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On death and dying

Would it be in bad taste to talk about death in bullet points? Should I cut to the heart of the matter? I’ve been a little choked up in my thoughts and emotions. Hang in there with my gallows humor. Colonel Mustard in the Dining Room with a Candlestick.

Now I’ll get serious. Deadly serious. These are some of the thoughts I thunk during the wake, funeral and burial of my mother-in-law.

  • Receiving lines can be excruciating for germophobes.
  • People acclimate amazingly quickly. My children Freaked Out when they approached the casket for a private moment before the wake began. Within five minutes they were back to normal. Grieving, still, but able to incorporate Grandma Marshmallow’s altered presence into the occasion.
  • Death grants a person something of a beatification. What were annoyances when a person was alive are viewed as quaint personality quirks after death. I feel guilty even admitting that I harbored any feelings of annoyance.
  • Kids keep me present. Children are so much better equipped than adults are to be in the moment. They are not yet as adept at being wistful about the past or worrying about the future. The are able to be. here. now. and they remind me to do so, as well.
  • Observing the dying process has been, in hindsight, like watching a trainwreck in slow motion. You know the ending and you just have to wait for it.
  • My memories of Lisa are split in two: before the cancer, when she’s vibrant and beautiful and active and seemingly eternal; and after the cancer, when the insidious malignancy has robbed her of her hair, many of her abilities, her life force. I have a hard time reconciling the two.
  • People want to DO something.
  • People who are mourning their own losses are comforted by comforting.
  • Even if you say, “In lieu of flowers…” people will send flowers. Lots of flowers.
  • Friends and family hold us up when grief becomes unbearable. We can always come back to it. Just a conversation or a touch tends to break up the grief.
  • Mercifully, grief tends to come in bite-sized morsels. I am amazed at how moments of normalcy took over whenever the grief became to much:

Despair — load the dishwasher — sadness — toilet paper roll needs replacing — grief — oooh, here’s a text message — sob — help Reed find his non-existent socks.

  • The burial is the most difficult part for me. I hate hate hate that returning to the earth.
  • There’s a yearning to get to a New Normal. We left town two days after the burial, and I dreaded leaving my father-in-law and sister-in-law to their newly quiet lives. But when the time came I sensed that my in-laws and my husband were curious about finding their New Normal. As it turned out, the leaving wasn’t so hard for we leavers or the leavees.
  • I view, “She’s in Heaven” and “She’s an angel now” as platitudes to calm and placate. My theory is more along these lines. But I must admit that in the dark days of the wake and funeral, my own beliefs seem platitudinous, too. It wasn’t until our flight home lifted into the air that I was able to start believing again in something eternal and connected and bigger than life in this dimension. Sort of. So who knows what the purpose and meaning of life is?
  • Where IS the soul when the body no longer houses it?
  • When a person is alive, she is available in your mind as a motion picture. When that person has died, she is accessible to you only as snapshots — the movie no longer plays, not even in re-runs.
Aunt Jen, Tessa, Reed

I went 40+ years without having to experience the death of a parent/parent-in-law, and Lisa’s was the first death in our parent’s generation. I am fearful that now the bubble is popped, the other three will follow soon. And by “soon” I mean within the next 40 years.

One final note. I am expected to live to age 96. How about you?

Lori Holden, mom of a young adult daughter and a young adult son, writes from Denver. She was honored as an Angel in Adoption® by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.

Find Lori’s books on her Amazon Author page, and catch episodes of Adoption: The Long View wherever you get your podcasts.

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31 Responses

  1. What a lovely and realistic post about the end of the circle of life.

    I will be 45 next month & would like to think I am at mid life. I do, though, think that I am beginning to live the rest of my life and perhaps have already lived more years than I have left. That thought, when I look at my young son, guts me.

  2. Great post, and I think the bullet points are perfect!

    having just experienced my father dying (unexpectedly, so I didn’t have to go through the train wreck of watching him die), I can especially relate to this: “When a person is alive, she is available in your mind as a motion picture. When that person has died, she is accessible to you only as snapshots” and the “New Normal” Leaving my mom was hard, but seeing her in her new normal 3 months later, helps we realize that life really does go on.

  3. I really love this post. and bullets are totally appropriate, just like the waves of grief or the snapshots of those we have lost. your observations illustrate how very present you were, and are. I couldn’t agree more.

    as I was reading, I reflected on the death of my own father, more than 25 years ago. it was profound to me at the time that I could come to some of the same realizations, at just 16 (not all, but some). now, as I watch the train wreck in slow motion again with own mother, searching for signs of the vibrant essence of the woman I once knew, we await the inevitable, once again.

    just lovely. xo

  4. Oh my sweet friend, I am so sorry. All these bullet points were so true..even in this 15th year of my dad leaving us, still have days like that…going about my day and a memory sidesweeps me. I hate to admit, the grief never goes away.

    I also hope to live a very very long time and have my mom live a very very long time, so that I never have to say goodbye to her until I’m really ready to let her go (Like that will ever happen)

    I am so sorry for your loss, for your family’s sadness…I am sending all the love that Penelope Sunshine can. xo

  5. This is one of those posts/truths that I want very much to turn from and therefore know I cannot. I know you wouldn’t have chosen to get this wisdom, but I’m grateful that you chose to share it.

  6. I am sorry for your loss (all of you). It must be very hard as a parent to witness your children grieving. Your points are all so beautiful and true.

  7. This is a really great post although I’m so sorry for the loss your family has experienced.
    I also really like your other post on your theory on life and death. I don’t know what I believe myself but it’s nice to hear other thoughts than heaven, halo’s and wings.

  8. I am so sorry for your family’s loss and pain. In the midst of it, you have written a piercingly accurate portrayal of those days after the death of a dear one. Holding you close, my friend.

  9. I love this post, even though I feel like I shouldn’t. You have a way of laying things out that is refreshing and honest and … I don’t know. I just love it. And I can’t find words to say how sorry I am that you have all this newfound knowledge…

    (On a lighter note, I am apparently going to live to be 104. Which is kind of cool but also means I’ll probably have to go to a lot of funerals, so I’m not sure how I feel about it.)


  10. Such a personal insight into how this has affected you and yours–as always, you put it into such a beautiful form of words. Still sending love to you…
    I plan on being at least 100…

  11. That calculator says that I will live to 106, but I’ve always thought that I’d be at least a 120 (kidding, maybe just 100).

    I’ve been thinking about all of you as you adjust to the new normal.

  12. Actually I still have some motion picture memories of my mother, but they are tiny 5-second loops of specific mannerisms or things she’d say.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the beatification and have really been struggling.

    The good and the bad news is that the popping of this bubble means nothing, because there is no logical order to deaths. In the year and a half they have been alive, my children have lost one grandmother and one great-grandfather, but they still have the other grandparents plus *3* great-grandmothers. They lost their first grandparent as toddlers, but it’s feasible that they could be parents or even grandparents themselves before they lose their last one.

    Wow, that is a lot of flowers.

  13. Very very astute. Yes to all. We have had the misfortune as a family to witness a lot of death, some of it tragic, some of it firsthand, so I had a lot of time to ruminate, and I feel those very same bullets. I’m sorry for your loss.

  14. First, a hug and condolences for your loss.
    You made good points about death. And yes, as we get older they do come faster. The hardest is those closest to you and the ones that we feel didn’t have enough time here on earth.
    I agree about the flowers . . . Joyce Carol Oates wrote on the funeral of her husband that it was like someone won the derby with all the flowers. I do believe that laughter helps and letting everyone grieve in their own way.. And the quirky things that drove us crazy when they were alive are the things that can be special when they are gone. I find that these are the things that bring us comfort and that help us when we share with others.

  15. The thing about the burial, for me, is that it’s so anti-climactic. After that, it seems like you’re at a loss for what to do next.

    This is a really good slice-of-life view of what happens after a death.

    I’m supposed to live until I’m 93. I’m not really sure that sounds like a good idea.

  16. I think humor is a divine gift and black humor especially helps us cope. As I have learned from my patients, if we don’t laugh, we’d cry, right?
    I have no idea where the soul goes, I think maybe it dwells in the hearts and minds of those who love us.
    When I read your post, it reminded me of how cancer took so much away from my young, vital 24 y/o brother, and I realize now that 1.Jim wouldn’t want me or his family and friends to dwell or completely remember him so ill, and neither does your MIL, truly, and 2. that his illness, just like your MIL’s, was just a small percentage of their lives, and time will hopefully balance this out, so there is more remembrance of the happier times.
    My sincere condolences LL and to all the Weebles.

  17. Such honesty and rawness in what you wrote. I love that you are willing to share such private thoughts with us. Talking and writing about death is a healthy way to process what we can’t comprehend and our hearts can’t hold. It’s healing.

    So sorry for your family’s loss, Lori. Praying for God’s comfort for you all.

  18. I do love the bullet points–they seem to capture the experience of grieving beautifully. And I think that the idea that people need to “do something” is huge. Sometimes that need may come into conflict with the grieving family’s need for space or need not to have to make decisions. You and your family are held in my thoughts.


  19. Love the bullet points & agree with pretty much all of them. I also love the photo of Tessa & Reed with their aunt. It made me think of when my Grandma passed away & my uncle brought his young grandchildren to the casket. It was such a cute scene, their curiosity & the gentle way he talked to them, it made me smile through my tears.

    As for the quiz, I’m told I will live to be 91 — longer, if I make a few lifestyle changes. I’m lucky that I have some good genes on both sides. Aside from my one dear Grandma, who died suddenly at 68, my other grandparents lived to be 85, 86 & 96, and most of their siblings also lived well into their 80s.

  20. I was “in the void” when you guys went through this. I’ve been to only one funeral in my life. It was for my father’s mother (I don’t really feel right calling her “grandmother,” since I can hardly remember her face and I felt no connection to her whatsoever). I was ten, and the sadness of those around me was what affected me moreso than the loss itself. That sounds incredibly selfish to say, but now I look back on that and almost wish that I *had* experienced some sort of true grief, like maybe it would be a type of inoculation of experience that might help me better deal with a loss in my life that *does* matter on a personal level. Recently a high school friend’s mother passed away, and it scared me that I am now entering that phase in my life where I truly have to be concerned about things like this.

    Somewhere in my mind, I’ve bookmarked this post to pull out when I’ll need it. It’s inevitable that someday I will…I just hope that it’s still a long way off from now.

    It’s late, but I’m sorry for the loss of Lisa. <3

  21. I love this post, and am nodding my head. Especially love the part about “bite sized morsels.” Amazing what the human heart is capable of doing, both to protect us, to allow us to feel, and to help us heal. Thanks for sharing this with us … and remembering L. with you.


  22. Here from the future via Time Warp Tuesday and baffled that I didn’t comment the first time around, as I remember this post and that time in your life last year vividly. I know that you expressed to you back then on other posts and in other ways how sorry I was (and continue to be) for your families’ loss.

    I agree with Mel that your observation about those who are grieving finding comfort in comforting is profound and so very true. As we have talked about before, that is why I think there are so many “wounded healers” out there. I for one find comfort and validation in being able to reach out and try to be there for others who are bereaved, it makes my own grief and loss more bearable somehow.

    Another of your bullet point on death and dying that spoke to me was this:

    “Death grants a person something of a beatification.”

    I couldn’t agree more. I have had the unfortunate experience of learning something about a loved one after their death many years ago that didn’t jive with my image of them. They weren’t around to defend themselves and I still struggle at times to accept/make peace with how the knowledge I have effects how I remember them and honor their life and memory. I try to focus on our relationship while this person was living and what I found out later doesn’t directly effect me, but its hard not to let it tarnish who I thought this person was.

    Anyway, thank you for revisiting and reflecting on this via Time Warp this week/month. I am so glad that I got the chance to re-read it and finally comment. xoxo

  23. Gallows humor is sometimes all there is to keep you going. I’m reminded of when we lost my grandfather, and had to joke about his continued over-punctuality when we put his ashes in the car two hours before we had to leave for his service. He was always a ‘plane leaves at 6? Gotta be at at the airport at 3’ kind of person.

    I agree with Justine, love the ‘bite-size morsels’ example, because that’s exactly how it is.

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