You don’t know what you don’t know

The other day I was reminded of families that I have served who are under the impression that they don’t need a ceremony or a service to commemorate a loved one. They feel that moving on means doing something with the body and then continuing on with their daily lives. It’s not that easy. Loss needs to be experienced. It should be felt in all it’s beautiful and horrible ways. When your heart it shredded like fraying fabric and dangling in pieces, the scotch tape method isn’t going to work long term. Careful stitching and skilled hands are needed to put things back into place. Maybe not perfectly, but at least in a way so you can breathe again.

There was a young man who died in his apartment of an overdose. I sat with his grieving father and went over the details of what he wanted to happen. The young man had been living in different state than his family for several years and had made friends and a home here. His father, who was understandably grief stricken, just wanted to cremate his son and go home. He even suggested that he could sign the paperwork and have me mail the ashes to his house! As I listened to this father grieve, he told me that he did not know his son anymore, he had made friends that the father had never met, he worked several jobs and bounced around living situations. The father’s solution was to bury himself in life and forget that his son had died. I knew what had to happen, this grieving father could not go home and not know who his son was, what he did, or what he was to other people! So, I gently probed with more questions, “Are there other siblings?” No. “Is there a biological mother living?” No. (the father was remarried) “Does he have many friends where you live, where he grew up as a child?” No, not really. Then it stands to reason that if this man wanted to know his son, wanted to understand what kind of life he lived and who he lived it with, it would be here, in the place that the young man had made his home. I suggested that he have an open floor memorial, that we print it in the paper and that he stay here and see who shows up and hear what they had to say. I told him he should get to know his son, if not in life, then with his death. He immediately got angry. He pointed out that his sons’ roommates, friends and coworkers were likely the cause of his overdose and he had no intention of seeing or speaking to any of those people. He would grab his son and run.

That was my cue to leave it alone. He had the right to just take his son home. I got a call the next morning from the fathers’ wife, they wanted to do as I suggested. They decided to print an obituary and put together a memorial for this young man. Then the father got on the phone and told me he knows no one will show up but in the case that one person who loved his son was there, it was only fair to let them say their peace. My heart fluttered, I was so excited! I put together an obituary for this kid with the only information that I had, born, lived, died, and where and when he would be memorialized. This was not a chapel service, we planned an event where there was food and drinks, tables to eat at and a microphone. I then busied myself with the details. I asked the father to send me digital pictures of his son, which I then printed out and placed in frames and set them on the tables. I put out a box with the young man’s picture on it and set out notecards for his friends to write memories and stories for the father to take home.  I made sure the caterer was on time and set things up exactly how I had been instructed. The tables cloths of brilliant blue adorned each table and a centerpiece of succulents sat in each center. The father and his wife showed up early, shoulders hunched, nervous, pessimistic of anyone showing up.

As it got closer to the time advertised for the service, a person walked in, shoulders also hunched, nervous. I greeted him and asked the relation, a friend, so I introduced him to the father. Then more people showed up and more and more and more until the room was full! We had to put out more chairs to accommodate the crowd! Everyone introduced themselves to the young man’s father, telling him of the incredible person his son was and how much they missed him… then it was time to start.

Getting people to stand up to a microphone in front of a crowd is a task for sure. It is a type of game convincing people that it isn’t scary to bare your soul in front of others. I fired up the microphone and introduced myself (the father and his wife were at the back of the room). I explain that as I talked, everyone in the room should think of their friend and what made him special, “Get ready to tell your story” I said. Then I spoke about what I knew, the things his father and stepmother had told me, how it would have been fun to know this guy and the only possible way was through them, the people who worked, lived and played alongside him. Then I opened the mic “The first person gets a free drink” I said… chuckles (they were already free), silence. Then one person stands up and makes his way to the front of the room and tells a story of his friend. Tears, laughter and pockets of silence as people slowly made their way to the mic and talked about their friend. After a point there was no more silence, people kept coming up and talking about how this man had changed their lives, how he had made them feel special, how they tried to help him through his addiction! We even found out that in the evenings he volunteered for a rehab center, coaching people who were fighting their own addiction! These people loved him, they missed him, and they wanted him back. So many people thanked the father for giving them the opportunity to tell their story of who their friend was to them, it was healing, and it was beautiful.

Then, when no one else was coming up to the mic, the father got up, slowly, shaking, and made his way to the front of the room. I handed him the mic and he stood there for a moment and looked around the room with tear-filled eyes. It took several seconds to get his composure, to make any sound from his throat. Then, he talked. He talked about his son and how he was stricken when he moved away from home. How he worried everyday if he was alive or dead. He talked about the conversations he had with his son when he knew he was high and would fear for him and ache for his safety. Then he talked about the people in this room. He explained his initial plan to cremate his son quickly and just leave but was encouraged to stay and have this thing for them. How he thought that no one would show up. How he was so grateful that he did this! He thanked everyone for showing up, for helping and loving his son who struggled so much. He thanked them for telling him how much his son helped them, that there was a purpose in his son building a life here. How all of their words have begun to heal the anger and sadness he felt over his son’s death. That there was now a lightness to know that for all these years, his son was surrounded by caring and loving people and he hadn’t carried the burden of fearing for his son alone.

After he finished, there was not a dry eye in the room. I thanked everyone and closed the service. Some people left right away but some stayed and hugged the grieving father. The box of written memories was filled to the brim. The stories shared was immense and heavy and the father, who thought he lost his son years ago to people who weighed him down, now knows they were a pillar of strength and encouragement, and that his son was loved and cradled up until the end. You just don’t know what you don’t know.

I want to give a big shout out to Lorina and 3 Irons for being a patron for my book project! Thank you for reading my stories, I have so many to share.

Please, if you have a minute, take a look at my Patreon page, it’s time to get the book published for you, it takes a village! 


Chelsea Tolman (mbalmergirl)cacti-1846147_1280Picture provided by Pixabay

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