Celebrations of Life

“It’s all in the view. That’s what I mean about forever, too. For any one of us our forever could end in an hour, or a hundred years from now. You never know for sure, so you’d better make every second count.”

~ Sarah Dessen, “The Truth About Forever

In the last 2 months, I have been to 2 funerals – ‘properly’. The last time I went to a funeral was about 13 years ago. One was for a colleague who, in his early 30’s, had committed suicide, a final act in the drama that was clinical depression. The other for a friend who died of pancreatic cancer in her early 40’s just as she was embarking on a new career as a nurse in, how ironic, oncology.

So, it had been a while. But that wasn’t really an issue, because after all, 14 years in oncology, and being part of a very Big Fat Extended Family of African Origin, I was well acquainted with death. Or so I thought. In actual fact, what I was familiar with was the process of dying. I witnessed, countless times, the anguish of families living daily in the knowledge that their loved one will, some time soon, though at a time unknown, but certainly definite, will depart for good; I palpated the fear and confusion and incomprehensible pain of a person who knows death is coming, but just falling short of what that actually means. Having to deal with death on a professional level seemed to make it a bit easier to deal with it on a personal level; so over the years, witnessing close relatives and friends die, I was grateful my professional experiences had in some way prepared me to ‘handle’ death. As I learnt to mourn the loss of our patients ‘professionally’ and from afar, so did I mourn relatives and friends…professionally and from a distance.

What that meant was that I could conveniently remove myself from partaking in the rituals that came with death, rituals that are particularly prevalent in our culture. I could excuse myself from the politics and high drama that death always seem to churn up, especially in large families like mine. As luck would have it, work commitments, circumstances and geography meant that over the years, there were several funerals I couldn’t attend. Whenever I did manage to attend a remembrance or memorial service I was able to disengage myself from the whole process. I rationalized that attending funerals and the like served no real purpose because surely, after the agony of watching someone die, what else was there to do, certainly not relive it!  And so this is how 13 years have passed without attending a funeral, ‘properly’ – from start to finish…

A glimpse into the lives of those departed

This time round, the first funeral I attended was for the 29-year old daughter of a colleague and dear friend of mine. The second funeral was for the 53-year old brother of my partner, and uncle to my son. Young people. Both deaths were sudden, totally unexpected, leaving the respective families and friends in a state I can only describe as ‘dolor in suspensio’ – ‘suspended pain’.

My friend’s daughter was in the early stages of adjusting to a life with Lupus. It had hit her full on, but as time passed, the unspoken expectation was that she will live as long as… well as long as any young person should, which translates to well, forever, though we know it’s not going to be forever. She left behind a 10-year old son. He spoke at the service – about how he thought he would be 63 before his mummy died; about how he could have spent more time with her at their last outing, but instead ran off with his friends. He spoke with the poise and grace of a grown man and the sweet innocence of a child. His words made us all smile, dried some tears, and made others hold back those that were threatening to flow.

For the last 20 years of his life, my partner’s brother and son’s uncle had lived with a chronic illness through grace, dignity and quiet courage. As some of his siblings, friends and family members eulogized his life, those of us who didn’t know him before this period got a glimpse of where that courage came from. He was a man of focus and purpose, applying and immersing himself totally in whatever he took on. We heard about how skilled he became at fighting off bullies at school and channeling that into becoming a respected amateur boxer. This motivated my son’s father to do the same as a young man. We heard that he had become the manager of one of the largest retail chains in the country at the age of 21. This would have been back in the early 80’s – a time in England when to be in such a position as a young black man, a first generation British-Jamaican, must have come with immense glory, intense pressure and much racism. My partner often spoke about how much he looked up to and admired his brother, and I heard the same from many on his departure day.

Death and fear dis-entwined

Like countless others, I grew up with a fear of death. During the years at the frontline as I call them, training in oncology, death visited often, sometimes several times a day. I learnt to face it, had to face it, and indeed on many an occasion, glared at it squarely in its dark eye. Though I had accepted the inevitability of its arrival, quite frankly, death pissed me off for taking people away in their prime. With my seemingly defiant attitude, I thought I had conquered my fear. I thought that participating in the whole process of wakes and funerals was giving in to that fear. So, if I did not partake, I wasn’t giving in, I could go on with the business of squaring up to death and controlling my fear.  But was I really in control of it?

 A celebratory service of life

Because these two deaths were so close to home, there was no question about participating in the rituals. At both services, the scent of pain was thick in the air, but the persistent courage of family members and spiritual skill of the pastor dispersed it, made it light. As they spoke of the achievements… and shortcomings of their departed through tears and laughter and song, it became apparent that this was in fact not their final curtain call. Their memories and stories were here to stay.

 A celebration of purpose fulfilled

When young people die, we often lament on unfulfilled purpose, that there was so much they did not get to do. This may be true in the confines of our limited mindset. However, I think God knows exactly what he is doing when he requests our company, and that request is always made right on time. All we need to do is make our days count, so that when that call comes, there is a tale for our families to tell.

For all we know, my friend’s daughter may very well have fulfilled her purpose – she gave the world a beautiful and smart and eloquent individual; from his display that day, I’m kind of excited about the man he may become. I sensed from his demeanor at the service that she had prepared him for this eventuality. She left him with a grandmother who will see the rest through. My partner’s brother may very well have also fulfilled his purpose – he inspired those immediately around him at a challenging time in the social history of this country; he probably did the same to many others we didn’t hear from that day. Just because his acts were not recorded in mass media/popular culture makes them no less worthy of praise and no less compelling.

There is no doubt that I will now be attending more and more celebratory services of life – simply because I am now at that stage in life where death will now make personal and not just professional visits with increased frequency. Paradoxically, though not immediately, celebratory services extinguish some of the pain that comes with the death of a loved one. They allow us to affirm the importance and value of every life lived on this earth. And they present us with an opportunity to fully overcome the fear that the dark veiled one brings.

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