My father-in-law passed away at 85 years old a week ago Thursday. He had suffered a mild stroke about a year ago, which left him slightly without words and his balance severely affected. This became worse as time went on, although his brain scans showed no real signs of deterioration. It impacted him emotionally–he had always been one of those “can-do” people–and this left him having to ask everyone for help, with very few words to do it with. His self-image was fatally wounded by this, and contributed to his failing functionality. 10 days before his passing, he had fallen again, and this time the fall was precipitated by a stroke.
My husband’s family is unique, they unanimously chose to let it run its course, rather than to surgically intervene. I’d seen them do this before, rather than struggle with extreme medical decisions and hopeless, painful procedures in the face of little hope, they had surrendered to the end process. We were sure that this is what John wanted in this case, he had been miserable for months, with little quality of life.
His entire family was present, my mother-in-law, her two children and their wives, and his seven from a previous marriage with their spouses. This definitely led to a crowded hospital room at times. But when he finally passed, he waited until almost everyone had left the room, the only ones present were two of his sons. I have seen this before, the dying person, even though seemingly unaware, waits for the closest to them to leave the room. It’s not an insult, if anything, it’s an attempt to shield their loved ones from the final blow. I’ve seen it too often for this not to be the case.
I entered the room some minutes after his transition occurred, to give the immediate family some space. Since I have trained to perceive these things, I noticed that John, after exiting his body, was in the corner of the room, standing next to his wife, a bit in shock. I greeted him, let him know I could see and hear him, but also waited for the priest to administer the Catholic Prayer for the Dead. This is common to every spiritual path and religion I have studied–there is always a prayer directing the separated spirit where to go next. John then immediately exited, but came back later to be with his wife, and to watch his funerary rites.
As experienced as I am with this process, I had never experienced a funeral like this Midwestern German Catholic ritual, threaded with family and friends who have known each other for their whole lives. As a rule, we don’t do things this beautifully any more. John had been greatly loved, he was a sweet man who cared for everyone. He was also a veteran, and so they gave him a 21-gun salute, precisely executed in full regalia by the local American Legion. But the entire process took 2 days, a wake of 4 hours, then another 3 hour viewing the next morning, a High Catholic Mass for the Dead, another service at the cemetery, followed by a reception at the family home. I had helped prepare the body before leaving the hospital, that is my way of processing. Most people are not aware that you can do any or most of the preparation yourself, other than the actual embalming. For me, as odd as it sounds, it’s therapeutic. All of us will walk this path on our last day.
Several hundred people attended his funeral, which was beautifully done. I was struck by the decorum, the singing, the eulogies, the beauty of the priest’s vestments and the church, all in honor of this dear old man. Oddly, all of the other funerals I had attended have been almost cursory in implementation, quickly over in an less than an hour, as if to get it over with quickly. Surely these rituals are conducted in honor of the deceased, but more for addressing the terrors of the living.
I had to curb my impatience at several points, many of his relatives, particularly his sons were traumatized by this event, emotionally misunderstanding that this was the end of their relationship. Since John was now fine, and spent much time conversing with me, (and shushing me when he wanted to listen!) I had to recall that to these people, this was ending, and even the promise of meeting him again was at that moment, no comfort to them. Nor were they in any place to accept this information, and it would have been arrogant of me to try. I mourned this for them, as that is my sincerest wish, that we become more relaxed and familiar with this process, understanding that the “end” is no such thing, and release from pain, and joy awaits.
I had to smile in several instances, John loved all the pomp and ceremony. If we only knew that the “departed” is actually a sometimes amused participant at their own party.