Death is relentless. When a loved one dies, part of our identity perishes too. There are no more visits, conversations, support, caregiving, or celebrations with my parents. It all just stopped. Sometimes, I’m not sure what to do with my time now. I feel an emptiness within – a subtle feeling of uncertainty, perhaps even insecurity. It’s much quieter now, and bothers me. I remember saying goodbye to my parents for the last time, but I didn’t really mean it.
The On the Loss of My Parents series is a tribute to my parents, Bruce Alger (1918-2011) and Vi Alger (1919-2010). It is the origin and foundation for my project, “Aging in the Second Half of Life.” On the Loss of My Parents is also an example of how transformative writing can cultivate healing, self-renewal, and understanding that is good for self and others at the same time.
Goodbye mom and dad, I love you
Death is strange, but it is no longer a stranger. The last time I said goodbye to my mom and dad, they were not alive to hear it. Why would I even say goodbye? Was I trying to “bring closure” to their deaths? Is closure even desirable – possible – necessary?
The aging population has made us more aware and sensitive to death and dying. The death of a loved one is a difficult experience to navigate when it comes closer to us. We need to learn how to talk about death. I wish I had known more as my parents lay dying.
I don’t believe that seeking “closure” is helpful, reasonable, or desirable. Nor do I believe that saying goodbye to my parents for the last time brings my relationship with them to a close. For the survivors, death represents a threshold into an entirely new realm of living, a realm in which the felt-meaning and remembrance of my parents will continue to play a central role in my lives.
An obituary is a published announcement of death that provides a brief biography of the life and relationships that surrounded the deceased individual. It is not merely a death notice; the intent is to express the spirit of the deceased person’s life. There are many ways to write an obituary.
An obituary is usually published in the local newspaper. It is not a legal requirement, but it is customary to provide one. Here are the obituaries written for my parents:
ALGER, Viola “Vi” Louise (1919-2010): Vi passed away peacefully with her family by her side on Wednesday, September 22, 2010 just 4 days short of her 91st birthday.
She was a wonderful wife, mother, grandmother and great grandmother. She leaves behind her husband of 64 years, Bruce, her children Sandra Patterson and Brian Alger, kisses from grandchildren Nicole (Chris), Laurel (Brent) and Andrea Patterson, Justin (Sonia) and Kristin (Matt) Alger, hugs from great grandchildren Connor, Charlie, Ava and Reid. Many friends and family members also mourn her loss.
Vi was predeceased by her mother and father, Edith and Walter McClelland, her brother Donald and her sister Margaret (Ron Zimmerman).
Vi will be remembered for her courage, determination and compassion. She volunteered at Christian Women’s and Friends of the Library and was always ready to help out at events and social functions. She was loved by all who knew her.
If so desired, donations to the charity of your choice would be appreciated by the family. A service for Vi will be held at St. John’s Anglican Church in St. Catharines on Friday, October 1st at 1:00 pm. Interment at Victoria Lawn Cemetery.
We have cried many tears but you are now, thankfully, at peace. You are forever in our hearts. We love you.
My dad’s obituary followed a similar pattern:
ALGER, Ivan “Bruce” (1918-2011): It is with deep and overwhelming sadness that we announce that Bruce has passed away in the early hours of January 7th, one month short of his 93rd birthday. He most recently lost his beloved wife of 64 years in September of 2010.
Bruce leaves behind his children Sandra Patterson and Brian Alger, his grandchildren, Nicole (Chris), Laurel (Brent) and Andrea Patterson, Justin (Sonia) and Kristin (Matt) Alger, his great- grandchildren Connor, Charlie, Ava and Reid. He will be sadly missed by many friends and family members.
Bruce was a wonderful role model, teaching us to never give up on our dreams. He will be remembered for his positive, happy nature, always looking at the good in life. He always had a funny story to tell.
He was a devoted and successful employee of S.C. Johnson and Son and was recognized for his outstanding sales performance and as Sales Manager of the Year for many years.
He was loved by all who knew him. If so desired, donations to the charity if your choice would be appreciated by the family. A service for Bruce will be held on Monday January 17th at 1:00pm at St John’s Anglican Church in St. Catharines. Interment at Victoria Lawn Cemetery.
We have lost a beloved father, grandfather, great-grandfather and friend. We will always remember you in our hearts. Have peace and know we love you so very much.
– The Barrie Examiner – Your Life Moments – Ivan “Bruce” Alger
Both obituaries are designed to capture some important aspects of their lives:
- They clearly outlines family relationships, which spans three generations;
- They capture some of her endearing qualities: courage, determination, and compassion;
- They honour her charity work and willingness to volunteer;
- They recommend a donation to a charity of choice as a symbolic gesture of her contribution to life;
- They announce the specifics of the funeral service and interment.
The human dimension of the obituary is the most important. My mother did possess relentless courage, determination, and compassion. And my father’s resilience, positive outlook, and happy nature were well known. For me, their obituaries inspire memories of their most endearing qualities and the legacy they have left for us.
Funerals help us to say goodbye
A funeral service provides an opportunity for people to come together in order to pay their respects to the dead. The nature of the ceremony itself is often closely tied to a religious doctrine or a set of spiritual beliefs. My parents associated themselves with the Anglican Church, and maintained a Christian belief system.
I noticed that as they got older, attention to spiritual matters increased.
Both funeral services were held in St. John’s Anglican Church in St. Catharines. At my mom’s funeral, my dad sat in his wheelchair at the front of the church immediately beside my mother’s urn. He sat there, completely exposed, perfectly still, and in complete silence. I wondered what he was thinking and feeling. I watched him with deep sadness yet tremendous admiration. He was completely alone and yet entirely at one with his wife.
The next time I entered this church, I was carrying my father’s ashes.
At my father’s funeral service there was a profound sense of absence in the church. My dad’s presence, which was so powerful at my mother’s funeral, had turned into an absence. As I stared at his urn on the podium, I looked in vain for him sitting in his wheelchair once again. He had returned to this church as ashes.
Funerals help us to say goodbye. They are cultural gestures designed to publically acknowledge and celebrate the life of the deceased, and to return them back into the Great Mystery. My physical presence in life will eventually be reduced to ashes too. And, like my parents, I will return to the earth as well.
Interment refers to the burial for the deceased; it is the act of placing a body, or the ashes, into the grave or tomb. In a sense, an interment means a return to the earth. Though traditions customs vary, the act of interment, or symbolically returning someone to the earth, is a unique characteristic of humankind.
At my parent gravesite, I stood among thousands of other gravesites. Generations of families had stood here to bury their loved ones, just as we were doing now.
I carried each urn to the burial site. his would be the last time I would touch them. I can still sense the presence of their remains in my hands, and I relive the experience of placing the urn on the grave-site never to touch them again. This was the final act of saying goodbye to them.
Why do we call it a “resting place?” Maybe it’s just to make us feel better.
Have the Conversation about the End of Life
We need to talk about the end of life before it is too late.
My parents had a Will and Power of Attorney in place, which are essential. What was missing, however, was a conversation about their last wishes. There had been attempts at a conversation, but they never progressed very far. Perhaps what they really wanted was for my sister and me to decide.
The decisions my sister and I made were difficult. We didn’t really know what we should do. We didn’t know where to hold the service, whether they should be cremated or not, or where the gravesite should be. Whatever we decided, we wanted to feel that mom and dad would approve.
Although one hears about such cases, there seems to be relatively little written about the impact on grown-up children of losing both parents within a short space of time.
– Jean Tubridy PhD: Losing Elderly Parents
Neither of my parents left any clear last wishes, even though they each had a Will. That is, it was left to my sister and me to decide whether they would be cremated or not, where the service would be held, and where they would be buried.
An end of life conversation is a gift we give to our loved ones..
The experience of carrying the urns to the grave site is one that remains vivid. It was the last time I touched them. I still sense the presence of their remains in my hands. And I still relive the experience of placing the urn on the gravesite, saying a final goodbye, and walking into the midst of life without them.
Even in death, after we have said goodbye, those we truly love remain by our side.
- The fifth article in this series is On the Loss of My Parents: 5 – Absence