I remember when I found out I was pregnant for the first time. I can truly say, nothing has ever felt that heavy. I knew logically that I could handle it because billions of people did it every day, but there was this overwhelming weight of what it meant to be responsible for a human life. Someone who, because of me, was going to spend a possible 100 years making ripples on this earth. That it was not only my job to ensure this little pea was going to live a meaningful and happy life but that he was prepared to care for his own children with the love and compassion that I showed him… or that I didn’t show him. It’s a huge responsibility when you look forward through the generations and you start to imagine your actions as a consequence through time.
While I think many parents feel the weight of their importance, along comes the second child and it feels like we just
go into autopilot. It doesn’t phase us when there’s baby poop under our fingernails, vomit in our hair, and we are perfectly comfortable operating a vehicle on 2 hrs sleep. This is your new normal! Instead of sleeping in until 11 and hitting brunch, you are up at 5 and getting a head start on laundry. What was important before children now seems ridiculous. What was once thought impossible is now done without a second thought. In other words, we can do hard, scary things and with time they become second nature. We don’t need any special training, any certificates or approval to raise human beings. We rely on our instincts. We rely on love and know that no matter what happens, you will care more about your babies than any other person on earth. It’s this sense of love and belonging that really gets us through some long nights, tough moments and years of self-doubt.
So, if this is true in birth and life, that love and belonging gets us through hard things, shouldn’t the same then be true at the time of death? What does that love and belonging look like at the time of death?
We know that death is a hard and scary time. So much so, we typically just get someone else to do the more operational work. We hire Funeral Homes to take care of the stuff we are afraid of like touching our loved ones body, preparing it for viewing, housing all of our family, preparing sandwiches and drinks. They are really good at keeping it neat and tidy for us aren’t they? But bigger flowers, a nicer casket or a prime burial plot doesn’t really feel like love does it?
So when someone we love dies, where does our love go if not to care for our dead and how can we feel like they still belong to us when our dead is in the hands of strangers? Without this heavy lifting (and I’m sure many of us can relate) it just feels empty. It feels helpless. It feels like you have been cut off and are left holding all of your love without any place for it to go. Our current funeral practice don’t provide a transition for our new normal. It leaves us feeling like we've been wronged, like we are in this limbo. Why are we able to take pride in the enormous responsibility of raising humans but we so easily give this responsibility away when our loved ones die?
We justify the vomit hair and poopy fingernails because everyone says it’s worth it! We wear these things as badges of honour. The honour of love, belonging and of course, legacy. Our children grow up and we push them through science fairs, piano lessons, graduation and before we know it, we are telling them how wonderful it is to bring new life into this world. As you walk through memory lane with them, you remember the late night car rides, the explosive purges and you cannot help but smile through every story. You are proud of what you accomplished, of what they have become!
Why do we give this final connection, our final act of love and our final sense of belonging to away to strangers at the end of our lives?
I believe there are 2 simple reasons: 1) we simply we don’t know that we can take care of our dead loved ones and 2) we think we don’t know how.
We live in such a death phobic culture that multiple industries are making billions of dollars off our fears every year. Insurance, Funeral, Medical, and Beauty Industry as quick examples. We can’t even say the word! Dead, dying, death. My best friend is dead. Instead, we replace these words with loss or passed away, passed on, etc. A minute ago, you were perfectly ok with operating a vehicle on 2 hours sleep but you are not ok washing the body of your family member after they die? You are ok risking an accident that could result in death but you are not ok taking care of death.
I want to share a story of one woman’s journey into death and what it looked like for her family. To show you how could this be different.
Fran was dying of cancer and she chose to live out her days at home. Her house was not only where she was happiest, but it was where everyone else was most comfortable visiting. There was always something happening at Fran's, whether it was a neighbour dropping in, the rotation of nurses and caregivers or family stopping in to eat dinner and talk about their day. You just never knew what you would walk into as you walked across her threshold. It made sense that she chose to be there in her last days, its where not only she belonged but where everyone else belonged as well. Having her in her house put a sense of calm around her death and it gave everyone time to accept living while she was in fact dying.
When Fran died, her loved ones knew exactly what Fran imagined for her funeral and it all just needed to be coordinated with some of their own personal touches. They called in a very close group of family and friends and set out to work making Fran’s dream possible. One of the first pieces of care was to bathe Fran in the morning and set her body up for vigil and service. After Fran was ready for guests, there was to be 2 days of vigil where family and friends could come to the house, visit with her and her family. Everyone likes to keep their hands busy however, so there was always music or songs being sung, photo being shared and of course, plenty of food.
On the close of the second day of Vigil, Fran’s daughter Liz took Fran’s hand and said: “oh mom, I think I’m ready to start a new day.” She turned to me and there was something about her face, that showed she was ready. There was something about Fran’s face that said she was ready. It was as if after this time a grounding had taken place, that goodbyes were said and we were shifting into a new life now. A life, that started with a deep love and respect for what had gotten them there. That they were able to put down the heavy pack they had been carrying since Fran had gotten sick and now picked up a new pack filled with her love and their grief. It was now time to focus on how to live with Fran only in their hearts instead of Fran in their hands.
On the 3rd day, there was a small service in the backyard in Fran’s amazing garden. She was then followed by her community up to her burial site where she was to be gently laid in the ground. Her family was singing one of her favourite songs, the breeze was gently blowing and Fran was covered in beautiful wildflowers and as the sun was setting, her brothers, sisters and children slowly lowered her into the ground. In silence, the family took turns placing the earth on Fran’s final resting place and as they left the burial site by the light of the setting sun, they sang once more.
We need to bring deathcaring back into the hands of love. To feel the love of physically holding space, of stirring the pot that feeds, the heaviness of the shovel as you dig or the weight of a body as you bury. It is these tasks that gives love somewhere to go, it is grief showing up as love. It is this work that shows up as love and is deeply needed to honour our sense of belonging.
So what does it take to move into a new way of taking care of your loved ones? How do you practice deathcaring when you never have? The answer is different for everyone. I would start with one question: How did you practice childcare if you never have?
When I look at a photo today of me sleeping on the couch in the middle of day all cozied up with my newborn. I feel a profound sense of pride, I don’t think about the crazy nights or the mistakes I made along the way. Perhaps when you look at a picture of your dead, you will remember their beautiful vigil where your cousin made the worst lasagna or a secret conversation in whispers at a bedside. Perhaps the picture will represent a strength in knowing that from the day you were born until the day you died – you were able to do hard things, knowing that your friends and family belonged to you and that love won every time.