Occasionally a friend comes to me with a grief story so powerful I ask them if I may share it here with you. Wendy is one such friend, and her story offers a wonderful example of a new kind of memorial… one of celebration and ongoing conversation.
When my mom’s Cousin John fell ill, we kind of knew what was coming. But it all happened so quickly that it was still quite difficult for the family to handle.
Over the past few years, I’d grown close with John, and I’ve been close with his brother Peter for 25 years. You might say he’s the Peter Pan to my Wendy.
When John began dying, Peter asked me to be “the voice,” communicating everything to the family and John’s many friends. That was hard, but I was happy to help.
They gave John six months, so I’d planned to head out the first week of January to visit and assist. Sadly, cousin John didn’t make it until then. But I went anyhow. Family is family, and there was still visiting and caring to be done.
One thing I wasn’t going for, I was told, was a funeral. John didn’t want one, and Peter was adamant that we follow John’s wishes. I softened the rules a bit and suggested Peter have all his favorite cousins over for a family weekend.
My goodness, it was the best suggestion I ever made!
Five cousins and two friends gathered around the woodstove at Peter and Joanne’s, where we ate and drank and sang and danced and told stories. My aunt Laurie, the genealogist, brought a box of old photos going back three generations on Peter’s side. Seeing photos of his mother, my great-aunt Mary Lou, as a teenager was amazing. She was such a mischievous beauty!
And then Peter got to a photo of John, age five, holding their younger brother Tommy, just a baby. Tommy passed in his 30s, about 20 years ago, from AIDS.
Peter, the only brother left, looked at that photo and just broke down, sobbing like a small child. I didn’t know what to do, so I just got up and went over and hugged him while he cried. He begged, not expecting an answer, “Why?”
After a minute or so, he said, “Okay, that’s enough. I didn’t think I was going there, but there I went.” Then he pulled back, looked around at all of us, and said, “I feel so much BETTER!”
I told him that’s why we need to have memorials, so we can feel these things and work through them in the company of people we love and trust. “Well then, I guess this is Johnny’s memorial,” he said, “And so be it!”
Then we were back to storytelling and singing and drinking and eating. It was truly a magically bonding experience for all.
How does this relate to the Castle Heart blog and book? You are hitting upon that exact feeling I experienced with my family in the wake of John’s passing: joy of life, strength of memory, fearlessness of death, and a power of influence that transcends the fragile brevity of the human lifespan.
People have a really hard time with the joy-sorrow dichotomy, and I think you’re doing a great job of illustrating that they can (and do) exist simultaneously.
It is possible to have a positive outlook on surviving our loved ones. The key is to embrace their memory and legacy, not lock it away and ignore it.
I couldn’t have said it better myself, Wendy. And in the words of Peter Pan…
“Never say goodbye because goodbye means going away and going away means forgetting.”
― J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan