enough if someone needed a bathroom in the middle of the night.

It was after one of those camp nights that my daughter, Lauren, and I were sitting on the carport watching a thick, fat wooly worm inch along the concrete.  Lauren was quite young then, though she remembers it well.  We were sitting there watching the worm, talking about its life - making up a life for it, Inventing a whole family story for it, discussing how hard it had worked to get to where it was, no doubt far from where it was born because even a few feet must be a great distance to worm.  About that time, Steve came out of his house and walked over to check on us and see how we were doing.  And remember, Steve always wore big boots.  Well, he walks up, there is a loud “splat,” and only then does he move his foot back to reveal the wet mess that remains.  Lauren is silently traumatized.  Steve says, “Huh, didn’t even see that.”  When Lauren and I recollected this recently we laughed and laughed, as did Steve when I told him about it.  I think he was glad to know that the twisted Damron sense of humor has carried on to a new generation.

What really struck me as I was trying to think of something to write about Steve is how nonjudgmental he was of his family.  He never criticized anything I did, anyone I hung out with, anyone I dated.  Nor can I recall him ever expressing any real concern for any choices ever made by his children.  Anytime I ever asked how any of them were doing, he had nothing but pride and never seemed worried, as many parents are, about any mistakes they might have made or might make in the future.  He was so proud that Jason was a nurse, and that Michael was protecting our border and that David had become a doctor, but he wasn’t just proud of their jobs, he was proud of their lives - of their happiness.  Steve, being a Damron, didn’t gush about his emotions, but I know that he loved them, loved their children, loved Billie - loved us all.

As anyone who knew Steve can tell you, he was stubborn.  Billie called and told me he wanted me to come to the hospital just a little over a week ago.  When I got there, Steve had only one request - “Get me out of here.”  He proceeded with a long list of grievances against the place.  Finally I told him that I had been told that he had had a heart attack.  After a moment of reflection, he smiled just a little and conceded, “Well, there is some truth to that.”  I told him I would work on it.  That pacified him for a time, but not for long, as before he was eventually released, he pulled out all his IVs and asked in the hallway where he could find the front door.  In hindsight, I’m not sure why we were all so surprised by this.  Typical Steve.

In the end, Steve did make it out of the hospital, and passed in his chair, in the home he had shared with the woman he loved.  As hard as that may be for the rest of us, I think Steve is okay with that. 

Text and photo, copyright Jeff Damron.

August 2, 2011

Which Way to Look?

Photo by 1MoreCreative, iStock Photo
There are days when I think I could have titled this blog, "Getting Along with Death," as well as "Getting Along with Grief."  I spent  time yesterday afternoon with my friend whose son died July 23rd. We shared memories of him:  an Eagle Scout, a cellist, an author, and vanguard software developer with AMD and Microsoft. In fact, on the day of his upcoming service, Microsoft headquarters will fly all flags at half mast to honor him. He was also a husband, father, brother .... and a good one, in all cases. His parents are outstanding people:  kind, giving, intelligent, strong of soul, heart and mind; people who go way out of their way to help others, and often.

I'm not proud of what I feel today, after seeing them yesterday. I feel no shame over my sadness or the tears that come, unbidden and unrelenting.  What I am struggling with, however, is that death--a natural part of life--can feel to me like a colossal unfairness. Or, perhaps I should say, that its timing can appear to me to be an act of colossal unfairness. 

I struggle with this.  Not only in the case of this exemplary, 49-year-old man who still had much to give, but also in the case of children wounded in wars they have nothing to do with, peaceful protestors gunned down this week in Syria, the parents and children in Somalia dying from malnutrition .... 

Here's the core feeling I don't feel proud of: Why do these innocent ones, and good, suffer in this way? Why do they meet an early death, when a lot of mean, stingy, and downright evil people live so much longer?

I once talked to a man who confessed that he had loaded up on qualudes one night and gone on a very fast motorcycle ride--in the Rocky Mountains, and with no helmet. He stayed safe, even as he defied all odds not to.  

Years ago, I worked in a company owned by a multimillionaire, whom I watched humiliate his employees repeatedly, and who would insist that we listen to his n-word jokes. He said we had to listen to them, because we were his "underlings."  He has done so much damage to other people over such a long period of time. I know people who lost great sums of money due to his unethical business dealings. And yet, he continues to prosper and live into a ripe old age.

These thoughts are simplistic, even simple-minded. Life is not a quid-pro-quo system of any kind. Nature is a creation of balance and precision, yes, but fairness?  We invented fairness.  It's a necessary concept for society, for safety, for many situations of human coexistence, but it has nothing to do with the timing of life and death.  

In my defense, I do know that my thoughts are not an attempt on my part to wish any person, no matter how mean or ill-behaved, any kind of harm.  What they do represent is my struggle with the inscrutable cosmos and with my own personal pain. These thoughts give my mind somewhere to go, provide a diversion even as the tears come down my cheeks.

Death feels unfair to me today, as I mourn the passing of an extraordinary human being, as I share the pain of my friends who bid a final farewell to that most precious of gifts, a child.  

Yet, I must accept that death is both given and natural.  And from that point, I must learn to look forward in the largest sense. Look forward to the day of my own passing and how I live each day until then.  Look to the future and know that the one future we all share is that we will leave these human bodies, and that, as the proverb says, "The rain falls on the just and the unjust." 

Even as I am reminded to look forward, I also remember to look backward in gratitude, as my friend and I did yesterday as we looked through her son's childhood and high-school photos. Her son was a beautiful man who lived a beautiful life. This is no cause for mourning, but for gratitude and celebration. His death does not do away with that life, even though it ends it. Death represents an ending, yes, but not a destroying. Even as I mourn his passing, I can affirm his life as it was lived and as it will be remembered.

Which way to look?  Both ways. Look forward with awareness, for "we do not know the hour," and look backward in love and gratitude. May my looking both ways be an action that illuminates each present, passing hour.

Text Copyright, Ysabel de la Rosa, 2011