On the day my sister was cremated, the world, for me, had shifted on its axis, and yet somehow, the drive-thru line outside this restaurant was still moving right along...and the overhead lights were still burning bright above us...and the sun was still shining despite such gloom. It wasn't right. Nothing about the day was right. I wondered how anything would ever feel right again. I was in a daytime twilight zone in a Wisconsin Culver's, wearing black and eating lunch in the middle of the breakfast rush.
# # #
Later that morning during the cremation service, I prayed and sang and let my tears emerge. As they ran down my cheeks, I felt disconnected from my emotions and found it almost impossible to believe I was crying. This didn't feel like any crying I'd ever known. I covered my eyes, knowing this must still be shock. My eyes darted between the two large photographs of my sister. Looking into my family members' eyes was almost too painful to bear. I could barely process anything that morning. I just took it all in and tucked the feelings deeper inside.
Later, I drove back home.
# # #
For the next two months, I'd correspond with Beth's friends and with all my loved ones, processing my grief the only ways I knew how, first with words, then with actions.
I took to my journal, crying while I wrote.
Then, I signed up for The Moth, and told a story about my sister in front of a crowded room full of strangers.
Finally, I began sifting through boxes of old photographs, getting lost in memories for hours at a time.
I then found sheets of card stock and scissors, and a very old bottle of Elmer's glue. I cut the cardstock into a hundred rectangles, then pried dried glue from the bottle's orange tip. I glued the photographs onto all those rectangles, knowing they'd eventually hang at the memorial my father was planning.
I couldn't wait for everyone to see those pictures. And I kept counting the days until the memorial.
Until then, I kept going back to those pictures. They felt like the embodiment of all the unfinished stories in my heart. Holding those photos, I felt closer to Beth. Seeing them, I'd find strength, thinking about all of our happy times, but then just when I'd least expect it, I'd receive a card, or a plant, or a blanket, or a meal, or a call, or an instant message, or a text -- and I'd find myself slipping down into a hole. The support was overwhelming -- beyond description -- and I couldn't make sense of why each act of kindness tore me to shreds.
And it was while I was down in one of those many "holes" that I realized I was officially in the throes of grief.
# # #
I will never know how my dad had the strength to plan my sister's memorial. He handled the entire thing, from start to finish, making decisions, asking for feedback, and managing every possible logistic.
At one point, during a phone call with him, I offered to get some flower arrangements for the tables, because I wanted to take SOMETHING off his plate. Only when I hung up the phone, did I wonder, How does one even go about doing this?
I Googled "floral arrangements for a celebration of life" and was directed to a sea of Pinterest boards filled with "creative ideas" for loved ones' memorials. Until then, I hadn't even known that this was a thing. Some of the boards included photos of lavish, upbeat settings resembling -- I kid you not -- wedding receptions. Others resembled hoedowns and backyard barbeques. I'd never been to a celebration of life before and these pictures all looked so contrived to me -- and nothing like what I imagined Beth wanting.
All I could think was, I don't even want to be doing this. I just want my sister back.
Eventually, I found a local florist who patiently listened to my ideas and, most importantly, asked what kind of woman my sister had been. Together, we envisioned some beautiful arrangements to honor everything my sister was: compassionate, kind, completely down to earth. We decided on four different kinds of arrangements:
1. A vase of delphinium, signifying an open heart
2. A container of aloe plants signifying affection
3. A vase of hawthorne branches signifying hope
4. And vases of 6 different flowers and plants to be placed on every table:
•ivy - faithfulness
•rosemary - remembrance
•fern - sincerity
•hyacinth - constancy
•ranunculus - radiance
•garden rose - love
I knew this floral exercise --just like my photo-mounting project -- was more make-work than anything in the days leading up to the memorial...just "busy work" that everyone talks about, to keep a broken heart occupied. Just as gluing the photos to card stock didn't matter, the flowers weren't something that had to be ordered. Yet, working on these things kept Beth closer to me. It was what I had to do with my grief -- until I could finally and openly mourn.
# # #
On the day of the memorial, I felt surprisingly ready. I'd prepared some words I wanted to share, and tucked them into the lecturn before mourners arrived. With significant help, I set out the flowers and hung all the photos, then tried to follow the advice I'd been given long ago:
"You've got this."
"Don't let yourself overthink."
As the mourners arrived, I felt a surprising amount of relief. Everyone had either known Beth or experienced profound loss in some way. I was so grateful to feel less alone in my pain, and to hear others say they felt exactly the same way.
As memories were shared and so many tears fell, I finally found the release I'd been aching for. I am grateful that, at times, the photos and flowers even encouraged conversation, especially when emotions left us at a loss for words.
Before it was my turn to speak about my sister, I'd given myself full permission to cry, thanks in large part to a particular exchange I'd had the week before. Someone I deeply respect had leveled with me, noting that I work overtime trying to appear strong.
"You can't keep that up all of the time," the person said. "That's not being real. You've got to let your guard down sometimes. You've got to let people in."
They were absolutely right. It was exhausting. Then it occurred to me: mourning requires significant trust.
Until I had the opportunity to openly mourn my sister, I'd been clutching her memories so close to my heart, afraid of entrusting them to anyone. Until the memorial, I kept replaying those memories in my mind, like a loop, reviewing and reconfirming their very existence. Memories, after all, were the only "things" I had left. I was terrified to share them. It somehow felt like I was letting her go.
When I finally spoke at the memorial, I shared a piece I'd written straight from my heart. While writing, I wondered if it might be too long, but I didn't know how to condense it any further. A 12-minute summary of Beth's 47 years seemed reasonable when I put my pen to paper. And if it was too long, my fellow mourners were kind enough not to yawn.
Until the memorial, I'd already cried so many tears...in the shower...in the car...in the grocery store...in my sleep. I didn't know how -- or if -- I could feel any different (let alone better) after this celebration of life, but I did. I think it's because I had the opportunity to grieve openly with others. We were able to gather in a safe place together, to trust one another with our collective sadness. We witnessed one another's authentic emotions, completely free of judgment.
I can now see that, through the act of mourning, my sister is still with us and always will be. Everyone in that room shared something that day, whether a memory, a condolence, an understanding look, a hug, an observation, a familiar story, a helping hand, or a number to call if and when the memories begin to fade.
I can see now I'd worried that the memorial would dilute my feelings, somehow "mixing them up" with the memories of others. I was so afraid I'd feel empty when it was all over. And though I did feel completely exhausted and drained, I left feeling fortified and strengthened, carrying with me a renewed sense of love and peace.
As I step into this new phase of my grief -- ACCEPTANCE -- I'm acutely aware of the emptiness I still feel. And yet, I have only to think of those fellow mourners that day, literally filling the room with memories and love, to know that we've all "got this."
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