While in the midst of just learning about a death, Kate Wilder, a veteran of the funeral industry, explains what it feels like to experience the shock of just learning a loved one has died. We hope you find this first-hand account of the death of a loved one as impactful and insightful as we did.While sipping a glass of wine with my next door neighbor and good friend last night, she only had to say part of the sentence, “Did you hear about Bruce,” before a familiar wave of emotion swept swiftly through me like a strong breeze blowing autumn leaves from a large Oak tree. I didn’t need to hear the answer to her question; I knew what she was about to say.
A powerful, familiar force in that moment had slowed time down, for just an instant, like the world was moving at a different pace. Have you ever felt this? It’s strange and uncomfortable. When a life tragedy is told to us on a perfectly normal day it’s as though while the news is being delivered, time slows down, before returning to normal speed again. Strange how this happens. I recognized the feeling from the many times I’ve answered the telephone hearing a quivering voice say, “I have bad news,” from family members, or friends of friends.
For the next few hours I found myself feeling confused about death, once again. Contemplating. How is a person vibrant and alive in one moment; writing insightful and heartfelt posts on Facebook, talking about the election from the day prior, commenting about another animal saved from the throws of abuse. And then... this beautiful soul who had so much left to contribute positively to the world – simply vanished?
How is this possible?
When I stop and think about death, it never ceases to amaze me at the complexity of it. It’s a simple concept, really. The body gives out somehow, and dies. But when you really think about it, in an effort to better understand you were just told someone you care about is gone forever, it’s a bizarre part of life. It isn’t easy for anyone – even for seasoned experiencers of death, like myself. I should, by now, after experiencing half of my family’s deaths, 15 friends, and some 19 pets, be able to not allow shock to infiltrate my very being.
But death doesn’t work like that. No matter how many loved ones we’ve lost, the next time it comes to visit, it sends the same chill through the heart, creating the awful and timeless waves of emotions one can barely manage at one time.
Death catches us off-guard. It makes us stop what we’re doing, no matter how significant. If death were the wind, it would knock us silly, causing us to gasp for air, while trying to catch our breath. Then, slowly, as the realization begins to set in during those first few hours and days, something begins to help us realize that the news is real – and we remember to breathe.
In the upcoming days while waiting for my friend’s funeral celebration of life to occur, there is an unsettled feeling in the air. Tears come and go. Questions are plentiful, with no answers in sight. In the dark of night, the wonderment about my own mortality pervades my thoughts, no matter how I try to not have such ‘morbid’ thinking to creep up. "He was my age. He’s too young to die." "I feel afraid."
Perhaps if I’ve learned anything about death’s teachings is that this moment in time – the time between learning about a lost loved one, and the memorial service - it’s to accept the fact that right now is an uncomfortable time. This is not the time to pretend to accept the death; that comes later. Right now, acknowledging that it hurts and making that fact be okay, is in itself, a baby step in healing.
But still, it is confusing. Time is ridden with swinging emotions like a gate barely supported by a loose bolt, causing it to swing tirelessly, back and forth with the smallest brush of a breeze. It’s exhausting. It’s filled with anxiety, even deep fears. It’s hard to know what to say or do. It’s easy for guilt to set in if you feel good for an instant, or feel like your old self - briefly.
The next day I learned when the memorial service will be. The announcement said, “A Celebration of Bruce’s Life will be held... Wear Loud T-Shirts!” Momentary laughter brought me much needed relief. Of all the funerals I’ve arranged, attended, or spoke at, that one small statement described the heart of the matter completely. This was going to be an uplifting, true celebration of life. We hear this term being kicked around the funeral industry all the time and it’s hard to describe the true meaning of it. If there ever was a great explanation for what it means to host a Celebration of Life, in death, this is the best example I’ve ever seen. Why? Because all will be wearing "loud" t-shirts. Young and old alike, the audience will be filled with tie-dyed shirts, some wacky hairstyles, and wild artwork on display. Who my friend was at the core, will be presented correctly, by his observant and loving family and close friends. This humorous, fun-loving, wacky guy who came out of a unique mold, was an artist who celebrated life in wild, loud, vivid colors – in everything he did – even when he contributed to social media. His words were as brilliant as his colorful life.
I knew that this "funeral service" would be the kind that everyone ought to have. It will be “all things Bruce”, wild and wonderful, filled with laughter and tears at the same time. This life celebration will create a lasting and fond memory for those of us in attendance. It will be the kind that people will talk about for the rest of their lives with comments such as, "Did you attend Bruce’s memorial service? That was best I’ve ever attended. I’m so glad I experienced it."
As I begin preparing my loudest outfit I can find, I notice that I’ve begun the process of moving to a new revelation in my own grief process. Suddenly, I’m breathing. It’s not that shock has worn off about this loss, because it hasn’t. However, my appreciation for the ritual of funeral service reached at all-time high, while I realize it’s healing purpose. By taking part in preparing myself for the service, I was walking into the journey through grief.
I wasn’t dreading the funeral, but actually looking forward to it. His family and closest friends had created an energy and excitement that drew people in – all from three tiny words that told his story – "Wear Loud T-Shirts." How great it would be if every person, upon their death, could find three little words that sums up their entire life and personality so accurately, that friends make sure they don’t miss this important life event?
Those three words created a frenzy of activity for mourners, making them want to come and pay tribute to a friend who will be greatly missed. In the most honest way possible, my friend’s legacy will be presented to his fans and followers, friends and family, in such a way as to honor the truest essence of a spirited soul, who lived.
And my mourning process will move from shock, into the varying waves and phases of grief that one goes through. One day, I will arrive at real 'acceptance'. That won’t come until I’ve had enough time to realize how this loss will impact my life, going forward. So when the celebration of life is over and we go back to our lives, there will be a new phase of ‘uncomfortable’ arriving at my doorstep. But, I’ll say to myself, as I did before, "Acknowledge that it hurts and make that fact be okay. This is in itself, a baby step in healing."