It was Christmas Eve: a hard day to leave for a few hours to see a friend. My sister and her family were visiting; I had a 17lb. turkey to roast…
Knowing it was likely the last chance I’d ever have to see my friend, however, I went.
After some time of sitting together, mostly quietly, I gave my friend one more hug. One last kiss on the cheek. One final squeeze of his hands. Another “I love you.” And then I said goodbye.
Three days after Christmas, my friend died.
My friend was 45. He only had twenty years with his wife; just nine and six years with his daughters.
I knew my loss could not compare with theirs, and yet the pain took my breath away. Quiet tears fell unbidden as I moved through the day, and in the evening, after my daughter was in bed, I allowed the sorrow to wrack my body with sobs.
How was his family possibly managing this grief? How does anyone, who has suffered such a monumental loss?
If someone you deeply loved has died – someone whose death felt wrong…unfair…out of the proper order and way of things – you know something about this kind of grief.
Because my father died, suddenly and unexpectedly, when I was ten, I already did. And I knew the heartbreak I felt now was for my friend, for his family, and also for me: for the girl who lost her dad.
I only have a few memories from my father’s funeral, and in thirty years no other loss – not another relative or friend, not the Hospice patients or many families I served – had ever quite awakened that old pain. And so, despite my training and experience, both personal and professional, I never saw how a parent’s funeral could be their last act of love.
But, you see, my friend not only faced the unbearable: that he would have to leave his family, against his will and every ounce of his ability to fight. My friend faced what so many do not: his own funeral arrangements.
In less than two months, he researched, spoke with and selected a funeral home, and prearranged his cremation.
He told us he wanted the wake to be held at their home parish; a place where his girls were as comfortable as in their own living room. He knew his funeral had to be somewhere bigger to accommodate all the people, but he wanted the bishop to lead the service with a full funeral mass and Eucharist.
And he wanted everyone to gather together for a big reception in their hometown afterward. He asked for Irish music, and chicken wings with bleu cheese and celery sticks. He wanted everything to be gluten-free, like he was.
Of all the courageous and loving acts of my friend’s dying, I think this was one of the greatest.
Because it was for us.
My friend wanted so much to take care of his family, just as he’d always done. So, despite his own illness and suffering, he did the unpleasant tasks, made the unthinkable calls, signed the agonizing papers…
And he made his own funeral arrangements, because he knew they would need it.
We would all need it.
We needed to know we were honoring his wishes in every decision we made and detail we planned for the services.
We needed to feel the hours go by as hundreds of people slowly filed through their small church for the wake; to know the heartache was held by a whole community lining the sidewalk on that cold January night.
We needed to see the great cathedral filled with witnesses to the procession of ashes so lovingly borne by his wife and daughters; with pews of tear-streaked faces a testament to the love which is every life’s most profound legacy.
We needed to hug each other, to laugh and cry and tell stories and remember him in the way he loved best: with food and drink and music and a room full of loved ones. We needed to celebrate his life which had touched so many of ours, but most importantly, we needed to recognize who he was – who he would always be – to his family.
I could almost hear my friend saying, “See? This is the legacy of my life. Please honor it for me.”
Isabella Dellolio Photography
For that is the gift of ceremony and ritual: they give us time and space to be with the truth; with what is. They make us slow down enough to pay attention; to see what’s really important.
What my friend did when he planned his funeral services was to make sure we all knew that we were the ones who would carry forward his memory. It was up to us now to talk about him with his girls; to remember him with his wife. We would need to count the weeks, months and years alongside them; to stay with their grief and their love.
Of course, I know not every person is so universally beloved; not every funeral is such a wholehearted lament. Many griefs are complicated by hurts, by time and distance; by what a person said or never did say; by what they did or did not do.
Perhaps in those times it is even more crucial for the person’s legacy to be seen and remembered. How comforting it would have been to me had people recognized that my dad’s alcoholism and my parent’s separation was part of my grieving, too. For my friend, we remember with his family that the years of suffering through illness is part of their grief, as well.
My friend’s final wishes – that all of us to be together for his funeral services – were his last act of love for his wife and daughters. In honoring his life – his legacy – he made his final earthly effort to care for them…by making sure we would.