Dying Well for Your Loved Ones

I like funerals. These days they seem to be the last good excuse for a family get-together. The solemnity of the occasion asks everyone to leave their baggage at the door and to enter the world of everything good about whoever just passed. To focus on anything else, to turn to old disputes and tired feuds at such a time, would be obscene. The solemnity of the moment provides ample cover from the troublemakers of the family, if only for a short while.

Funerals are like family picnics without any aggravation. At the reception that followed my great-uncle's graveside service last year, I felt like I was at just such a new-and-improved event. In the dark of the restaurant, my aunt asked me if Uncle So-and-So were there. She has always hated him for no reason anyone can name. "Yup; right there," I said. The uncle asked me if my Aunt What's-Her-Name had come. He has always been aware of her inexplicable dark feelings. "Yup; right there," I said. Age had dug in wrinkles so deep on both their faces that they did not recognize each other; the war was now over. The party went on. Somehow we had a good time--we got the news, had a few mad dashes down memory lane, ate, and left. And it was good.

It is right that it was good and joyful because the man who had died had loved his family very dearly. In the 10 years before my uncle died, my husband, daughter, and I would take him for rides along the country roads of Connecticut that he knew so well. We'd stop in to see family or to buy Frank Sinatra CDs at the music store; at every opportunity we stopped for a martini and some shrimp for supper. My uncle lived to be 95, so he spent almost 10 percent of his life within the walls of a nursing home. Taking him out was like time travel; he would remember it the way it was over the life of a century. As we inventoried change, we came to realize how short life is, how fast 10 years can move, how easy it would be to waste life on trivialities--and how blessed we were to have an uncle who could teach us this lesson just by pointing to new buildings with one hand and stroking our daughter's cheek with the other.

As my uncle came close to the end of his life, the nursing home called me so that I could come spend time with him. I did. I read the Bible to him, held his hand, said good-bye to the staff as they came to say their farewells. I sat in silence most of the time, though. I told my uncle it was okay to let go. I believe he waited for me to tell him I could be okay without him, that I could let go. All of this was a self-conscious experience. I said good-bye self-consciously. Those who did not say good-bye made a conscious choice not to.My uncle died self-consciously. He kept his mind until the end, he waited for me, he heard every word everyone said, and then he slipped out of here. There were no surprises. (more)