Just after my last post of 2008, a good friend of mine passed away.

That was the start of my hiatus.

I found out, quite literally, about 5 minutes before I was leaving to go to a memorial service. (I don’t know if that’s ironic or appropriate) I was… a mess the entire day. The Memorial service was for the father of my cousin’s husband (we were there showing him support as he’s done for us), but I obviously had something else on my mind.

I don’t know if I’d consider myself good or bad at dealing with Death. I suppose it’s something that no one is either “good” or “bad” at. Frankly, I’m curious to know exactly how a “good dealing of Death” would go. Does it involve a lot of crying? No crying? A zen-like calmness and a “c’est la vie”? Crying and getting drunk *until* you get to a zen-state of c’est la vie?

My earliest memory of anything involving death was my brother waking me up one dark morning and telling me our Bampi (My Mom’s Father) had died. I was really young… probably no more then 6. I have vague recollections of the man, mostly just sitting in the background of family gatherings from that side. My brothers and I were deemed “too young” to go to the funeral.

The first wake I went to… I don’t remember who it was for. It was for a distant relative, one I don’t think I had any recollection of… we either saw them rarely or not at all. I was probably 10 or 11. The only thing I could think of was how I really didn’t think I wanted to see a dead body (yes, despite all the violence on TV, I was hip enough to know the difference between that and reality. Go figure.)… and I was actually relieved to find it was a Closed-Casket. That relief was short-lived however. After getting a drink of water, I saw my dad standing in the middle of the foyer of the funeral home. He motioned me over, so I went… and he pointed into one of the other wings (where there was another wake going on), and while I was turning my head and saw what he was pointing at, said, “That’s what an Open-Casket is like.” And I was looking at my first dead body. It was from a distance, but I could still see it was an elderly gentleman (and I recall he had a big nose). I quickly turned away, because I was still not ready for it… nor had I been ready for the all-too-sudden fashion my dad thrust upon me without warning. (He has a habit of that.)

I remember when the mother of one of my Aunts passed away. I had met her when I was really young… meaning, I don’t remember. But here, I was in High School, and we went to the Wake one evening. I spent the entire time just thinking… I felt like I should say something to my Aunt, but I didn’t know what that would be, because I didn’t remember her mother… and I didn’t want to lie and say “oh yeah, I remember her.” (If you knew my childhood, you’d probably wonder where I got this idea of “honesty” from… sometimes, I don’t even know.) When my parents told us to gather up our things to go, we all went up to her one last time to pay respects and say goodbye. When I got to my Aunt, I said, “I don’t remember her… but if she’s important to you, she’s important to me.” Then I hugged her, and we left.

My mom told me the next day, after my parents came back from the funeral (They didn’t want to take my brothers and I out of school for it), that my Aunt really appreciated what I said to her, and it made her feel better. (I guess I did something right.)

In High School, when I was a Senior, I was at the after-hours rehearsal for the school play (on a break) when I looked over down the hall and saw a few people gathered around standing still and listening to this one woman who was crying. My concern and curiosity got the better of me, and I walked over to see what was going on. When the woman finished (of which I didn’t know the context of what she was saying), and the group started to break up a little, I asked one of my other cast members what happened… and he told me that a kid in his class (the one just behind mine) had just killed himself.

It was not a guy I knew… but his sister was in my class (she apparently found him), and I would come to learn that he and I apparently knew a LOT of the same people. For awhile, I was wondering how it was I *didn’t* know him. But it seemed that just about everyone else in the school seemed to. (Though, he was part of the “jock” crowd, if I recall, so maybe that at least gave him some notice or popularity) Seeing the fallout the next morning was pretty surreal.

My first class was Physics, and our teacher was reading a prepared statement from the Principal’s Office… and everyone else was just quiet. Except for our Class President, Joe… who was balling his eyes out. Apparently, he was really good friends with the kid. When the teacher was about halfway through the statement, Joe got up and ran out suddenly. The teacher didn’t look up, just paused for a second, and then continued. Once he finished… there was complete silence… broken by me. Because I had gotten up and quickly headed for the door. I said to the teacher, “I’m going to check on Joe” and kept going. As I was going through the door, he said, “Thank you”… and I was off down the hall.

The first place I checked was the bathroom. I had the worst thoughts running through my mind, that *he* was going to try and kill himself too, or something. I dropped down to look under all the stalls at once, saw nothing, and checked the next closest one. I did see someone else in the hall, and asked if they had seen Joe, and they told me he went to the Guidance Counselor’s office. So that’s where I went. Joe was in with our Guidance Counselor (who was actually pretty useless in all of my interactions with him over the years… though he did try, I admit), and I just went in and sat down in another seat. I didn’t think I should say anything, I just felt that maybe having someone else there for him would be worth something.

For the next few hours, I pretty much stuck by Joe. Maybe it was part of my inner Super-Hero complex coming out, but I just felt like I had to stick by him and look after him. Logically, maybe I shouldn’t have done that… because I wasn’t even good friends with Joe, but I was going on gut feeling and instinct (despite my gut having steered me wrong in the past). I even escorted him to the local church, where an impromptu sermon was being given… that almost everyone in the school showed up to. I stuck by Joe, sitting next to him. I stuck by him until the sermon was over… I think he and a lot of other kids ended up going home by mid-day… I went back to the school to the scheduled classes, even though no one actually did anything in any of them. Each class ended up being an extra-quiet study hall.

I did go to the funeral services… mainly to “pay my respects”. Again, maybe logically, I shouldn’t have. But he was a kid from my school… we knew a lot of the same people (though for me they were acquaintances, and for him they were actual friends)… and his sister was in my class (again, despite not knowing her very well). That made me think I should be there for some reason or other. But I left after the church services… I didn’t follow the casket to the graveyard across the street. I just walked home.

In 1995, when I was in Undergrad, my Nana (Mom’s Mom) passed away. It was near the beginning of the Spring semester, and it was still a lot of snow on the ground. A few days before I had headed back there, I went with my Mom to the Nursing Home where Nana was living, bed-ridden. She recently had one of her legs amputated due to gangrene… and she didn’t seem to remember it. She also didn’t seem to remember my name. She looked at me with a big smile, then turned to my Mom and mumbled, “Which one is this?” Her tongue was majorly swollen and couldn’t drink normally. She had to have her mouth re-hydrated with a cotton swab that was dunked in a glass of water. It was… a bit painful to see her like that. There was also this awful stench that I had never experienced before. Later, when I asked my Mom about it, she told me that was the “rotting flesh from her bedsores”.

My Grandmother was rotting alive, and there was nothing I could do about that. That really hurt to think about.

Out of myself and my brothers, I think I was the last one to see her alive.

So, about a week later, I got the call at my dorm room from my Mom. I still wasn’t prepared for it, even though I knew it was inevitable. After I got the news, I put on my Coat and winter stuff… and just went walking. I think I circled the campus twice, when I finally ran into a friend of mine (the one whom I considered my long-lost twin, actually)… who could see that something was wrong. I managed to get it out, but was crying pretty much throughout while actually saying it aloud. (Prior to that, it was just silent, stoic contemplation) She then stuck with me to keep me company for the next few hours… which I’ve always been grateful for.

(At one point, she did say, “Um, listen… I have to say that if you’re thinking of trying to kiss me… please don’t.” To which, I turned and looked at her like she had 4 heads, with two of them singing Lithuanian Opera, and the other two licking their own eyeballs. I’d say that Sex was the *last* thing I was thinking about… except that to be honest, it wasn’t anywhere even on the list. So yeah, there’s no danger of that from me. And the thought that some guys *would* try to take advantage of that situation… dude, there’s a reason I hate my own gender.)

By the time I had gotten home for the Wake, I had pretty much cried myself out. I remember telling another one of my Aunts about my reactions, and she was surprised that I did so much crying… she had thought I was “taking it quite well.”

Still wasn’t sure what that meant.

In my next-to-last semester there, I was heading into a Tech rehearsal for the current show one Saturday morning. I ran into one of the other cast members, and I noticed he looked a bit down. So I asked him what happened, and he said how a girl in his dorm died in a car accident the night before. I said, “Oh God, I’m so sorry… may I ask who it was?” Then he told me… it was Carol Soucie.

Yes, I know this breaks the anonymity rule I have by naming her… but she deserves to be known and remembered. Carol was one of the absolute sweetest girls there was… and yes, I knew her.

When my friend told me it was her, my jaw dropped, and I was in shock.

Carol had been a neighbor of mine in our dorm the previous year, and I got to know her a decent bit from that. She also came to a lot of the department shows, and at one point I was told that “she was a fan of mine”. (No idea how true that was, but it made me smile… she had that effect on you, regardless.) This was the epitome of the unfair death. She was on her way home for the weekend and got hit by a milk truck (the driver of whom I believe I heard was drunk.)

A group of us carpooled up to Maine so we could go to the funeral. While it was a nice roadtrip… I wish we didn’t have to lose such a jewel of a young lady to do it. (Yet, she was worth driving 20 times the distance) It’s hard to say goodbye when, cosmically, you’re just saying hello. I think everyone felt cheated to not have had more time with her… because the little that we did was so good.

When I moved to California for Grad School, I was getting ready to fly back east to see one of my best friends get married. It was about a week and a half off, when one afternoon, at about 3:30 or so… I had this sudden flash in my head. A passing thought, a question, really… “What if Dzia-Dzia passed away?” (That’s my Grandfather on my Dad’s side. It’s a Polish thing.) I don’t know why… but I quickly and purposefully pushed it out of my head. It was a depressing thought, and there was no reason to have it.

When I got back to my apartment later that evening, I had a message on my answering machine. It was my Mom, asking me to call her “no matter the time”. As it was about 10pm when I got this, it was 1am where she was… so if I had to call, no matter the time… it can’t be good. I called her instantly… and she told me that Dzia-Dzia passed away suddenly that day. Recalling my earlier thought… I nervously asked her what time it happened. She said about 6:30pm… which would be 3:30 in the afternoon, my time. (I don’t really believe in psychic stuff… but that really disturbed me.) It was very sudden. He just fell over… no pain or anything. But completely unexpected.

Like when I heard about my Nana… I went walking. Trying to process it.

My parents had said to “not bother” flying back early for the funeral… it wasn’t worth it. (So nice of them to make that decision for me, wasn’t it?) As I believe I was the only one out of state at the time… I think I was the only one that missed the funeral. And it kinda pissed me off… I didn’t get to say my Goodbyes. I didn’t get the hugs I wanted or needed from my family WHEN they were wanted and needed! And timewise, I missed this all… by one week. I felt so incredibly cheated.

And it wasn’t the last time. A couple years later, just a few weeks before Christmas, the mother of another one of my Aunts passed away. This one was almost always at our family gatherings… we knew her and remembered her very well. She had gone into the hospital, and word hadn’t been good. Being the one so far away, and in another time zone, I had to rely on my cell phone for all information and staying in the loop. (Made more difficult by the fact that where I was staying, didn’t have any reception… I had to drive 8 miles into town to get my messages or make a call.) So, once I got into range of a tower, I called my parents… and my Dad answered. I asked what the news was… he said, “What?” I said, “Is there any change in her condition?”

And my Dad, in his infinite sensitivity… said, “No there’s no change. She’s dead.”

And he even said it with the tone of voice that just says, “What are you, a complete moron?”

I was shocked… not only at the news, but the complete assholishness of my own father at that moment. “Okay… when was someone going to tell ME???”

Then he goes on the offensive and starts getting mad about how my oldest brother was supposed to have told me, blah blah blah… Okay, if you want to throw blame at someone, fine… but how the hell can you hear those words from me: “Is there any change in her condition?” and actually believe that I had that information? How can you NOT say, “Oh… he doesn’t know.”?

But once again… they said not to fly back early. “It wasn’t worth it.” So, just being a few weeks away from flying back for Christmas… I had to miss another family funeral. And not say my goodbyes. Once again, feeling cheated.

And now my friend.

Now, I was living on the East Coast, and the funeral was on the West. Well, I wasn’t going to miss this one. His partner, one of my best friends, needed me… and if there was any way I could make it… I was going to be there. I lucked out, and got a decent last-minute flight into San Francisco, where I rented a car and drove the 5 hours north (the services were back in the area I went to Grad School, where we all met him)… and I was in town less then 24 hours, before I had to drive back down to San Fran to get my flight back. Travel-wise, it was a hellish weekend. But I’ll do it for my friends. Every time.

The funeral… felt a little off to me. Really for one reason. You see, I knew that he was going to be cremated… but what I didn’t know was that he had ALREADY been cremated. So, it was just a little urn there, no casket, no body.

That seems odd to me. I always saw cremation as simply the “alternative” to burying. They’re both just ways to dispose of a body, in the end. And the funeral and wake… are all supposed to be BEFORE the actual disposal. So people can say the goodbyes, look at the person one last time, remark how they look “so peaceful”… etc. But having the cremation BEFORE the funeral… is like having the wake over an already-buried grave. Makes no sense.

Once again… I felt cheated.

Funerals are for the living… this is about closure. Personally, I thought it was a bit selfish of his family to deny other people that opportunity for closure. Sure, there are different views on it, and they don’t look at it like that… but I do. And I think it’s cheating.

Sure, you can say, “But he’s still right there. That’s the ashes… that’s him. Right there! Literally!” And you’d be right, technically... he's just been converted to carbonized form. But you can’t look at the eyes of a pile of ashes. You can’t comfort yourself and say that they look so peaceful and happy lying there. Ashes don’t look happy. Or sad. They don’t look anything. It’s really hard to say goodbye to a pile of ashes, because you want to say it to a face, even if it’s not moving. And trying to say that to a picture is even harder… because that’s how they were THEN… at a frozen moment in time, when they were a different individual then. You want to say it to them as they are NOW. And now, if they’ve been converted to an unrecognizable form… and just as your brain could feel “they look so happy”, when the body is there… it is also easy to feel, “this really didn’t happen”, because it’s NOT there.

When I caught up with my friend (the partner) I asked him, “Is this a funeral or a *memorial service*?” He said, “It’s sort of both.”

It wasn’t fair. Not just losing him… but losing the chance to say goodbye.

So is that a good way to deal with it? Feeling like you’ve been able to say goodbye? Or does it come back down to the whole “crying/not-crying debate”?

Either way, the only answer or epiphany I can come up with is this:

I don’t think you can actually cheat Death… because Death doesn’t exactly play fair, either.


Anonymous said...

The first funeral I remember attending was for my paternal great-grandmother. I had the choice of going to her funeral (I remember meeting her once) or a wedding on my mom's side of the family. I chose the funeral with my dad (my brother had to attend the wedding w/ Mom) so I could see my cousin (and best friend). I don't remember anything of the actual funeral...just having to make the choice and my reasons for being pro-funeral.


The Undertaker said...

This is an excellent, well written article, thanks for sharing. I agree funerals are for the living. The more funerals you attend means you are alive.. and living.

Every person has their own way of grieving; it's a very personal growth experience. The ultimate goal of grief is to accept that a death has occurred and life goes on. The death nor the grief ever goes away, it's always with you.

with care

V. Riley said...

Thanks for the compliments... and for reading.

Maybe it's just too early in the morning while reading this... but I can't tell if it's appropriate or irony that you're handle is "The Undertaker", and finding my little post about death.


Anonymous said...

I've been to several funerals, a couple of memorial services, but never a wake (that I can recall).

Only one memorial service was for someone who'd been cremated (and since she died in a fire, it was the sensible way to handle the remains--it would have been a closed casket otherwise). It was a service for my best friend's mother, and actually one of my happier funereal experiences b/c although I knew her, I wasn't related to her...we were just there to support and help our friend. All the other death rituals I have attended have been for family members.

Anyway, for me, I'm not crazy about seeing dead bodies, so I was happy to just look at an urn. My mom and I had planned on a closed casket during "visiting hours" at the funeral home, but we were a little late, and they already had Dad set up with an open casket. I didn't want my dad's dead visage to be my last memory of him, so I stayed away from the front of the room; however, lots of other people seemed happy to get in a last look (some of them old friends that hadn't seen him in ages).

There are three funerals that I missed due to distance/timing. A paternal uncle, which I didn't feel too bad about missing; then there was my paternal grandfather. I was disappointed I didn't get to go to that one (he was such an awesome Grandpa!). The third was for a young nephew (whose twin was stillborn; we went to that very depressing memorial a couple years before), and I'm kind of glad we skipped the last service (again, due to distance/circumstance--if we'd been closer we would have gone).

However, the most important funeral (to me--being there to support my mother was critical), for my father, I attended. And really, after going through that huge grief (having the shakes the night before, being numb all throughout the services), the rest of them weren't that bad...just uncomfortable.

So for me, I haven't needed funerals/memorial services to attain peace with a loved one's passing...but the ritual does help (a lot of people) process the loss. And it really doesn't get more final than a pile of dirt and a carved headstone (which was extra horrible for my brother b/c he was named after my dad, so every time he saw the headstone, he was seeing his own name).

Actually, humor was my preferred method of dealing w/ Dad's death. The first Father's Day after his funeral, I was joking that at last I didn't have to bother buying any more cards for him.

And as for crying vs. not crying, crying's healthier--it's a great release. But it's not the only release. So it doesn't really matter if you cry or not, it's whether or not you're finding a release for your emotions.