Losing your parents is difficult. Losing your parents and then having to deal with funeral planning and decision-making brings that grief to a whole new level. I know this first hand. Neither of my parents ever discussed what they wanted to have happen as a celebration of their lives after they passed away because…well, the topic was just too morbid and they didn’t want to worry each other with that ‘nonsense’. As they got on in age, we brought the subject up every once in a while, and were shut down each and every time because we were being too depressing. And then, as will happen, my father died…so that discussion became more of an exercise in excrutiating stress and pain than organizing a tribute. His death five years ago was a gut-wrenching and traumatic experience for me. As equally painful was trying to plan his funeral with my mother as she mourned the love of her life. To be honest, I thought that our tribute to Dad was meaningful, and it helped to hear what others had to say about him. But having to plan his service under those circumstances isn’t something that I want to repeat.
The details that go into planning a funeral service or a celebration of life are insane, both mentally and financially. Which funeral home? Which cemetery? No cemetery? Cremation or no cremation? Urn? Casket? Church service or hall rental? Who is going to speak at the service? How do you celebrate your loved one? Which songs will you sing? Who will sing them? Who is going to officiate the service? What do you serve afterwards? Alcohol? No alcohol? Food? Appetizers? Full meal? For how many? Who is going to show up? And which organ do you need to donate in order to pay for the whole thing? (And although I say this last piece in jest, I am not far off in adding that in!)
Now imagine thinking about this for the very first time in detail following the death of your partner of 50 years, when your heart is torn into pieces and you are completely overwhelmed by all the decisions in front of you. This was my mother, and watching her find her way through this chaos was not only painful, but exhausting.
And so, with Mom’s recent terminal cancer diagnosis and the realization that her time with us is very limited, she has chosen to approach this conversation very differently. Having learned a great deal from her experience in planning Dad’s service, she now feels that it is better to be prepared for multiple reasons. First, you have a say in what will happen during your celebration of life. And secondly, you will spare your family the anguish that comes with making those decisions, especially when they are reeling from the loss of a loved one. And so, shortly after her cancer diagnosis, Mom planned her celebration of life and shared with us what she wants to have happen. Some of the plans are touching…others bordering on ridiculous, which of course, makes us laugh. When she requested that my nephews sing to Josh Grobin’s ‘You Raise Me Up’, we questioned if that was the tumour talking or she was just having a momentary lapse in judgement. Our group text was entertaining with gifs, bitmojis and emojis firing away at breakneck speed when I threw that possibility out to the family. After careful consideration for all of five seconds, the boys respectfully declined. Considering that we have only ever heard them belt out a tune or two following a few beverages, they felt that a live performance in front of family, friends and strangers would have been a huge stretch…and so Mom let that idea go. But she was clear in her wishes and ensured that everybody was on the same page, which makes the planning infinitely easier. We know what we are doing with decisions already made and plans in place, and for that I am grateful.
The planning aside, I do have to say that this experience is definitely surreal, as we discuss with a woman whom we love what we will be doing to say good-bye to her. Last night, it struck me that it is seriously bizarre to listen to your eldest daughter practicing the songs that she will sing at the service…in front of the person for whom she will be singing the songs. For my mother and daughter, however, this was completely natural. Throughout their practice sessions, Carly sang at the kitchen table while Mom tapped her toes and commented on how beautiful the music was while lying in her hospital bed. In her mind, it was a privilege to be able to witness this ‘live’ concert of songs that she has chosen. She figures that because she won’t be around to hear her granddaughter sing at her own funeral, enjoying these sessions is the best way to be a part of it. At the same time, it has now become commonplace to ask how she feels about a specific reading and the food that will be served. She is engaged in the conversations and making decisions that allow her to maintain a sense of control over this disease. So strange, but uplifting as well.
I think that what I have learned, having gone through both scenarios, is that making these plans in advance is a gift to your family. By deciding what you want to have happen at your celebration of life, you alleviate the stress that comes with organizing an event like this, and allow for those that you are leaving behind to grieve without having to add the extra pain of decision-making and planning. At the same time, you leave your mark on your service, and help your family to honour you in a way that feels right. As surreal as this experience has been over the past 9 weeks, I would hands down choose this route every single time. And I thank my mother for having the courage to make these decisions and share them with us. This, too, is another one of her gifts to us.