I deal a lot in the business of death and, more importantly, its aftermath, and the ability to hopefully mourn well. We do ourselves and our loved ones a great service when we are able to honor and say goodbye to them, and process the pain and the loss in our lives at the same time. We don’t, after all, mourn as those who have no hope.
I co-officiated at a funeral about a week and a half ago for a wonderful and spunky-sounding woman I never had the pleasure of meeting. In talking to her family and listening to the eulogy, she sounds like my kind of woman. More importantly, the crowd of family and friends who gathered to grieve well together and celebrate her life bear witness to the beauty of her spirit. Her husband and sons wept; there’s something powerfully freeing about men who are sensitive enough and passionate enough and comfortable enough to cry at funerals. Her friends and cousins, who were like sisters to her, shed many tears. But her loved ones also told incredible stories about her and the sort of person she was, and the laughter spread like wildfire in the room. Her ‘hookers’ (she taught rug hooking) and neighbors and cousins shared stories about her humor, her love of art and history, her ability to hide zucchini in her neighbor’s car or mailbox or porch if her crop was overlarge. Her younger son placed a well-loved Red Sox cap on top of her urn in the grave. Her neighbor left out the zucchini, but was sorely tempted.
It was a wonderful tribute to this woman, who, in her sixties, was still young enough to have given many more tears of joy and of sorrow, and who will be missed by her community, including those of us who never had the chance to meet her. I think we honored her well, and I think her loved ones were able to at least begin to say goodbye in a healthy way.
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A friend of mine from high school, with whom I had kept contact over the years, took her own life this past Friday night in the woods behind her house. She leaves behind a devoted and devastated husband, two children ages 5 and 1, parents, sisters, nieces, nephews, dear friends, and not a single clue, hint, warning sign, note, or explanation.
I can’t even begin to imagine, much less comprehend, the kind of pain she must have been experiencing, a pain that no one– not her husband, not her sisters, not her closest friends, all of whom are well aware of the warning signs of suicide– had any knowledge of. She had plans for Saturday morning, and Sunday afternoon. She never so much as hinted that she had a hangnail, let alone a tremendous pain that somehow drove her to a place from which she couldn’t come back. She suffered, and none of us know how long, in her own silence, leaving us to wonder if there’s anything anyone could have said or asked or offered to give her the space she needed to say what was hurting her. Perhaps not.
And how does one say goodbye in such a context? How does one grieve well? How does a community, a family, begin the process of healing when there are so many unknowns, so many questions we wish we could ask of her, or had asked of her, or could somehow still discover? How do we let go of a person who let go of herself and her hope and her joy, when we wish we could hold on to all of that for her?
I’m nervous about the funeral service, which will be a Catholic Mass. Given that church’s historical stance on suicide, given the obituary’s wording that she ‘passed away suddenly after a brief illness’ (did they in fact discover a history of depression or mental illness since last I heard on Sunday afternoon?), I worry that there is no way to grieve well, to say what we want to say, that we’re hurt by what has happened, by what she did, and by the fact that she didn’t tell someone–anyone!–about what she was feeling; that we’re a little pissed off at her that she would do this to her family and friends; that we’re so sorry for the agony she must have been in and wish we could go back and take it all away; that we want more than anything to help her five year old daughter (her son is thankfully so young he won’t remember this) somehow grasp joy and hope in her life, want to give her husband a place to rage and cry and despair so that he can begin to come through the other side; that most of all, we want to believe that whatever pain was there is gone now for her, and she is at peace in a way we always thought and hoped she was, a peace that, like the pain and grief she once knew and we must now bear, passes all understanding.
Be at peace at last, M, and may we in time know peace as well. May that be our tribute to you.