Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Why do we go to Funerals?

Being raised in the house with a Dad who is a church organist who is a priest's kid (PK, as they are known) himself in a house that was about 300 steps from the front door of our church we knew the in’s and out’s of church rules pretty well. Little did I know, that the church rules I was raised with were not the same as everyone else’s, but that is a conversation for another day. Starting at a very young age I went to funerals because I was told. Mostly I was not expected to attend unless it was a relative or someone I knew well who had died. The first one I was expected to attend was for Emma. I asked not to go, but my memory says my mother told me I had no choice but to go. Emma was 9, I was perhaps 13 and she was my friend. I was shattered when she died, and I hated every second of her funeral for a lot of reasons and I didn’t quite understand the loud party that was held afterward. I only went because I was told.

I attended a funeral at St James Church today for Heather, the young lady I mentioned in a previous post. 33 years old, diagnosed with a horrible cancer that began much the same as mine did from what I have heard. I didn’t know her well. I thought of her often as I learned news of whether her treatments were effective or not. Every time I saw her parents around town when they were not away visiting Heather I was eager to ask questions, but always regretted my eagerness when I saw the look in their eyes as they went to answer. Each time I saw them the news got worse. I felt guilty, but hoped that somehow by asking the news might get better. Did I hope Heather would get better so her lovely parents would never have to answer the annoying “How is she?” questions ever again. Yes. Did I hope Heather would get better so I could stop being fearful for myself and my cancer outcome? Perhaps.

Losing a child is a heartbreak I hope to never completely understand. That statement is selfish that I know, but being selfish is a something I struggle daily to explain to myself.
I felt selfish about being there today. Part of me wonders why I went.

Why do we go to funerals? I was raised to believe that you go to support the living through a difficult day. You go to celebrate the life of the person who has died. Sometimes you go because you are told….

So, I went today to support the parents, her partner and her siblings

Heather’s parents were a part of my life many times every week in and out of church and school. The mother whose Girl Guide Leader voice will be forever in my head when I pitch a tent, or tie a reef knot or build a fire. The father whose stern teacher voice was often heard in the halls of our high school.. (and the totally different man’s voice I was privileged to know in years of singing in my Dad’s choir together).
The “children” may not have many memories of me, but between Guide outings, babysitting them and seeing them at church on Sundays I watched them all grow up.
I briefly met Heather’s steadfast partner who stood by her through her cancer trials and broke down while talking to him. There is a bond I feel with cancer patients that is inexplicable that should be obvious. But anyone who can stand by a cancer patient and help them through the process of living through treatments and beyond has my lifelong respect. There are few jobs harder in the world. Being the patient is the simple part.

I went for all of them.

Most of the Funerals I have attended have been at St James Church. It was the church I grew up in, it was the place I attended service after service, Guide meetings and choir rehearsals and teenage dances and youth group events, sleepovers, dinners and on and on. I was there at least 3 times a week from my earliest memory until I left for college. There are a lot of ghosts in those rooms, and a lot of memories…. It is the place I had it all, it is the place I lost a lot…

One of the things that will always be painful in being at St James is being there when my father plays music there. You see, I was young… 9 I think when his employment ended there. Until recently I don’t think I really understood how deeply that situation must have affected me. I have always known that hearing Daddy play at St James and other church situations made me cry, but didn’t really know why…. Still not totally sure…

So today, at Heather’s funeral I purposely chose not to sit with my Dad. The building, the people, Heather dying from the same disease I have… I knew hearing him sing and stuff would make it almost impossible… Without knowing the layout of the church (it changes every season) I ended up not only sitting near the choir, but sitting a few rows behind my Dad, near a piano. I knew he was playing the recessional on the organ, but I figured I would handle that.
I wept a little during the poems and kind words, I cried some during the hymns… then Daddy started moving around after communion talking to the organist and I wasn’t sure why. Then he sat at the piano, a few feet from me. Turns out he played the piano as part of one of the last hymns. The piece was one I had sung at our local church youth camp. The camp Heather and I both attended years apart from each other (unbeknownst to me until I heard a camp story in the homily)

You shall cross the barren desert,
but you shall not die of thirst.
You shall wander far in safety,
though you do not know the way.

You shall speak your words in foreign lands,
and all will understand,
You shall see the face of God and live.

Be not afraid,
I go before you always,
Come follow Me,
and I will give you rest.

Blessed are your poor,
for the Kingdom shall be theirs.
Blest are you that weep and mourn,
for one day you shall laugh.

And if wicked men insult and hate you, all because of Me,
blessed, blessed are you!

Be not afraid,
I go before you always,
Come follow Me,
and I will give you rest.

If you pass through raging waters
in the sea, you shall not drown.
If you walk amidst the burning flames,
you shall not be harmed.

If you stand before the power of hell
and death is at your side,
know that I am with you, through it all

Be not afraid,
I go before you always,
Come follow Me,
and I will give you rest.

As you can imagine this finished me, I was gutted. The place, the people the music. My Dad playing 5 feet in front of me, the situation ….I had to stifle my sobbing… just to keep singing ( I have a thing about forcing myself to sing through tears, long story) I felt so selfish and caught up in my own grief and fear, my own history and baggage. I shouldn’t be feeling all this stuff at someone else’s funeral. Sitting alone, in that familiar place in a room full of people I knew, but few of them my friends I wondered if I should be there at all. Why was I there? I didn’t really know her. Some people asked why I was there, how I knew her… All I could tell myself is that I knew for some reason I was supposed to be there. I never thought to not go.

I went to support the living.
I went to celebrate the life of Heather.

I went… because I was told.


Tracy said...

This has me sobbing, Noelle...there are no words...

T xo

TigereyeSal said...

You went, perhaps, because it was the right thing to do.

Heather was a part of the fabric of your life (and mine) growing up. In a community as small as ours, we still operate a bit as a pioneer community would. Even if we didn't know the individual well, they would have been part of our family in a sense, which makes losing them personal.

I think crying for your own grief at a funeral is absolutely right, and does not diminish the grief or loss of others. Ultimately, all losses are one great loss, which we all feel as part of our humanity.

And you have experienced a great many personal losses, haven't you? I expect that, because your baseline attitude is one of soldiering on, because you must, you have few opportunities for experiencing grief deeply.

I imagine that Mick and Lil and Claire, and Heather's other family and friends' raw grief was perhaps less burdensome by being shared with a whole grieving community, and your own raw grief, being shared with (and by) a church-ful of folks, maybe becomes part of the great fabric of grief shared by the whole planet.

Maybe that's too fanciful, but my sense is that we are all in this together, all we inhabitants of the planet, and when we grieve together and celebrate joy together, we are just doing the right thing; we are doing what we are supposed to do.

Many hugs...

Kate said...

My brother died at 33. Next day was my Dad's 65th birthday, and I spent the afternoon with him at the funeral home, planning about the service, the newspaper announcement, everything. My brother's wife, my mother and my stepbrother were there too. I wouldn't go with them when they went to pick out urns. It felt against nature to watch them plan to bury their child, to have someone that much younger than me (and I wasn't 40 yet) go that early.

A friend of mine died suddenly on April 24th. I didn't find out until 10 days later, and I was two days from where the funeral was held. Sometimes I think going to a funeral is like putting the period on the end of a sentence. It marks an ending, and allows for the beginning of something new. Something new for Lou, for his family, for his friends. I wish I'd been able to participate in that.