Finding Closure: How a Gravestone Helped Me Say Goodbye

image

Just by chance, the grave plots my parents purchased happen to be near my home, so it only made sense that after my father’s death that I would be the one to drive to the cemetery to meet the funeral home’s representative to determine the exact location of their plots. When I arrived, an older man climbed out of the funeral home van parked alongside a grassy area. I waited nearby as he and his assistant tromped about the grass with a measuring tape and clip board, arguing back and forth about where the grave was located. As I stood there listening to their bickering, a sense of indignity swelled up inside. This might be just a  job for them, but it was my father they were talking about, and their callous attitude was painful to witness. I kept up a brave face, but the little girl inside wanted to kick one of them in the shins and tell them to shape up and show some respect. (I’m really glad the little girl inside didn’t win that particular inner battle.)

After the coworkers finally agreed upon the exact location of the plots my parents purchased some forty-odd years ago, the gentleman used his foot to push aside the grass and uncover a small metal plate marking their eventual final resting places. After verifying the location imprinted on the metal place, he kicked the grass back in place and bent over to press a thin wire in the ground with a white flag attached. The name Sasser was scrawled in black sharpie across the attached thin square of fabric.  It was all so matter of fact, just another day, another coffin to bury in the ground with only a last name on a piece of fabric to give that coffin any identity of the life that was buried inside.

A couple of days later, we buried my father with our family and dear friends gathered together to remember the man who had loved me from the day he and my mother brought me home. It was a hard day, but it helped to be surrounded by those who loved and respected him. After the last visitor said their goodbyes and went home, I drove the few blocks back down to the cemetery to make sure the workers had finished their work. As I walked among the pots of flowers strewn over the newly laid patch of grass, it somehow felt as if my dad had just disappeared. Even as the edges of the grass grew back and blended in over the following weeks, I would find myself driving out to his grave just to make sure things were okay. Sometimes on really hard days, I would go and simply sit nearby the tiny patch of grass where he was buried. It made the ache a little less, the worry a little less heavy, just to sit there in the quiet.

And finally today when I visited my father’s grave, his marker was in place. As I approached and saw the bronze and marble marker, I expected to experience a new wave of grief. Instead I felt relief. When I saw his name emblazoned on the bronze plate along with the words reminding the world for generations to come that this man, Charles Paul Sasser, this soldier who served his country, this man buried in this place, this man was a beloved husband and father. With his marker in place, I finally found closure.

Today I found a moment in which I could rest. My father’s grave is no longer a place where he has simply disappeared from this earth but instead a place of acknowledgment. And that marker on the ground? It is simply an extension of the permanent mark he left on my own heart and in those who he loved, and I can finally be at peace with that.

 

Why We Need to Show Up for the Hard Stuff

10459143_10152532625959383_8529679817993675718_n

 

The text came when I’d already crawled in bed after an exhausting day of meetings.

I almost didn’t read it.

I almost left it until morning.

Lisa, I’m here at Mom and Dad’s.
I think you should come.
He likely won’t make it through the night.

I laid there in the dark for a moment, almost upset that I’d read it. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to be there for this – the end. I didn’t want to see my dad like that. I didn’t want to do any of this.

On the long drive down to my folks’ place, a wash of fear swept over me. What if this – how my dad was now – what if this was how I remembered him? I didn’t want that memory to be the one that came to mind when someone mentioned my dad years from now. I wanted to remember him as the self-reliant, confident, kind man that he was before Alzheimer’s. I didn’t want to recall their guest room with the hospital bed, the wheelchair, him in his hospital gown. I didn’t want to watch my father slip away from me, leaving me without a dad to lean on for the rest of my life.

I think we’re often like that with things in life that fill a need for us. We don’t want them to change, and if they do, we don’t want to witness it. I think it’s why we work so hard to “fix” the people in our lives who’ve changed into something other than our ideal of who they could or should be. I think it’s why we avoid the mirror as we get older; it’s easier to believe we are still as we once were. As long as we don’t really look, really acknowledge it, we can continue as we see ourselves in our own mind’s eye in whatever ideal form we want to believe is still true.

We spent the night sitting vigil at my father’s bedside, telling stories of some of our favorite memories of him. We laughed, we talked, we cried. But we did it together as a family. And when Dad’s breathing would stop for what seemed like forever, we’d grow silent and listen, wondering if this was the moment we’d have to say goodbye. We held his hand, kissed his cheek and told him we loved him. It was one of the hardest nights I’ve been through, but it was also one I wouldn’t have wanted to miss.

There is a purity that comes into our experience when we are willing to see it for all that it is, to face the hard parts as well as the good. And when we avoid the difficult part of our relationships, the harder, uglier side of life, we may get to keep a prettier picture in our head, but we lose out on experiencing the full beauty of the journey. I learned that night that there is beauty and poignancy that will never be exposed through the easy moments in life; we only discover those when we show up and face the hard parts with courage – even when we don’t want to.

As I drove back home the next morning, I felt peace. Not because I was losing my father but because I’d been there for him, I’d shown up for the hard stuff, and I would carry with me the complete memory of him – all of it. I’d remember him as a young man heading out to work while I stayed home with mom. I’d recall him teaching me to drive and giving me advice about boys when I was a teen. I’d have my memories of him talking to my daughter as she followed him around his yard. And I’d hold close the memory of our family gathered around him, making sure he wasn’t alone in this last step of life. The whole of that memory is far better, far more precious, than any single memory would ever be.

You can find this essay on HuffingtonPost as well.

My father holding me, 1966.

My father holding me, 1966.