Momentary Smiles: Random Observations About Grief and the Funeral Planning Process
How It Started...
Early in the morning of Thursday, 1/11/2018 my grandmother passed away. As the eldest grandkid of her only child I have taken it upon myself to help settle some of her affairs. As I process both my gut-wrenching grief and my massive list of responsibilities, here are some of the random and fairly light-hearted observations that I've noticed about the painful process of grieving and funeral planning.
It was hard to think about planning dinner for the kids while simultaneously sobbing your heart out AND budgeting for an impromptu major event.
Food (Actually) Helps
This is my first experience with grief. Prior to this moment, I’ve only lost a few relatives and friends. Although I was sad, it in no way compares to the sorrow that I feel after losing this grandmother. She was the proverbial rock of our extended family. With that being said, I always thought that giving people food after a death was similar to tossing a tablespoon of water on a massive flame. While the effort to help is noticeable, the effectiveness is minimal. Alas, I was wrong. The plethora of chicken, biscuits, string beans, mashed potatoes, ribs, chips, fruit platters, beverages and desserts have all been a magnificent blessing. Especially on that first day after your loved one has passed. For us, my grandmother passed away unexpectedly in the home where many of my immediate family members live. It was hard to think about planning dinner for the kids while simultaneously sobbing your heart out AND budgeting for an impromptu major event. And the thought of going grocery shopping? Non-existent! It was such a relief to be able to tell my younger siblings to grab the already prepared food for meals and to have one less thing on my to do list. Furthermore, as my family is neatly situated at the bottom of the economic totem pole, having meals prepared for us is one less expense that we have to stress about as we work to foot the bill for various funeral costs.
You don’t realize how many people you know, until someone has to call them all.
We Are Overwhelmingly Connected
As I assist my mother with settling my grandmother's affairs, it means notifying every single entity that she is connected to that she has passed. Every. Single. One.
-Mortgage companies (for her there are three separate lenders)
-Social Security (And you better notify them ASAP before you get accused of fraud)
-The post office
-Private loan providers
-Department of Taxation
-Local County governments
And so many others that my brain hurts just thinking about it. Let's also complicate this matter further by mixing in the fact that my grandmother never wrote a will nor did she have a Power of Attorney (despite desperate pleas from my mother to complete these tasks prior to her death). That means that legally we cannot notify these entities of her passing until our local court rules my mother as the head of her estate, which will take at least 60 days. Meanwhile, the loan sharks are still circling for their money!
Not only do we have to inform every business/government entity that she is connected to that she has passed (once we get the legal documents to speak on her behalf). But we also have to tell every HUMAN that she has ever had a relationship with for the last 68 years. You don’t realize how many people you know, until someone has to call them all.
Needless to say, I've realized now more than ever how overwhelmingly connected we can be, at least in our Western society. I became so overwhelmed by the tangled web of connections, that one day I started researching communities that are "off the grid" in America...but when I realized that "off the grid" also meant that I wouldn't have running water or electricity, my research quickly ended.
In a family that may (or may not) already have discourse or some form of drama, adding these unpredictable elements can greatly intensify the familial dynamics.
Remember how Cousin Nicole stole your man back in the 10th grade? Well fast forward 20 years and grandpa has passed. You look in the casket and notice that grandpa's gold cufflinks have suddenly gone AWOL and Cousin Nicole's fiancé happens to have something shiny on his wrists. Now you want to kill Cousin Nicole.
On the other hand, Cousin Nicole and your sister Laura have hated each other since childhood, when Laura sat on her hamster and suffocated him. But on the day that grandpa passed they were both at the hospital and held each other as they sobbed uncontrollably. Fast forward 3 years and Cousin Nicole is Laura’s Maid of Honor and you still want to kill Cousin Nicole.
While these scenarios may seem a little far fetched, during the grieving process emotions are already running high. Individuals are vulnerable, hurt, angry, lost, lonely or any other litany of emotions that can occur when you lose someone who plays a significant role in your life. Sometimes, folks can also be susceptible to massive mood swings, riding the wave of all of these emotions in a matter of minutes. And because everyone grieves differently, you really don't know how a member of your family is feeling at any given time. In a family that may (or may not) already have discourse or some form of drama, adding these unpredictable elements can greatly intensify the familial dynamics. Either for the better or for the worse.
A Lot Like Wedding Planning
Location? Venue? Seating Chart? Food? Outfit for the deceased? Planning a funeral is a lot like planning a wedding. Except instead of staring at TWO people at the front of the venue, you're (hopefully) staring at one...and the mood is far more somber. Also, instead of having months to hammer out all of the details, you likely only have a few days. Not to mention having to invite every person who ever had an affinity for the deceased and choosing a day/time that will allow out of state relatives to make it. And hopefully, just hopefully, the deceased had some form of life insurance, otherwise budgeting for an event of this magnitude could easily set families into debt. And just like some weddings, funeral planning could quickly become a hotbed of contention in regards to differing opinions and traditions. Remember those intensified emotions? Now add that to stubborn relatives who each have a perspective on how they want the funeral to go and it's easy to see how fights could break out. How we expect individuals who are grieving to plan a major event in only a few days is mostly terrible but just a tiny bit comical.
Obituaries Take Time
One main difference between weddings and funerals (outside of the obvious) are the obituaries. A few pages that have to elegantly encompass every facet of the deceased's life. Talk about pressure! Oh yeah and do NOT forget to name a loved one in the list of those that are left behind!
As I attempted to help my mother complete the obituary, she explained that she felt a great amount of pressure in perfecting it. She had been told by various individuals that the obituary is the most important aspect of the funeral because that tiny booklet might be all that is left of the deceased for generations to see down the line. For some, that is how they will be remembered and immortalized.
Combing through 68 years worth of living and scrounging around eerie basements for photographs from a life well-lived takes time. Time that you may not have while completing the other tasks on your list. But in completing the obituary, you sometimes gain a new perspective. A new perspective of who your loved one was, who they are now as they lie in the casket and who they will be as you carefully work to maintain an accurate image of them in their obituary. So that maybe, just maybe, everyone who flips through the pages can get a glimpse at just how amazing they were and how lucky this world was to have them even if just for a short time.
We all grieve differently. Different factors including your culture, financial situation, even the weather can play a role in how your experience goes through the grieving and funeral process. While there are more profound observations that I’ve made, these are just a few that in some strange way put a momentary smile on my face. Whether it was laughing at how stressful planning a funeral can be or smiling at the bond that was built between two relatives in only a few days, it became important to me to find a few things to smile about between the tears. In a time of devastating grief, finding one or two things to smile about can make all the difference in your mental health and how you cope with your loss. At least for me, I know that my grandmother would have had a good laugh about some of these scenarios or at the very least would have smiled just a little. So, since she is no longer here, I will smile in memory of her, even if the smile only lasts for a moment.
© 2018 Sarafina