Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Daughters and Sons

At a recent End-of-Life conference that I attended, one of the speakers asked attendees to please raise their hand if they had either a daughter or a daughter-in-law. About half of the room raised their hands. She explained the purpose of this exercise, "You are the lucky ones. Statistically, you are more likely to remain living at home when you are seriously ill and are more likely to die at home."

At the time, I questioned in my mind whether in fact this could be true. Are people with daughters truly better cared for at the end of life than people with sons? Having no children, I didn't see an immediate relevance in my life and let the exercise disappear into the back of my mind.

When my grandmother died, however, I wondered how the fact that she'd had two sons affected the events prior to and after her death. She had one daughter-in-law whom she didn't get along particularly well with and two ex-daughters-in-law from her other sons previous marriages whom she'd maintained relationships with. But I don't think any of these three women would have felt the same responsibilities as a daughter would have.

Housing was scarce in Florida. Most family lived elsewhere. Bobby had moved there to be near her sister after her grandchildren were born. Her sister died several years ago (I have written about her death a couple of times now). One of Bobby's sons, my uncle, moved there recently and was also nearby.

When making housing arrangements for the memorial, my Dad suggested I stay at Bobby's place. I liked the idea of being near her in that way and agreed. I didn't realize, however, that this also meant I would be accepting lots of responsibilties, such as going through her toiletries and makeup and clothes to clear things out by the following Sunday. I'm glad my sister stayed there with me so I wasn't going through all of those personal items alone. My sweetie was there and also helped quite a bit - in a practical as well as an emotional sense.

When my grandmother died, my father told me that she'd wanted to be cremated and arrangements had been made for that. When I asked if there would be a viewing before her cremation, my dad said, "No." I got the phone number to the crematorium and arranged a viewing for myself, since no one else seemed interested in going. However, on the day of the viewing, my Dad and sister both decided to come along.

My Dad also told me that Bobby hadn't made any requests for what to do with her ashes, so they were just going to leave them at the crematorium. I was shocked. "No, let me have them. I want to know where they are. I don't want to think of them sitting in a box on a shelf of unclaimed ashes at a crematorium. Maybe I'll scatter them at an animal shelter. Or even if I just scatter them in a national park, I'll be happier with that than with leaving them at the crematorium."

A few days later, my Dad admitted that he was happy I was taking the ashes and that I would do something with them.

This side of my family (including my Dad) is very practical and pragmatic - not particularly sentimental. They all agreed that the ashes were not Bobby and that she was gone and they all disassociated themselves from the ashes through this logic. I know that Bobby is not in those ashes. I only stayed at the viewing for a few minutes. As soon as I saw her body, I knew she wasn't there. I closed my eyes as I talked to her and cried - after laying my hand on her cold, clammy corpse. But seeing the body helped me to accept that she was gone.

And just as it was important for me to see the empty vessel that her body had become, it is also important for me to do something with her ashes. It will be a symbolic act for me. And I know it is more about me at this point than it is about her. But I want to do this one final act of love and dignity in her honor.

Unfortunately, the doctor from Bobby's nursing home did not have enough respect for our grief and loss to come and sign the death certificate before we left town. So Bobby's body has not yet been cremated. The crematorium said they will mail her ashes to me. I suppose it would have been hard taking her with me on the plane - in many ways. So it may be just as well. Though I definitely feel some offense by the lack of consideration on the part of this doctor. There is an added stress worrying about these kinds of details. But my grief would have continued regardless.

I have learned a lot about myself and about my family through my grandmother's death. No one is my family is a great communicator - including myself. I regret that my cousin D (hi D!) found out about our grandmother's stroke through my blog. And that she found out about our grandmother's death via an email I wrote in which I assumed she already knew. I made the plans for her viewing and ashes in a panic after learning nothing was going to be done. Perhaps others would have liked to attend the viewing or had thoughts as to what to do about the ashes.

Again, not having expected to have these responsibilities, I didn't really know how to do them. As I felt myself getting swallowed up in my grief those first 24 hours, I kept thinking that I wished someone would tell me what I was supppose to do. Working in death, I had higher expectations for myself, I guess. But I've never seen this side of it so closely before. My mom took care of the arrangements after
her mother's death. My cousin and uncle took care of all of the arrangements for my aunt after her death. My aunt and cousins took care of the arrrangements for my cousin after her death a few years ago. Despite having attended a number of funerals, I had no idea what all was included in this process.

I have learned a lot about myself. I hope I haven't hurt anyone's feelings as I've struggled to find my way through the practical while feeling all this grief.

Each day has been a little easier. And I think now that I am getting longer reprieves from the acuteness of my grief I am worried more about my living loved ones. I am thankful that my cousin D, my sister and I handled the distribution of Bobby's possessions as well as we did. I'm fairly certain we each left with a few meaningful momentos of our grandmother's life. And I'm fairly certain she will be remembered in our hearts.

No comments: