When your mom passes away, your life is never the same.I guess we think it will return to normal, after the post-death assembly line activities have concluded and the prescribed grieving period has expired. But it doesn’t.
My own mom’s final breath was at home, in her own bed, my two sisters and I at the foot, and her husband of thirty-six years by her side holding her hand. Even Mom’s cat had climbed up on the bed and laid in a cuddled circle, showing support in the only way he knew how. We were all there, and that’s the way it should be — the way I pray that it is for me someday too.
I learned quickly that there is no time for your broken heart to have its way — there are too many things to be done. The last breath is simply the “on” switch for the big machine and its processes that immediately ensue. Within five minutes the first call is made… within an hour the van arrives, and the driver has entered the house. My sister says out loud “Why is HE here?” It was all just happening too fast — she wasn’t ready.
“I’m by myself tonight, ya think you could give me a hand?” the driver asked me. There is just something not quite right about this, but this evening I had already been drained of all passion and emotion, so it didn’t even occur to me to be upset at his request.
I acknowledge the crematorium van driver, and then help him lug the gurney down the back steps. When I was a teenager I was once trying to balance too many large drinks on a tray at a fast food place, and one of them wobbled until it eventually fell to the floor and made a huge embarrassing mess. To this day I don’t carry drinks on trays. That terror came to mind and I sure didn’t want to mess this task up as I focused so hard to keep everything balanced down those steps. Somehow, I got the job done — down the steps, across the walk and into the open doors of the van. And this was not a gothic van with Victorian script on the side and deeply tinted windows. No, it was more like just a van — disappointing, plain, and normal. I just loaded my own mom into “the van.”
“Sorry for your loss.” “Thank you.” The mantra of grieving had begun.
I’ve since learned that funeral places intentionally drive fairly plain looking “soccer-mom” vans, so as not to draw unneeded attention. I came to appreciate that — but not until much later. That night I expected their best hearse, and a police escort I suppose — with helicopters and motorcycles. Why? Because that is my mom. But instead we got a soccer-mom van, that just pulled out of the drive alone into the stillness of a starlit November night and drove away.
A frequent visitor to the house that week was a very nice lady from the church just one block north where Mom had been a member for over thirty years. It was there that mom helped with the finances, taught Sunday school, and was leader of the little “Cubbies” in Awanas. In addition to the comforting visits, that last afternoon this lady had brought a plate of home-made brownies to the house. Thank you, nice church lady. Those brownies were the best we ever had in our whole lives. There are times that life gets quite a bit overwhelming and pulls us down, yet somehow a perfect brownie can rescue us with a small amount of welcomed relief — it was one of those times.
On the second morning, we met with the crematorium staff in a larger city about fifteen miles north. It was Saturday, but he was still dressed in a fine blue suit. The crematorium society was in an eleven thousand square foot repurposed mansion built in the 1860s. The woodwork was stunning, along with oil paintings on the walls, and perfect carpet. All that was missing was perhaps the soft, drifting music of the cello…
This home was built at a time before cremation was even an option to most. It wasn’t until a decade later that this country had its first cremation, much to the dismay of the local folk who found it to be grossly “un-Christian”. But a doctor at the time advocated it not only for sanitation and protection of the local water supply, but also as a social equalizer of sorts, arguing that cremation treated “the body of a prince as it does that of the peasant; the body of the king as that of the commoner…”. Now a century and a half later, this operation we were working with actually only did cremations. How things had changed.
“Sorry for your loss.” “Thank you.” I’m sure you are. Doesn’t it somehow grow stale and routine for them? I know they see the hurt in our eyes and feel our pain. And in a way their careers depend on our pain, but they get to be an important part of people’s closure and healing at one of the most significant times in their lives. What they do matters and touches people. They help you on your grieving journey, and that’s important.
“How many copies of the death certificate would you like? The first one is $38; all others are $22 per copy.” At that price, what would have been a dozen or so just-in-case copies turned into a well thought out “three”. Then there was the color and style of the urn, the wording of the obituary, and the correct spelling of all the names.
After the paperwork was completed and plans arranged, they asked my step-dad how he would like to pay. He would have to pay at least half right now — and they accepted check or credit card. Nice to have such options. It felt a bit like we were buying a used car.
“And again, sorry for your loss.” “Thank you.”
Back home again for a short break.
More brownies — this time with reheated coffee. Thank you, again, nice church lady.
The last stop of the day was the headstone place in still a different city. This was not quite as elegant or comforting as the funeral home — just an old blue metal fabricated building with large display windows in the front. It looked like a place that maybe used to sell motorcycles, or kitchen cabinets, and this guy was a bit of a story teller. He picked up on the fact that I was from out of state and seemed to inquire as to why I had made such a long trip.
“Spending some time with family this weekend,” is all I could say. He apparently didn’t quite grasp why we were all there picking out a stone, nor that the date of death he wrote down for inscription was only two days prior. He did enjoy telling us about golf, and about how one day a bird flew right into his large side window and died. Maybe this was his way of trying to distract his grieving new customers. Even though it didn’t work, maybe this was him trying — maybe this was the best he could do. If so, thank you for at least trying…
He did know all about the cemetery in my hometown where mom’s urn would be taken and would personally coordinate the team that would place the stone. On one side of her would be a spot reserved someday for her husband, and on the other my nephew (her grandson) was already there many years in waiting. Forever 18…
More paperwork and questions for my step-dad to address…same payment options. Check written. No “sorry for your loss” this time. Good — I didn’t need another one. Part three of the post-mortem assembly line trilogy was completed.
So, in those first couple days we’d not grieved yet at all. We’d been working the process, filling out a lot of paperwork, making a lot of decisions, and writing a lot of checks. People like my mom and I admire times of old when processes and life were a lot simpler. In colonial days the body was prepared at home by women from the community, and the casket was purchased at the general store. There were sometimes special mourning gloves and commemorative rings prepared and given out. The bell would toll, and people would gather, but at the burial nothing was read, no funeral sermon was made — they were just carried solemnly to their grave and buried on the family property. Mom would have appreciated the simplicity of all that.
She asked for no immediate viewing or service — only a memorial that following spring. For that we became thankful because the working part was over, at least for now.
Back home… more brownies. Thank you, nice church lady. You just don’t know the significance of your gift. For in our initial time of confusion and frustration and sadness, your brownies were our support and our glue — even if just in some small way. No, I take it back, you do know… and that’s why you made them. You’ve been there before, perhaps many times. Perhaps even on the other side — this side.
The lesson from the nice church lady that week is one that will never leave us: do something. Just do something rather than nothing. Even if it’s small or you think it might be insignificant — it isn’t, it will matter. My sister said the hardest thing about losing your mom is feeling alone, and that alone is a scary place. Co-workers don’t know what to say. Friends think they should give you some space. So, there you are. And when everyone feels collectively unprepared and awkward, you then experience what both my sister and I did at our work places at the time — nothing. Doing something, anything, would have mattered.
A couple weeks later I received a card from my family of co-workers at the old office job I had left several months prior to mom’s passing. They still cared. They cared enough to buy a beautiful card, have everyone sign it with love and prayers, and send it to a “co-worker” who didn’t even work there anymore. That was one of the most meaningful gestures of my life. And another lesson. It wasn’t a small gesture — it brought hard tears of gratitude to my eyes on a very difficult day when I needed it so much.
In doing some research on supporting others with grief, so many sources say to just keep it simple, to not overthink or try too hard to say the right thing. Recalling a favorite memory.. or just admitting you don’t have the right words.. or just being there and listening. No solutions, no fixing. Just don’t avoid it out of the fear that it won’t be perfect — any and all expressions from your heart to theirs will matter more than you will ever know. “As supporters we always think we don’t want to bother them now — the truth is grieving people need bothering…” I want to learn to be one of those people that reaches out a does a little bothering.
In having many people openly share with me about loss, the underlying repeated theme from every single one of them is the same. “We’re not ok.” In three to five business days we are back to work. In two weeks, people stop mentioning it. In six weeks its nearly forgotten, and surely not an issue that we still carry around. But we’re not ok. A coworker and friend, Erin, recently lost her mom too — she told me recently, “I pretend to be okay, and happy, but honestly most days I’m really not and it takes every ounce of strength to hold back tears.” A writer friend of mine named Jecika lost a daughter at birth and often expresses her grief through her writing. She recently shared with me that “nine years later I still cry from word to word, page to page.” So, no — we’re not ok, and it doesn’t just go away.
And it seems there are so many triggers — just when you imagine that it’s all about over then it all comes flooding back. Every holiday. Memories. The long-awaited spring memorial service. Emotions. Then Mother’s Day rolls around. Emptiness. For us then in November, and every November thereafter, we’ll be reminded of our heartbroken loss.
So it is for so many people all around us. People that have lost a mom, a dad, a spouse, a child. Maybe last year, maybe ten years ago. There are Erins and Jecikas all around us and in our circle and they too are stumbling on triggers and crying once again long after our allowed grieving period has ended. I want to do better at remembering what’s in their hearts, what they carry with them — and that, no, they are not “ok”.
I tend to appreciate the quiet times in life more than I used to — things like gardening, writing, and even doing the dishes. I like spending a quiet early morning on the back porch with just my big white dog and a cup of coffee. I like to just sit in the darkness, rub his ears and run my fingers through his thick usually dirty fur. Listening to the birds begin their day, I do my best to put a box around the fact that I, too, am really not ok. Or perhaps in realizing that “ok” is just defined differently now…
In the meantime, too often my sisters and I even forget to lean on each other. Sometimes I sorrow in being a grieving son and forget to be that supportive brother, that hero to my heroes.
But through this, we’ll be better prepared — for our friend, our coworker, our neighbor. We know that our loss will someday help us to be a better support for those around us.
And when our time comes to make the brownies, let us have the courage to reach out and be the one. Thank you, nice church lady. Thank you for the reminder of the very small yet so important things in life.