Saturday, March 02, 2013

Lessons on Memorial Services

The fifth anniversary of our son's death is in a few months, and I feel its approach with a sense of impending doom. I am bracing myself months in advance, which I guess means the doom is already here. It's almost as if I am standing before a firing squad that is loading its weapons to take aim and the shot is coming. That is strangely violent imagery, to be sure. But for anyone who's lived through the death of a child, they would likely agree that it's a pretty accurate picture of the dread involved with anniversaries.

Even though I have been through four previous anniversaries, I am sometimes still filled with incredulity.  Could it really be five years? Did all this really happen?  Strangely enough, I, at times, have had to look at  pictures from those days just to convince myself.  A few days ago, in one such moment, I revisited the pictures of my son's memorial service. I haven't been able to look at those particular pictures since they were taken. The reason for that? Some of the people had smiles on their faces and it crushed me that they could smile in the midst of my devastation. Mind you, I also had a smile on my face in many of the pictures. But mine was fake as silicone, plastered on under the imaginary caption of, "Isn't she strong and together!". Actually I was coming apart at the seams; no, at the molecules. I was like a cartoon character that gets hit by a bat, then cracks from top to bottom and in the next frame crumbles into a pile of rubble.

The smiles got to me. The first time I saw the pictures, they told me that people didn't really understand; that our loss wasn't that big a deal. And so with fear and revulsion I put them away and decided not to look at them ever again. The other day, almost five years later, I gathered my fortitude, and I opened those pictures. I saw something I didn't expect, something I hadn't seen before. Sad eyes, drawn expressions, serious unexpected sorrow in the faces of our friends.  Yes, there were some smiles, but mostly just polite social smiles. This time I saw that there was shock on people's faces, and sorrow and urgency and compassion. I sobbed... and I felt relief, and deep comfort. I could see something that I wasn't able to see the first time I looked at those pictures, when I was out of my mind crazy with loss. It made me want to thank everyone who came to stand by our sides...all over again. And if you are one of those reading this... from my heart... Thank. You. Again.

The world of grief is a strange country where the social rules change. Smiles are not the most valuable currency. Hugs are.  The best gift you can give?  To tell the bereaved parent that their child was beautiful or funny or special, and made a difference in your life--then name a specific way or memory. The second best gift? Simply showing up. It matters for a long time, and your absence hurts. The most precious words that can be spoken?  "I will miss him/her and never forget them. They are a part of my life forever." When all else fails, this works, too:  "I am so sorry for your loss." or "I am hurting for you and cannot put it into words."

I still need to hear those words five years later. I will never tire of them. It is an awful pressure feeling that time moves on and therefore so must I. A grieving parent can never move on from the loss of their child...it violates the core of parenthood and feels like abandonment. So instead you carry them with you wherever you go, like a backpack full of gold. It is a heavy load, but so precious.


This old 30's movie theater in Hollywood is the home of my son's church,  Ecclesia Church,  and the place where we held one of his memorial services.  It was originally called the Hollywood Pacific Theater and was the home of the Academy Awards for many years. 

These letters are original, inlaid into the terrazo floor and they stand for Hollywood Pacific. 

Using black tape, this is what our friends made of those letters.

The sad faces of our friends. 

I am not sure who even took these pictures. They just ended up in our possession.

Three brothers with whom my son grew up.

Dear friends for many years. 

I held Joe's and Rachel's hands. Human touch is so important at a memorial. 

The serious crowd, full of my son's friends and many unfamiliar faces, still  means so much to us. 

Hugs... 

...never underestimate their power.

Sometimes words just can't do justice to a moment.

The eyes say it all. 

Group hugs give strength.

Mayor Rudy Giuliani made a wise statement after 9/11, and I have come to understand its meaning in a personal way.  Upon being questioned after attending every single memorial service for those who had died, he said, "You can miss a wedding, but you cannot miss a funeral". It is so much more important to be there at the saddest moments in someone's life, than in the happy ones. 

Oh, the lessons I've learned. 

Romans 12:15
Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.

9 comments:

GrahamForeverInMyHeart said...

I wish that the people I know would read your post so that they could understand a little bit of what matters to a bereaved parent. We're now approaching 41 weeks and it seems that so many of our friends act as if we're fine and "over it".
They don't have a clue.

Karen Gerstenberger said...

Karen, thank you for inviting us to share in these difficult, intimate moments with you and your family. I see what you mean in the photos.

No one took photos of Katie's memorial - at least, I don't have any, if they were taken. It's just in my memory, and that is okay. Her hospice nurse very kindly wrote down her impressions of that night, and sent them to me in a letter. It is a very beautiful gift, as good as having photos, in this case.
Sending warm hugs to you. I will be with you in spirit during these days.

Robin said...

I wish so much that we had photos. It's a measure of the shock, I suppose, that I of all people, the person who records everything photographically, did not even think of it.

Anonymous said...

Karen, this touched my heart so deeply. I feel as you do leading the dreadful anniversary and I following you closely behind. I love that you have pictures as well. It was the last thing on my mind and not so much on anyone else's either is my guess. I find myself trying to avoid the mention, 5 years, has it really been 5 years?
It is hard to say she they are in a better place because right now it is not here, beside us, loving us, hugging us. Know that I love you so much and thanks again for always sharing. xoxo Sharon

Robin said...

Hijacking Karen's blog for Graham's mom:

I went looking for what I was writing at about 41 weeks. In my regular blog I was writing and even joking about the miseries of my Hebrew class.

In the blog to which I had assigned the grief stuff, I wrote this:

"I think about understanding the reclusiveness that so often marks grief, and how to intrude upon it in a generous way.

Right this moment, for instance. It is a magnificent morning outside. I am studying Hebrew and working in the garden and house -- memorization being one of those things that must be accomplished in small doses over long periods of time. I would love it if someone pulled into the drive this morning and sat on the porch with me for half an hour. I would love it if , rather than the usual "You are so strong, so wise, so articulate, so blah blah blah whatever," someone said to me something more along the lines of "Do you want to talk about the parts you don't talk about?" I would love it if someone called to say, instead of "We hope you'll join us tonight," something like, "I know you probably won't come, but maybe I'll come by here in a few days instead."

I would love it if there were more people who understood that their task is not to provide comfort ~ because there is only occasional and very little comfort to be had ~ but to offer presence. I think that that dichotomy is perhaps at the root of so much absence: that presence without comfort is the best you can sometimes do. You cannot comfort a woman whose cancer threatens the possibility of seeing her daughter graduate from middle school (a joyful event that my friend has just witnessed). You cannot comfort a woman whose child is dead. It's that simple.

What can you do? Anything at all? Well, yes. You can put aside your own fears, the ones along the lines of, If this could happen to her beautiful child, it could happen to mine. You can clamp your mouth shut every time you are tempted to make something akin to a pronouncement, one of the multiple variations on God is with you, and instead ask, or wait to see, what her experience of God is these days. You can put a lid on the shock or dismay or sadness you may feel in response to what comes out of her mouth, and try to create a little island of safety for her in a universe that has revealed treachery and instability. You can honor her experience by hearing and seeing and enduring it with her.

That would be, actually, doing quite a lot."

You hang in there, Graham's mom. Even though we don't have your son and aren't living your exact experience, we get it. You are not completely alone.

GrahamForeverInMyHeart said...

Thank you for sharing that. It's so true. What you wrote really captures my feelings.
Each of us here has had a different experience of loss because we have each lost a completely irreplaceably unique person. But fundamentally we unfortunately have this devastating experience in common and we understand the depth and permanence of the losses as no one else can.
Thank you again.

Jeri said...

I was going through a box of pictures last night and came across some pics from a Thanksgiving dinner with your family. It brought up memories of Joey and what a great friend he was to so many. Another picture was at the 50-60's dance. I love that picture of Joey & I. Good times and memories! What a great guy...I miss him too!

Liza at A Maui Blog said...

I can't believe it's been that many years ago ... when my grandfather died I couldn't believe people were taking photos of such a sad occasion. I thought taking photos like that are just for parties ... later I realize there is a little bit of comfort in it ... seeing others grieving with us ... anyway ... your post is helpful as always... now I won't be shy talking to someone who's lost a loved one ... i now have an idea of what to say ...

Leslie said...

Karen, while I don't necessarily have the correct words to give you. I want you to know how much you, your family, and especially Joey have touched my life from afar.

I am not a bereaved parent, but I can feel the pain, uncertainty, and passion how much you love you son. I have no doubt all the lives he touched. Maybe those grins are celebrating the beautiful life he led.

Joey and I have the same taste in food - Mama's! I will be keeping you close to my heart as I have always done, but especially in the next several days and weeks.

Much love, xx (we have a beautiful angel among us.)