Work-No time for Words


The past week has brought me four families (actually five if you count the memorial gathering for a friend that I facilitated) to serve and four dead human beings to care for.  That is the work that I do and I love to do it.  It is my calling and even though I get weary when the work all comes at once, which often it does, I am filled with purpose and that’s a good thing.

Each family has their own needs and often their deceased love one has left instructions as to what they, themselves want or don’t want.

 It is a big part of my job to LISTEN.  First I must get the statistical information that is needed for a death certificate.  This is just cold facts but I use this as an opportunity to ask questions that get a family talking about the life that was lived.  Ask the right questions and it is amazing what people will tell you!  Unless a family has an obituary written, some do but not many, I write a “base obituary” which I send to the family for correction and elaboration. I have heard many times, “How did you know that about mom?” My reply is, “You told me.”  Yes, that is my writing skill, taking all the years of a life and putting them into the Reader’s Digest condensed book form!

I also must listen to what people say they want. Last summer I was asked to come to the home of one of the women who died last week.  She had been told that she had only a few weeks to live and wanted to talk about her wishes for how her death was to be handled.  No obituary, no viewing, no service.  She wanted to be cremated and a simple urn buried at the cemetery with no fanfare.  Her husband said that whatever she wanted was what should be done.  As I looked around their modest home, I saw pictures that her granddaughter had drawn decorating the refrigerator.  I saw skeins of yarn and knitting needles beside her chair.  I saw family photographs.  Since there was to be no obituary there was no need to get information like hobbies, family members, etc. but I started asking her questions anyway.  She told me about taking care of her granddaughter who was so precious to her; about how she loved to make sweaters and hats and mittens for all her family; about her son who lives in Kanas. We talked about how much her family meant to her and I then talked about how much she meant to them.  Maybe they would need to have time with her after her death.  Maybe they would want her life story told in an obituary.  Maybe they would need a service to honor and remember her life.  After a few minutes of thought she said, “Well, if my family needs that, then do it.”

  She died a “good death”, peacefully at her home with the help of Hospice, four months after our meeting.  Some of her family gathered at the funeral home the next day to say goodbye to her body–the body that they had known as sister, wife and mother.  Her body was not embalmed but her hair had been washed and fluffed, her eyes and mouth closed and she was dressed in a favorite outfit. I applied a bit of makeup and put an earring in her pierced ear. She was not in a casket.  She was on a dressing table with a soft sheet covering part of her.  At first the family stayed back.  I do understand that often the living have trouble seeing the dead, but after a bit they had gathered around her.  They could see how peaceful she looked and were comforted.  I patiently waited in the next room giving them all the time they needed.  When they were ready, they came to me and said, “Thank you.  We needed this time.” And my heart soared! Several days later on a beautiful fall morning, friends and family gathered at the cemetery and had a simple ceremony.  There were over 50 people present.  They wanted and needed to be there, to honor and remember the life of the woman they loved.  That is what we do as human beings-we care for and honor our dead.  We need to do this.  It is not a burden.  It is a privilege.  If I had listened only to what she thought she wanted, her family and friends would have missed out on this “once in a lifetime” opportunity.

Yes, it is a big part of my job to listen and I thank God for giving me the ears and the heart to do so.

Thank you, my readers, for understanding that writing this blog is not my work and so I may not do it every day.  Thank you for reading it when I do write.

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9 Responses to Work-No time for Words

  1. penni says:

    Beautifully written, I’m passing this passage on to my daughter. Thanks Elizabeth!

  2. Athena says:

    This is so wonderful to read, Elizabeth! You bring such life and light into honoring death. You are amazing! Thanks for writing when you have the time.

  3. Alice says:

    Thank you again for sharing. Your blog has become a regular “pit-stop” for me and it is a gift on the days that you have time to share with us.

  4. Leslie, Miami, Fl says:

    I am a visitor from Maria Wulf’s blog. Thank you for your wise words, well written.

  5. Rose says:

    Thanks for the beautiful post Elizabeth. How rewarding for you to know that you fascilitated a family getting to say goodbye to a loved one. Looking forward to more posts from you.

  6. Rocky says:

    I am a daily reader of Jon Katz’s blog & am grateful that I discovered your blog. This post was very timely for me. My Dad passed away Sept 22 from cancer. I was with him when he passed and relieved that he was no longer in pain. He donated his body to a medical school for prostate cancer research. He was very specific about his wishes – no memorial service, no funeral, no obituary. It was fitting because he was a very private, humble man. Regardless of some distant family members and co- workers concerns, I was insistent that we honor his wishes. However, it is very odd to have no closure. I live 1500 miles away and missed the opportunity to hear stories from his work colleagues and old friends. Very strange situation and I don’t think that I have really acknowledged his death. Unfortunately, my sister and Mom have both passed so I have some experience with this situation. I think you gave a beautiful gift to this family – God bless you.

    • enicholsross says:

      Rocky, I encourage you to create a death ritual, even if it is only for yourself.Maybe there is a place that was special to your dad that you could go to. Or go to a place that is special for you. Just be there and dig deep inside for the peace and comfort that you need.
      Your situation is why I counsel people to not be so specific with their wishes that they rob their children of a very important need. It is good that you honor your father’s wishes but you need a ceremony and it is up to you to create it.
      Now that you have lost both parents I recommend a wonderful book, “The Orphaned Adult” by Alexander Levy. My parents died 17 days apart back in 2004. It took me a year to read this book, but it was a lifesaver.
      The best to you. Thank you for reading me.

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