Saying goodbye is never easy. When you know it is a final goodbye it is especially hard.
Our tradition of funeral home visitations, funerals, and graveside services are sometimes incomprehensible to the young, tedious to teenagers, prolonged to some, exhausting to others. But the intent is to show respect, and to give comfort, and do what we can for those left behind. And so we do what we can, the best way we know how.
When I was young, I never liked going with my parents to a visitation. They seemed to know everyone there and had to spend what seemed like an enormous amount of time visiting. As I got older I asked if this was disrespectful to the grieving family – not really out of concern for their feelings, but just as a way of leaving sooner. It didn’t work.
The first family member I remember services for was my grandmother. We were very close, but at the funeral home all the visitors were friends of my mother, or my aunt, and some older ones were friends of my grandmother herself. The personal loss I felt didn’t really hit me until one of my friends came to visit – just for me. Somehow that made it all real. And while it hurt, I appreciated it so very much and remember it still, through all these many years.
When our daughter was very young, we became friends with an elderly lady in our church. When we would visit and take her food we walked through her front yard that she had filled with flowers, and we all delighted in our brief times together. When she passed away, we tried to explain to our daughter what had happened and that even though her body was there she was really in heaven. We thought she understood, until, at the visitation, our daughter went to one of the chairs that surrounded the room and sat down alone. We asked her what she was doing. “Waiting for Mrs. Jacobs to wake up,” she replied.
I have a friend that has had way beyond her share of tragedies in her life. One of her daughters was killed in an accident when her car was hit by a sheriff’s vehicle. That car lost control while chasing a speeder down the curvy country road they lived on. Video from the funeral was on TV repeatedly because of the controversy surrounding the necessity of the high speed chase. This was my first loss that literally took my breath away, and hurt so deeply that I had to remind myself to breathe. I remember that after the burial in the family cemetery just down the road from their house, what seemed like hundreds of friends and family gathered at their home and food seemed to be everywhere. I remember there didn’t seem to be anything I could do for her but just to be there with her and for her, and so that’s what I did.
I remember when this same friend’s mother died after years of Alzheimer’s had taken away the strong and loving soul from her body. The funeral was in a small country church that had floor-to-ceiling windows and relatively few seats. The vocalist was a friend with the voice of an angel, and during the quiet service the snow fell outside and wrapped us with a sense of calm and peace. The simple beauty of it remains in my memory. It was the perfect reflection of my friend’s mother’s life.
Although my mother had cancer, she died sooner than we expected and we were all in a state of surprise and concern for my father. We decided to have only graveside services. I remember when my aunt, my mother’s sister, viewed her body for the first time – she cried and said it just didn’t look like her. So we asked them to put her glasses on and it seemed to make things better. My mother was very active in the church’s music ministry, and the former song leader was surprised that we didn’t have a service at the church for her. So he went to the funeral home that morning before the service and sang “Because He Lives” just to her, just because. And at the cemetery, my son cried and cried because he could see how distraught his grandfather was at losing the love of his life and his wife of over 60 years.
Because my mother took care of my dad I wondered what I would do with him after she was gone. He only lived six months, but that time was a gift for me and my husband and my children to really get to know this quiet man who had lived in my outgoing mother’s shadow. The times I visited with him brought peace to my hectic life and I felt such a loss when he passed away. When I wrote some words for the minister to share I said, “I wondered what I would do with him, and now I can’t imagine what I will do without him.”
People have been known to say, “She looks so good,” or “He looks so natural,” and I have cringed every time I heard those words. But when my husband’s mother passed away, I worried about how she would look. She spent four years in a nursing home bed, her fragile skin scarred by bruises and sores, although still through it all, the complexion on her cheeks was always so beautiful. And she did look so “good” and so “natural,” and I will ever be thankful to the funeral home for that gift to our family.
And so with these and many other sad times in my memory I went again to the funeral home today because a long-time friend lost her twenty-five year old son on his birthday. And I heard her say how she just couldn’t believe it and woke up in the mornings and had to remember it was true all over again. And I saw his dad pat his son’s chest with tears in his eyes and say, “He was a good boy.” And I remembered all over again that saying goodbye is never easy. When you know it is a final goodbye it is especially hard.