Five years ago today the man I was in love with died. It was sudden and instant. His life ended at that moment and whatever your beliefs about an afterlife might be, that’s where he resides now, no longer in this physical world. For those of us who deeply loved him, he lives on in our hearts and minds, invoking a variety of feelings. Sadness and joy. Anger and love. Memories and reminders.
Do you remember specific days of loss? When I woke up this morning, my first thought was to check the time. I remembered the note he left about going for a walk on that day, August 27, 2012, at 8:35 a.m. It said he would pick up coffee for me on the way home. He was gone too long so I began searching for him, and because he went out with no ID, eventually found him – at least his body – in a local hospital. I went into shock and still have painful flashbacks about that experience.
I have suffered many days of loss: two younger brothers, both of my parents, and my adult son within ten years. Some deathdays (yes, this is a real word) I remember, and others slip on by. Maybe it’s denial or a subconscious protecting of myself. I remember specific details of each deathday but not always the exact date.
One date I never forget is July 25, 2004, when my son Ben died from a glioblastoma brain tumor. I often experience a bout of melancholy in the summer, then look at a calendar and realize my saddest day is approaching. A few thoughtful friends still send messages on that day, letting me know they are thinking of him and me. Some do this about my lost love, too. I appreciate that they remember my loved ones, and that they also miss them. I’m touched that they think of me and send loving thoughts for my comfort.
In these days of highly public social media, I’m torn about whether to post something on a deathday or stay private. Then someone else will post about it, and I feel like I need to be present, so I join in. The many loving thoughts and gestures help soothe my aching heart. Sometimes I feel vulnerable and exposed. Privacy offers protection and allows one to find solace while working through personal grief.
Throughout my life I’ve found how people view death, experience it, and then deal with grief to be highly varied. I remember years ago carpooling with a coworker, and talking about my elderly grandmother who was near death. The coworker became quiet and even seemed hostile toward me. I asked what was wrong, and she said, “I’m offended at your coldness when talking about your grandmother.” What? She didn’t know the history of my family or what my personal feelings might be regarding my grandmother. Maybe I was talking in a matter-of-fact way to hide my emotions. Maybe there were unpleasant events connected to my grandmother, like that my mother was adopted and had an unhappy childhood. I found out that my coworker’s father was a funeral director in the small town where she grew up, and that he was also the person who cleaned up death scenes. She had a much different outlook and experience with death than I did.
In her bold, revelatory book, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons From the Crematory, Caitlyn Doughty delves deep into the world of those who process dead bodies, and how people and cultures view death. Did you know that some people want to be present during the cremation of their loved one? Or that some crematory technicians learn about and pay homage to the life of the deceased person before pushing the button? Did you know that embalming didn’t become prevalent until the Civil War? Families wanted the bodies preserved long enough to bring them home. Doughty examines the varied the views about death and burial in many cultures, and helps demystify the process in terms we can understand, allowing us to reconsider where our own beliefs came from and to rethink how we want to deal with this in our own lives.
I am not a student of religion, so I admit that I needed to do some research about how different religions view death. Religious upbringing often dictates how a loved one’s body is handled. Judaism and Islam believe the body should be returned to the earth intact. Hinduism mandates cremation to allow the spirit to detach from the body. The Catholic church has in recent years relaxed its views on cremation, and Christians and Protestants may choose how their loved ones are processed, buried or interred. As in the case of the soldiers who died in The Civil War, social mores changed because of unusual circumstances.
Recently, I toured the Bates County Museum in Butler, Missouri, a surprisingly large historical building filled with artifacts. Along with a display about Butler’s most famous citizen, author Robert Heinlein (“Sci-Fi Master”), the museum contained exhibits about the Osage Indians, the First White Settlement of Harmony Mission, coal mining and railroads, The Civil War and the first Kansas Colored Infantry, plus glassware, pottery, and numerous historical rooms depicting life in the late 1800s and on into the present day. Butler also lays claim to several inactive missile sites where missiles laid in wait to react to The Cold War.
I was at the museum with longtime friends from elementary school, one of whom lives in Butler. The thing that most surprised us happened as we stood in front of an old photo of a family of five: a father, mother, and three children under the age of six. The tour guide said, “Can you tell that the mother is dead?” Whoa!?! We leaned in for a closer look and realized that indeed, the mother was dressed in her best clothes and propped up in a chair for one last family photograph. The guide explained that in those days, as photography was becoming more popular and available, families used it as an important final remembrance of a loved one. As we walked up and down the aisles, she pointed out photographs of dead children, too.
At the Pioneers Museum in downtown Colorado Springs, Colorado, the actual house and original furnishings of famous author Helen Hunt Jackson, writer of Ramona and who was an outspoken activist for Native American rights, is on display. She kept the white plaster of Paris death mask of her young son displayed prominently on the wall in a main room. Death masks became popular in the 1800s, first in Europe and then in the United States; there are even two known death masks of Abraham Lincoln. Not only did the death masks help to remember the shape of a loved ones’ dear face, but they were used by scientists to study facial features of criminals and to research disease. While making death masks is no longer in practice, I’ve been to many funerals in my adult life where people blatantly took photographs of their loved one on view in an open coffin.
Some well-meaning people have shared photographs of my deceased beloveds with me. It’s shocking to go through stacks of old photos, and come upon a dead loved one in a coffin, yet I haven’t thrown those away. The photographs mark the very last time that beloved was visible to be photographed. It’s a reminder that someone who was once important to us is now gone, a reminder of a very sad day, and a firm reminder of the reality of life and death.
Today is Sunday. My husband, Gaylon, and I made our usual Sunday breakfast of blueberry pancakes and bacon. I watered the plants and we settled into our favorite chairs to read the newspaper. Gaylon knew the significance of the day and was tender towards me. Later, I went to the gym to do my workout; it’s quiet there on Sunday afternoons. This evening I called my son, Zac, to catch up from the week and made plans for my granddaughters, Josie and Hazel, to spend the night soon. Then I sat down and started writing.
My lost love was a writer and would be thrilled that I’m writing again, too. I miss the man who died suddenly five years ago today. Knowing him changed my life for the better. In just a few days, we’ll remember him again on his birthday, and I’ll think happier thoughts. We are born and then we die; birthdays and deathdays. The circle of life goes on.