Growing up, I had limited experience with funerals. I definitely had never been on the planning end of one, so my whole perspective involved people wiping away tears, hugging each other, and speaking in hushed voices. They were held in funeral homes that were cramped and uncomfortable, or in churches with unfamiliar rituals and hymns. I dreaded the idea of them, and I decided I didn’t want anyone to have one for me.
Fast forward to the funeral for my father in 2010. My dad fought a year-long battle with cancer, and at the end, he required round the clock care. He wanted to remain home, so my sisters and I took shifts by his side, and each of us took care of him 24 hours a day for nearly a month. For my boys and their cousins, this led to hours of football in the yard, adventuring in the woods, playing games and watching movies—intermingled with being a part of the reading of last rites and being quiet in the vicinity of their Papa in the hospital bed. Not to mention loads of good, old fashioned, boring downtime. When the time came to make the arrangements, many decisions needed to be made, tissue boxes were always in reach, and hugs were always just an arm’s reach away.
However, they also laughed at pictures of their Papa tickling them under the Christmas tree year after year, ate meals that were provided by friends and family with relatives they’d only seen a handful of times, and more importantly, they learned that you lean on each other when things are difficult. In turn, they gained a new appreciation for family. And that was all before the funeral itself.
My dad served in the Navy in the 70s, before beginning his career as a firefighter for the Rochester Fire Department. These career choices earned him military honors on the day of his funeral. Inside the church, there was a time of silence for The Last Alarm. I still get chills when I remember the sound of the bell tolling through the sanctuary. At the end of the day, we were led by bagpipes to his paver in Soldiers Field, where we all gathered for the twenty-one gun salute. Again, chills. I think each of us – through those moving moments that were filled with emotion – appreciated the beauty in saying goodbye.
Three short years later, my father-in-law passed away. We received the call on a Wednesday morning, and undoubtedly, my husband and I knew our place was to be with my mother-in-law. She lives in Wabasha, and since we didn’t know when we’d be home again, we collected our sons from school and joined her to begin the process of saying goodbye. It never occurred to us not to have our boys there. The next few days were filled with stories about the good ol’ days. My father-in-law was Sheriff of Wabasha County back in the 70s, which meant he and his family were required to live inside the county jail. Can you imagine?! One of my husband’s brothers told of the time he was looking out a top story window of the living quarters when he saw someone run out of the building holding a long rifle (shotgun? I know nothing about guns…) and he was shocked! Was it an inmate? Did something happen to anyone downstairs? Are there others? Is he in danger? As it turns out, one of the other siblings was making a film with his friends, and it was his buddy running away for filmmaking purposes. I’ll never forget the amused look on my then 15-year-old son’s face as he listened to the details of this story play out, with others joining in with their own memories. Here he was, sitting together with the adults he knew little about, listening to stories of his Papa and uncles. He later said it was his favorite part of the week. He and his cousins took walks downtown to get ice cream from the shop, more footballs were thrown with relatives in the street, decades worth of pictures were perused, and photos of my husband as a baby were seen for the first time. There were no corners of sobbing relatives. No women covered in black with veils over their faces. Meals and food were delivered from neighbors and relatives, so once again, meals were shared with distant relatives whom we rarely saw. Our family came together and helped each other turn grief into celebration.
Soon after my father-in-law died, someone told me that it was inappropriate for my sons to be involved in these tragedies. He said that participation in their Papas’ funeral arrangements and missing out on school wasn’t good for them. That it wasn’t healthy for them to be around the sadness and depression. I second guessed my decision all those years ago when they were bedside with my own father. We do that as moms. We second guess ourselves. However, death is part of life. There is loss, and it is sad. We grieve and we cry. Sometimes grief can overcome us, and if not for family, it can be hard to crawl out of the darkness. Our children learn a lot about life when someone dies. They grow into their families, and they see that death doesn’t have to only be the end of one thing, it can be the beginning of something else.
This month alone, we lost three people who are dear to us. We’ll cry and hug, we’ll be angry and shout, we’ll eat potato chips and not sleep (ok, maybe this is just me). We’ll also listen to stories, eat meals, laugh, and connect with our relatives. In the end, we’ll come out on the other side stronger and closer and grateful for the time we had with the ones we’ve lost. Perhaps the idea of my loved ones throwing me a funeral – when the time comes – isn’t so bad after all.