Diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2010, Suzanne received induction chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant in 2011 followed by ongoing medical therapy as part of a clinical trial. She has been a CHN Support Volunteer since 2013.
My father passed away in October, just nine months after receiving a lung cancer diagnosis. As his primary caregiver, I took care of his affairs and coordinated his funeral. Dad embraced his Irish identity, which he shared with some Welsh and Scottish roots. The way he died – going out less than 24 hours after looking great and cracking jokes with the hospice nurses - was no different than the way he lived. He perfected the art of enjoying himself, with food, wine, laughter and fellowship. Nothing less than a “Proper Irish Wake” was appropriate. We wanted everyone to remember this actual event in the same epic way that we remember and celebrate his life.
Although Dad didn’t have much in the way of savings, we were surprised and actually relieved that some of his money ended up outlasting him. Despite his “live in the moment” lifestyle, we had enough funds to bury him in the Catholic cemetery and to hold a meaningful ceremony and an “Irish Wake” for the ages.
This celebration, which a friend recently referred to as a really fun event, was so fitting for Dad. It helped us say goodbye. It facilitated healing, and, the memories sustain us whenever we find ourselves missing him. Actually, the more that I think about it, the more I’m convinced that a funeral, unlike some weddings I have attended (including my own) is for keeps. The only event that’s even as important is the birth of a child.
So, here are a few tips I learned along the way. Others, like a yearly dance party and scholarship fundraiser that a friend’s family does for their departed sister/mother/friend/teacher are perfect expressions of gratitude that celebrate the full life of a loved one. Applying principles from other events can make it a special goodbye, the process of which can help you heal – which is really what funerals are all about. That’s a great legacy - whatever type of event you end up with.
- Personalize it. We had plenty of good food and booze, and an open mic at the wake so that everyone who wanted to could share remembrances of Dad. It was only fitting that we would hold it at a restaurant, which was closed during the day, so we had the place to ourselves. Your loved one may require something different – such as a backyard event for a gardener, a public park or aviary for a bird watcher, or renting a theatre for a movie buff. Make it a special celebration for your loved one. The process itself can be incredibly healing.
- Consider hiring a professional photographer. Nothing kills your ability to live in the moment more than thinking about documenting an event. Dad was survived by four daughters and five grandchildren: taking photographs was always important to us. I do wish that we had more pictures of the funeral and wake to share as memories, especially with those who could not attend. Consider finding someone local - and not a friend or family member of the deceased - to take some pictures. Your contribution to the economy of a local artist will pay off in more ways than one.
- Provide name-tags: Many of the attendees told me stories, and tried to share their connection to Dad. I did not get a chance to speak with all of them. After the wake was over, in discussions with my sisters, I began to get a better picture of who loved and cared for my father. It helped me to understand him, and to say goodbye. If everyone had worn a tag that said “My name is _________ and I’m connected to David through ________________,” the event could have been even better. I think it may have sparked more conversations, helping everyone to mourn him in their own way.
- Be ready to forgive and forget. Since Dad was cremated, we were able to give people advance notice of the event. We were able to publicize quite a lot on social media, in the Death Notices of the Detroit Free Press, and we created an actual website for Dad, where friends and family members could share memories, see photos and get travel information. Despite our efforts, there were several prominent no-shows. This is unavoidable. There will be co-workers, neighbors, close relatives, long-time acquaintances and even life-partners, who for whatever reason, simply do not make it to the funeral. There will be family members who say the wrong thing, or don’t contribute to the event or fall short of your expectations of honoring this loss. The worst thing you can do for your own healing is to take it personally. This advice is important in all aspects of life, but especially in death, which often is fraught with significance.
Some people have fears, personal issues, worries and a myriad of aspects they are unable to set aside for a few hours to attend a service. Some people mistakenly fear they would “burden” you with the cost of a lunch by coming to the wake. Maybe they didn’t personally know the deceased, and they mistakenly think that means the service is not for them. Perhaps churches bring back memories they cannot handle. Perhaps they fear seeing other attendees. Or, they are battling addiction, and a boozy wake would put them over the edge. I have learned to repeat the following phrase, often attributed to Plato, and recently traced to Ian MacLaren, which was the pen name of Rev. John Watson, from his book “Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush” a best seller in the 1890s: “Be kind. Everyone you meet is carrying a heavy burden.” In your grief and loss, you were able to pull together a special goodbye. As for other family members who did not contribute or simply didn’t show up – which, in the end, is all that we really can do for one another – just let it go. I have found, time and again, that’s always the best advice!