Funerals are the rituals we create to face the reality of death.
Alla Bozarth Campbell
My mother's oldest sister died on Valentine's Day at around 5 in the afternoon. She had been ill for a long time and her death had been expected for several weeks. Still, it was very sad news. My mom was eating dinner when my cousin phoned. I suggested she phone back in half an hour. Then, I left the room before I started crying because I didn't want my mom and dad to know what was going on. I walked up and down the hall and stayed out of the room as long as I could. When I went back my mom was on the phone with my cousin.
After she hung up, Dad and I held her hands while she cried. Kathleen was the first of my mother's three sisters to die. She was also the oldest and my mother's favorite sister when she was growing up. "I loved her so much," my mom said. "I wanted to look like her and be like her. I thought she was beautiful." And if you look at the picture above you you can see that. When I asked her what Kathleen and her other sister, Eve, enjoyed doing together, my mom said that they liked going to town to flirt with the boys. "Town" was a mid-sized town in southern Kentucky with a square and, as I remember from my visits, carloads of boys would circle the square and honk or whistle at any good-looking girls they saw. Those were the good days together and my dad told my mom to hold onto those good memories during this difficult time. (Photo: Kathleen and her oldest daughter, 2011)
My mom was sad not just because her sister had died. She was profoundly sad because she won't be able to attend the funeral, which is being held 500 miles away in Kentucky. Funerals are a big deal down there, because families are big and, even in the 21st century, they are at the center of life. My mom is in too much pain to travel and, even if she wanted to, her hip is too unstable to risk it. And so, she won't be there on the day that they lovingly place her sister in the family cemetery. Funerals, as the old saying goes, are for the living and when aging parents or spouses are unable to attend the funerals of loved ones it makes the grieving process harder. Kathleen's death also brings back memories of my mother's brother Clifton's death. He was the first sibling in her large family whose funeral she couldn't attend. That time she was in the hospital recovering from knee surgery. I don't know what family members did then to help my mom feel connected to her original family. I hope it helped because the loss of a sibling, is a huge because when they die you also lose the memories and family history that you and your sibling shared. (Photo: road in Kentucky, similar to road to the family graveyard)
Flowers were the first thing that came to my mother's mind on that sad evening. That's because sending flowers was one of the only things we could do from a distance. She wanted us to order them RIGHT NOW, even though the florists was closed. And the next morning, she was on the phone to my dad by 8 in the morning before the florists opened. If all she could do was send flowers, then, by damn, we were going to order those flowers ASAP. Then I started thinking about other things we could do to help Mom grieve. Here's what I came up with:
- Write down memories and/or a message to be shared at the funeral
- Send pictures for use in the funeral slide show
- Keep Mom (and Dad) posted on all the funeral details, as they unfold
- Hold a special "quiet" time with Mom at the time of the funeral
- Make sure that Mom has a chance to talk to other family members on the phone
I've crossed most of these things off my list and I've learned quite a bit about the funeral service. There will be a slide show and my mom was pleased to hear about the music that was chosen to accompany it, especially the Hank Williams song, "If You've Got the Money, I've Got the Time." "Oh," Mom said, "that was one of her favorites." Mom was also happy to hear that they'd chosen the old gospel song, "I'll Fly Away," for the service and she smiled when she heard that Kathleen would be wearing red. As the funeral gets closer, Mom is hungry for those sorts of details. And no wonder, it isn't every day that a sister dies. And it is a sad day, indeed, when a sibling dies and you can't attend the funeral. Another one of the many griefs associated with aging.