Recently, a friend of the family died suddenly, and his death shook us all to the core. It was confusing really, because he had unsuccessfully attempted suicide before. This time though, he accomplished the mission. He was only 27 and left behind a young son who adored his daddy. We weren’t shocked, yet we were. How do you explain this event to a child?
The life of our friend was difficult. In and out of foster care while growing up, criminal activity, drug and alcohol addictions, mental illness. All took its toll on him and on his family. But it wasn’t all dark. He was a big man with a big heart. He was a talented mechanic and a loving father and brother.
He had periods of clarity when he was clean and sober. This usually seemed to occur when he was in the care of one of his sisters. Once he would leave the saftey of their sanctuary, and go out on his own, it seems he wasn’t able to acclimate into the world, and the demons would return with a vengence. Now we realize that he needed a handler, he needed a director. Someone to guide and help him navigate. Hindsight is 20-20.
All of this to say, that planning a funeral was challenging. The family was open and honest about his struggles and used his obituary to raise awareness about mental health and substance abuse. Our friend was a car nut and one of his buddies organized a car show and burn out competition in his memory to raise funds for a children’s charity.
The family chose cremation and picked a beautiful metallic blue urn that was his favorite color. Some of the siblings wanted cremation jewelry and selected wrenches to honor his trade in auto mechanics.
He wasn’t a religious man, did not belong to a church, and with his difficult past, the family was torn about what to do regarding securing someone to preside over the memorial service. They didn’t want a stranger to get up and just read the obituary. The siblings didn’t feel strong enough to do eulogies themselves. The funeral home suggested a Funeral Celebrant that was able to connect us with someone who we were able to meet with and discuss our loved one’s life history and then the Celebrant was able to craft a nice eulogy that just fit.
Celebrants are trained to meet with a family, to hear their stories and to design a meaningful and unique service that honors the life and memories of the loved one. They are the voice of the family, putting all the elements that the family wishes to incorporate into a tribute that touches hearts and gives each person that attends the funeral something special to remember.
While getting to know the Celebrant that we worked with, I asked her, “What was the most challenging service you ever did”? She said the most memorable memorial service involved a young man of 35 who was killed in a police shootout. His early life was lived in a hollowed-out tree in a park with a drug-addicted mother and, not surprisingly, he was an addict by the age of 14. In an attempt to find sobriety, he went to AA at the age of 20 and met a young woman who was also trying to get clean. They married and had two beautiful little girls.
He just had too many strikes against him with mental illness and addiction and ended up spending eight years in prison. His wife divorced him and made a new life for her girls, but the daughters stayed in touch through letters while he was serving his sentences.
He was released from prison in November of 2011 and was staying in a halfway house. One night he went on a binge and broke into a small suburban police station/city hall. He wrote strange words in his own blood on the walls and grabbed the lone policeman’s gun and shot him in the floor. A whole contingent of Oklahoma City police responded to the call, and he was shot 22 times.
His daughters, now 12 and 11, told their mother that they wanted to have a funeral for their dad. So, the mother called, and we met, along with one of his drug buddies, at a Barnes & Noble in the middle of Christmas shoppers for a family meeting. They gave me the few stories that they knew, and asked that I honor the fact that he tried his very best, no matter how broken he was, and that he always loved his girls.
The service was held at night with no announcement in the media because the family did not any attention. There were about 25 people who had been important in this young man’s life who came to the funeral home with fear and dread, not knowing what kind of service this could possibly be.
I tried to give voice to his hopes, his dreams, his struggles and his ongoing efforts to find the right path. The daughters and I lit candles in his honor, and I reminded the girls that he could now be in the stars watching over them and loving them. We played the songs -Hallelujah-by Rufus Wainwright and -Amazing Grace- by Judy Collins, and together everyone recited the Serenity Prayer. Keepsakes for friends and family were beautiful, brightly colored stars. Each person left feeling relieved that the service had been so honest and yet so positive, and glad that they had an opportunity to gather to share memories and support each other.
Without a celebrant willing to take on such a difficult service, that little family’s last memory of their loved one would have been his picture splattered all over the news and video of the bloody walls and shattered windows where he had been shot.
That was certainly one of those moments when I was so grateful to be able and available to offer a few moments of healing for a hurting family.
So many times, when there is a sudden tragic death, especially with a younger person, whether it be drug overdose, suicide, or senseless violence, the families are so grief stricken and sometimes deep in pain or shame that the there is no further mention of the deceased. That person dies and just disappears. It’s been said that funerals are for the living. You have options to help with the healing and closure that a funeral or memorial service can provide no matter how tragic the circumstances.