When to go to a funeral

I usually go to a funeral because someone I love has died, and that sucks because death sucks.

But what about the other reasons to go to a funeral? What if someone I love has lost someone they love? What if I only knew their loved one casually, or not at all. Does it make sense to go?

I was in my early thirties the first time I was hemming and hawing about whether or not to go to a funeral. My friend’s niece had died. She was eight years old.

My justification for not going was simple, I had never met her niece. I thought this was a pretty compelling reason until I considered the other side. My friend lost someone she loved. Still, I went back and forth trying to figure out if I would be out of place or in the way of the family if I went.

As I was wrestling with this, I asked my co-workers what they thought. One said, “People don’t remember everyone who was at their wedding, but they remember who shows up at a funeral.” So I went. And it was beautiful and heart wrenching at the same time. I found my friend after the service and I hugged her and talked with some of the other family before leaving. 

Since attending that service, my uncle and brother died. I was blown away when five friends showed up for my uncle’s funeral. It was then that I realized what my co-worker said was true. I don’t think I’ll ever forget what it meant to see familiar faces who cared enough about me and my family to be there. Most had never even met my uncle, but they still showed up.

At my brother’s funeral, even more people came. I don’t think I can remember them all. It was a bit of a blur that day. The funeral director said in 30 years he had never seen more people turn out for a funeral than for my brother’s. The sanctuary was packed to standing room only. Another crowd listened in the lobby through speakers. Several dozen motorcycle buddies stood guard outside until the service was over. They rode off together completing the memorial ride they had started that morning in Justin’s honor. The whole day was beautiful and heart wrenching.

I remember many of the people that came to show their support and love. Family friends I hadn’t seen in a decade or more, a friend from junior high, old youth leaders from when Justin and I were teens, Andy’s best friend from college and his wife, and so many friends I can’t possibly list them all (I tried and my eyes started filling with tears so that I couldn’t see the screen anymore). To each of you that came that day, thank you, your presence was such a gift on an extremely difficult day.

It’s overwhelming when people show they love and care about you in a such a simple way.

A month after my brother’s memorial service, our friend’s dad passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. Because we understood how much it meant to have people show up, we checked the newspaper and googled for days to track down the service information. We got the time off work and drove up north. When we walked into the small country church, our friend’s eyes welled up and we hugged for a long time.

When we show up at a funeral we are saying to our loved ones that their pain matters and we are standing in it with them.

I felt love, support, and we’re-standing-with-you-in-this-crappiness from each person who showed up at my brother’s service.

I recently saw the grandmother of the little girl whose memorial service I attended three years ago. We were talking about grief and perspective and about showing up at funerals. She got a serious look on her face as she said, “Because now you know! You know you always go!”

I couldn’t agree more.

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Getting rid of stuff

If I was moving, would I move this?

We were talking about purging our belongings and this is a question our friend uses when deciding what to get rid of or keep. We had both been using the Kon Mari method taken from a book a co-worker lent me last spring, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.”

I started getting rid of things in the summer (okay, I’ve been getting rid of things for years, but this was a new round brought on from reading the book). Most things went to Love Inc in Delano and some things were sold on facebook garage sale sites and craigslist.

Kon Mari focuses on keeping things that spark joy. I like they way she suggests tidying, which I call purging. She would say getting rid of things is not the goal, but only keeping what you truly love, is. I, however, LOVE the feeling of getting rid of things.

Our travel backpacks we both had from the late 90’s when we traveled through Europe (during the exact same months, but we wouldn’t meet for six more years)? Sold to a man who was planning a backpacking trip with his son.

A very pretty pottery bowl set my Mom gave us (ahem, while I was helping her purge) but we barely used? Sold to a kind woman in the Sam’s Club parking lot.

I grew up with my parents hosting parties and serving lemonade in a giant punch bowl, and depending on the crowd, also floating a baby ruth bar in it (my parents were Young Life kids and Youth Leaders, ie, they were Cool). My brain made the association early in life that punch bowl = fun party. But we had used it just twice. Donated.

The big things are easier for me. The sentimental stuff, or as I’ve called it since I was a kid, “semi-mental” I’m saving for last. Kon Mari recommends it this way so you’ve had good practice of deciding what sparks joy.

Because words are one of my favorite things, I’ve kept printed out emails from when Andy and I were dating (it was how communication was done in 2005), boxes of cards and letters from family and friends, and photos, eesh. Photos may be the hardest for me.

I read an article from a person practicing the Kon Mari method and she turned all her wedding pics upside down. Then as she flipped them up one by one (I’m picturing a game of Memory here) she would pay attention to how she felt when she saw it. If it (to totally overuse this phrase) “sparked joy” she kept it, if not, she tossed it. Ugh. I get a little pit in my stomach just thinking about throwing pictures away, but I will, eventually. Also, how will I do this with digital? I don’t want to think about it yet.

So now I’m trying to find a place to start on next. I’ve attacked my clothes like nobody’s business, then we went through books. We’ve gone through the kitchen and pantry. Paperwork was purged so much that I sold our file cabinet on craigslist this fall. The guy was like, “Where do you keep your papers now?” “Um, in just a few folders.” (I’m pretty confident he thought I was nuts.) We went through the bathroom cabinets and the front hall and linen closets. Maybe that’s why I’m dragging my feet- maybe sentimental is next!

I’ll poke around some things and see if I can get going. If I start making progress I’ll share about it here. I know, this is edge of your seat, life-changing kind of stuff. But it’s probably not a bad thing to keep asking, “If I was moving, would I move this?”

Things that remind us

It’s interesting the things that remind us of someone after they’re gone. My Grandma died 14 years ago, and there are a few things that always make me think of her. Amish furniture- because she loved it and owned it. Car phones- because she was the first person I knew who had one. And I had no end of excitement of calling my Mom from the car. Oh, and open house signs. She was a Realtor and I would help her lug them around and push them into the ground. And then recently there were two distinct things that had me thinking of her.

Last week we had a really windy day. It was especially noticeable to me because it was trash day and the whole neighborhood was filled with everyone’s recycling and garbage as it flew around. Much of it landed in our yard. As I drove home, my car was being swayed by the wind and I heard my Grandma’s voice, clear as if she had just called me on the phone like she used to on days like this- saying, “Did my girl blow away today?”

I could count on it like clockwork. Any windy day and Grandma would give me a call to ask the same line. It surprised me how clearly I could still hear her voice in my head after so many years. She was a tough woman with a strong voice, but gentle when she spoke about, “her girl.” As the only granddaughter (at the time) with 7 grandsons, she loved to introduce me as her, “favorite granddaughter” while she drew out the word favvvorrrrite for emphasis. That was my cue to roll my eyes and say, “I’m her only granddaughter” which would elicit a polite smile from the new acquaintance and a proud, beaming grin from my Grandma.

This past weekend we sang an old hymn at church called, “There is a Redeemer” written by Keith Green’s wife Melody. I can’t remember the last time I heard this song, but the words were so familiar they came right out.

There is a redeemer, Jesus, God’s own Son

Precious Lamb of God, Messiah, Holy One

Jesus my redeemer name above all names

Precious Lamb of God, Messiah oh, for sinners slain

Thank You oh my Father for giving us Your Son

And leaving Your Spirit ’til the work on Earth is done

When we got to the, “Thank you, Oh my Father” part I heard my Grandma’s voice belting out the lyrics in her loud church singing voice, as if she was standing next to me instead of Andy.

I’m a sucker for old hymns, they’re always my favorite. When I learned this song was written in 1977 I wondered if in 15 more years I’ll have sentimental feelings about DC Talk or Audio Adrenaline. Probably not.

I’m not sure why certain memories come to us when they do. But I’m really glad that they do. It’s funny the things that remind us of people after they’re gone.

A post about Fuller House

I’ve polled friends and read enough articles to realize that people either love or hate the new re-make of the 1987 Full House. From my non-scientific research it seems that anyone who watched and enjoyed the original, is more likely to enjoy the new one too. People who didn’t really get into Full House, tend to not like Fuller House. And that makes sense because the original show was incredibly cheesy. The new one is just as over the top, but, I love it.

Even with being a Full House fan growing up, I still had my reservations about the new show. And when I heard the first laugh track, I was sure I wouldn’t make it past the first episode. Initially the cheering for each original cast member entering the stage was annoying, but by the end I found myself just as excited to see Uncle Jesse and Aunt Becky too (how do John Stamos and Lori Loughlin look the same after 29 years!? Have mercy!). So I kept watching.

Without exception, each episode has made me laugh out loud at least once, sometimes twice. The new middle kid is so much like Danny Tanner (Bob Saget) that it cracks me up. The fact that there are twins playing the baby of the family- awww, nostalgia for Mary-Kate and Ashley. And I think it’s hilarious when they poke fun at themselves (DJ: I watch a lot of Dancing With the Stars) or each other (Kimmy: At the prices MK & A charge for their dresses, no wonder they’ve given up acting!).

Somehow they make the leap into current day with still having a bit of Full House’s original family values. I liked that Uncle Joey took away everyone’s phones and iPad to have, “good old fashioned family violence” with Super Soakers and silly string. They discuss issues like balancing wanting to be friends with their kids and setting boundaries in discipline. Still conservative and cheesy, but I like it.

And then there’s a moment so real and tender that it totally caught me by surprise. Um… can we talk about Stephanie explaining her infertility to her sister? Sheesh! I had read an article that mentioned it so I knew it would happen eventually (sorry if I spoiled it for you). But D.J.’s response of, “My kids are your kids” ……annnnnd without warning I was wiping away tears with my sleeve. I don’t know if I could imagine a sweeter thing to say to someone in that moment.

Oh, and this is one of my favorite articles I’ve read on the show so far. It slams it as a show on its own (without the Full House nostalgia factor, I’m not sure I would’ve kept watching the new one either). But the article brings up a deeper story line about how good friendships can help us cope through hard times.

Maybe that’s why I kept watching. There’s something inspiring about seeing women pull together to help each other, and this show has that in spades.

Showing up in grief

Just after my brother died, a new friend that I had known for a few months kept showing up. Literally. She would drop by the house again and again. I was so grateful. I had little desire to go anywhere or do anything, so someone stopping in unannounced was perfect.

I imagine I was terrible company. I would sit motionless and watch in silence as my friend took my dirty dishes to the sink and watered the plants I was neglecting. And then she’d sit down across from me on the couch and ask me about my brother.

While I was useless in most every other way, that was one thing I was good at doing. I could tell story after story, because in those first fresh days of grief, Justin was the only topic I could think about, and consequently, talk about. I knew in my head it was probably too much for others to handle, but I couldn’t seem to stop talking.

One day my friend asked me what it was like when he died. No one had asked me that before. And my apologies to my friends who didn’t ask, but I told you anyway. She asked with such a simple innocence that it didn’t seem out of line, or something inappropriate to talk about. It seemed honest, true and real. I am so grateful for her gift of presence and for not shying away from asking questions.

A few weeks later, another friend drove in from out of town to spend a weekend with me while Andy was on a getaway with his parents. He deserved it, by the way. Andy was amazing during the first part of heavy grieving. I could hardly stop crying to go to work (and even now 10 months later I still cry at work sometimes, yay grief!). He did all the cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, he really did everything. I was kind of aware of how much he was doing and how little I was, but I couldn’t seem to get up the energy to actually do anything that would help or contribute.

I was a real treat.

So, when Andy had the chance to get away to the mountains (his happy place) for a few days,  I encouraged him right out the door.

I think he felt okay going because he knew my friend was coming to town. And this was our weekend: My friend cooked our meals and cleaned the house. We took long walks outside by day and watched Netflix and laughed by night. I went into purge mode and found things we weren’t using and listed them online. We sold random things to people as they stopped by the house to buy them all weekend long.

One time we sat in bed and she asked me about the eight days in between knowing Justin was going to die, and his death. I recounted each moment of each day from beginning to end. When I got to the very last part, she was quietly sobbing. My friend kept apologizing for crying. I told her there was no reason to apologize.

In a strange way, her tears were validating for me. It gave permission to acknowledge that the whole situation was shitty, and was not how we had hoped it would end.

By the time my friend left to go back home, our freezer was loaded with homemade muffins and rhubarb crisp, our house was a little less cluttered, and my heart was full.

My friends taught me how important it is to show up when people are hurting. To physically drive to their house and sit there with them to be present in their grief. Words aren’t even necessary. In some cases, no words are preferred.

After I saw this modeled by my friends and I noticed how much it helped me, I realized I’m terrible at this. I want to be better at showing up for friends and family who are hurting.

I guess this is one good thing I’m learning from grief.

8 days of celebration

Last month was my brother’s birthday. My mom tells birthday stories of me and Justin when we were little. She says I used to give Justin gifts on my birthday so he would feel included in opening presents. As he got older he coined the phrase (stolen from Hanukkah), “Missika” to represent my birthday week because to him the celebration went on and on, like an eight day festival of lights, he’d say.

This year as his birthday neared, I knew I wanted to do something to honor Justin, and an 8 day celebration of life seemed the most obvious. It was fun to think of some of the things he really enjoyed and finding ways to incorporate them into “Gussika.”

Justin was  a big coffee lover. He worked in lots of coffee shops over the years. He preferred his own coffee with several shots of espresso. He told Andy that three or four shots was typical for him, six if it was going to be a long day.  I knew coffee had to be part of his birthday week somehow.

Justin also loved giving things away to people. When he was in Indiana having his last treatment, he was able to give a hungry man his barely touched dinner. He talked about how much it meant to him to still be able to give to someone when he was relying on others himself. The idea to gift someone’s cup of coffee came pretty quickly in a way to honor two things Justin loved: coffee and treating others. I talked to him about it in the car on the way to the coffee shop and I think he would have loved this, conspiring for good.

I also wanted to watch a movie he liked. This was tricky to narrow down the options because there were so many. As a teen he’d watch anything with Jim Carey or Mike Myers. Before that,there were classics like Princess Bride, Monty Python and Spaceballs. I finally settled on Spaceballs having not seen it for at least a decade or two. I laughed at the best lines and imagined Justin quoting the movie with me. It was a bad habit we had from watching the same movies over and over again. Though for him, he only had to watch it once to be able to recite the entire thing. His memory was ridiculous.

Justin loved so many different foods this was a hard one to pick too. Andy and I agreed we definitely wanted to have bacon cheeseburgers on his birthday. From there though, the options were many: bacon, waffles with chocolate chips, eggs benedict with homemade hollandaise, cheesey hashbrowns, beef stroganoff, cheesecake, brownies, etc. I finally landed on double stuff oreos dipped in milk. I had them twice that week.

Music was another thing Justin loved. For a while he was obsessed with the song, “Shoulders” by for King and Country.  He would tell me to blast it to get the full effect. He also liked, “Soul on Fire” by Third Day and it was played by one of his best friends at his celebration of life service while his two year old daughter danced in the front row. Another song was played there that I had never heard before but have come to love. It’s “Good Good Father” by Chris Tomlin. I can’t hear any of these without thinking of Justin. When I turned the radio on during his birthday week, each of these songs was playing for three mornings in a row. I smiled each time.

Justin also loved being outdoors, doing some sort of extreme sport like ice biking in the winter or wake boarding in the summer. Motorcycles, four wheelers, jet skiing, basically anything with a motor, he was interested in it. I have a lack of athleticism but was planning to go snow tubing with our nephews, Andy and his sister. The weather changed that day and our plans were cancelled. So I just stood outside looking at the stars for a bit. Not what I had originally planned, but it was nice and peaceful and I thought of my brother.

On his actual birthday, my sister-in-law emailed a bunch of family and some of his best friends and with just a few hours notice, twenty-one people showed up to celebrate the day Justin was born. My heart swelled a bit looking around the huge table. Even in his absence his presence was felt because each person was there because they loved Justin. He brought all of us together that night. I looked around at the plates and almost everyone had a cheeseburger of some sort. It was a sweet way to celebrate the day that Justin was given life.

I don’t know how heaven works, but I hope he was able to peer over the edge for a minute to see all of us there, honoring the day he was born.

I didn’t do something specific on each of the 8 days before his birthday like I intended. But I did learn how easy it is to do something small to remember and feel close to someone when they’re not here. And that’s a pretty great gift.