Tag Archives: death

On grieving timelines

I was reading a theory that European and North American grieving practices transformed from a Victorian model (with elaborate years-long process of commemorating a death) to a post-WWI model where death was expected to be processed more efficiently, perhaps because of the sudden death of a large percentage of the population in the war and the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.

My mother-in-law died a year and a half ago, and I think our family has benefitted from a pretty spread-out grieving process. Some steps:

  • Family gathered for Suzie’s last days. She died the night after coming home from the hospital, earlier than expected. A few hours for family members to visit her body, lying in her bedroom. Medical school staff came to collect her body later that morning (she wished to donate her body for study).
  • 1 week: neighbor sits shiva for Suzie (week-long memorial time observed in home).
  • Next several months: Suzie’s body is studied by medical students at her daughter’s medical school. At end of semester, memorial ceremony at medical school with students and families of the donors.
  • 2 months out: Memorial service, held at the same hall where Suzie and Rick were married and where the family enjoyed folk dancing over the years. We found that 2 months meant that friends and family could plan to travel, and that we weren’t still in the first shock of grief. (I’ve seen some hard feelings among family members organizing a speedy funeral without everyone being able to make it, and I’m glad we avoided that.) Quaker-style ceremony with attenders gathered in silence, and people rising to speak and share thoughts or memories as they wished. Meal afterward, functioning as a kind of family reunion. Sharing of Suzie’s jewelry with relatives who are visiting.
  • 2 months out: Memorial book produced in paper and digital form. It’s made of pictures from Suzie’s life, writings from family and friends, and her newspaper obituary. Shared with family and friends.
  • 3 months out: Suzie’s birthday. We bought the kind of flowers she always got for her birthday.
  • 4 months out: Rick’s coworkers gave money for the family to do something together. Ferry trip to harbor islands that Suzie loved.
  • 11 months out: first Christmas without her. Sucks. Suzie’s sister makes the annual family photo calendar including pictures of Suzie throughout the years on every page.
  • 1 year out: Spent day of her death with the family visiting a seaside town she liked to visit.
  • 1 year out: family received ashes from medical school.
  • 1.5 years out: Suzie’s daughter has her first baby. Presentation of a baby sweater that Suzie and I planned for two days before her death for Alice’s eventual baby, and I that knit in Suzie’s style.
  • 1.5 years out: family scattered 1/3 ashes at beach with extended family.
  • Still to happen, planned for 2 years out and 2.5 years out: scattering other 2/3 of ashes in two other locations important to Suzie.
  • Still to happen: presenting family with recording of Suzie reading from “The Wind in the Willows” shortly before her death.

I think these ongoing occasions to remember together have been good for the family. I’m particularly glad we didn’t have to spend the first week organizing a funeral. Because Suzie wanted to donate her body, we also didn’t pay any funeral expenses – the only part that cost money was the hall for the memorial service. A typical US funeral costs $7,000 between the funeral home, burial, and headstone, which is not a financial stress a grieving family needs.

I’d like to have a process similar to this for my family when I die.

I particularly like the way Mexico observes the Days of the Dead, with bittersweet celebration of lost loved ones. Families visit graveyards to decorate gravestones, and they make altars with flowers, candles, and the favorite foods and belongings of loved ones. Having a concrete action to take seems helpful, and I imagine it might work particularly well for children.


Against the dying of the light

I keep seeing people discussing the New York Times piece on Sandra Bem’s suicide after she decided her Alzheimer’s disease had gone too far. It’s a beautiful and thought-provoking piece, and I have great respect for the thoughtful and loving way Bem and her family went through a very painful process.

But do you ever notice these are the only pieces you see about death? Before the piece on Bem, it was “Oliver Sacks on Learning He Has Terminal Cancer” and before that it was “How Doctors Die” that were going around my newsfeed. About coming to terms with one’s own mortality, refusing end-of-life treatment, perhaps stockpiling narcotics just to be sure. About people who can think through their own end rationally, weigh the pros and cons.

After reading a lot of these articles, I had the idea that this was the way to do it. The correct way to die was with acceptance, with grace, with foresight, with planning, with documentation.

And then I spent two years living with a person who was dying. My mother-in-law Did Not Want to Talk About being sick. She did not want to plan for the future. She did not want to discuss hospice. She did not write letters to her grandchildren, or give us last messages, or any of the things I expected.

It took me a while to realize that was okay. She loved being alive, and she hated to think of stopping even when her quality of life was bad. She was not ready to go. She was never going to be ready.

It was easier for her that she went a little before any of us expected, that she said goodnight and went upstairs to bed for the last time without any tearful goodbyes. Her last message to us was how to clean the fish tank. There will never be a New York Times piece about that.

There is not only one correct way to die.