This week has been challenging to say the least but full of lessons and experiences I would like to share. My mother-in-law passed away a few days ago, not quietly unexpectedly, but certainly faster than we imagined. We are a tiny family of three humans, one dog and two guinea pigs and Grandma had become a bit of a recluse, not really wanting to be around many people in her later years. So when we were told that she her cancer was terminal and she had months (it actually turned out to be weeks) we began to talk about death, funerals and good-byes.
One of the things we struggled with was whatever to tell Grandma about her cancer and short life span. Although her doctor had explained her condition, we weren’t sure she had fully understood. Her mind was a bit wondering and she seemed to be confused at times. Personally I am strong believer in telling people the truth when it comes to their own lives, but in this case I was unsure. So we agreed that if she asked directly we would tell her, if not we would stay silent. It worked for a few days.
Then one day at the hospital a doctor mentioned casually that she had cancer and when we came to see her, she asked the question: am I going to die? I was hard and I wished I did not have to do it, but I did answer with the truth. She looked scared for some time and we comforted as well as we could and eventually her mind started to wonder off again. In the few weeks we shared after that she mentioned once or twice her condition, in a more practical sense, such as funeral prices (she didn’t want anything big, full of people or with a lot of fuss). She was not a religious or spiritual person, but I’d like to think that in those days she put her inner affairs in order.
Another thing we decided was that we wanted our 11-year-old to be part of the process. We spoke to her not only about the impending parting of Grandma, but about what we were thinking on doing when she died, as well as we wanted to her to take part of whatever rites and rituals we did to say our farewell. So when they called us from the nursing home at 1:30 am to tell of us her passing, our daughter came with us and was part of our first farewell ritual. The three of us washed lightly the body with rose water, as we focused in releasing any negativity created by past experiences with Grandma. Then we anointed the body with lavender oil, as we bless her for all she gave to the world and our lives. As she was very coquettish, we also put some of her favourite perfume, as we assure her soul that there was nothing to fear, for only Love lives on the other side. After that we stayed with the body for a few hours. We spoke about Death and what we knew and believe about it. We also share some of our favourite memories with Grandma, and finally say our first good-bye by kissing her on the forehead as we left.
We have opted for a express cremation, which means that the body is cremated and then the “proper” funeral we will held at later date, with the ashes present instead of the coffin. That said, the providers of this service are good friends (Cheryl and Paul Yarwood from Secure Haven), so last night they allowed us to visit her before the cremation, in a special, cosy little room in their premises. They even played music from Enya, my mother-in-law’s favourite singer. Hubby chose to see her before they closed the coffin, whereas Rebecca and I decided to come into the room after the coffin was closed. We took white flowers, read a few poems, said a few prayers and wept a little, holding each other as we did so, in the freedom of this private place and moment. To be honest, it felt liberating and I helped us to release the emotions in a way that felt right for us and for her.
Grandma was cremated today. We will keep her ashes with our friends from Secure Haven, who also offer a safe place in where to keep the ashes, to give people time to properly decide what to with them. On Friday we shall go to Secure Haven and bless the cubicle where they will be kept. For now the plan is to wait a couple of months to do the funeral and interment of the ashes, which we will give us time to create the ritual and see exactly what the final resting place will be, as we want this place to be meaningful to her. Meanwhile we are adopting the Venezuelan/Catholic tradition of lighting a candle and saying prayers nine nights in a row, not because we doubt that she is in the Other Side now, but to help ease our bereavement, as we dedicate a few minutes a day to her memory.
It may sound strange from an Interfaith Minister/Celebrant, but this is my first “real” family death, in the sense that now, as an adult, I have been fully part and in charge in many aspects of the process. I feel that by not bowing to convention and taking the time to do what feels right and significant, both to the memory of Grandma and us, the experience has been more bearable, sweet and genuine, and we have truly honoured her essence and our beliefs.