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RITUALS. WE ALL NEED THEM.

As we prepared for my mother-in-law June’s passing, through doctor assisted suicide on March 31, it became abundantly clear that no one in the family knew how to steer the ship. Of course, there was June, the main character in this drama to consider first and foremost. She had ten days left on this earth and there were things she needed to prepare and do before leaving this plane. I’m not sure what I would need to do if I had ten days to live, but I think that’s an entirely different post. Although she was exhausted by all the ‘busyiness’ of the family, including grandchildren in from New Zealand, she spent her last days without her naps, entertaining and engaging with family and friends who all came to bid her farewell.

The Family Talking Stick
The family talking stick – a wooden spoon

She would say that it felt like a Shiva while she was still here. She made the attempt each day to put on just a little makeup, to look less sickly I’m sure she thought. So we gathered around and tried as best we could to give her all she wanted and needed in those last days. There was one hiccup though. She didn’t really want to discuss anything about her arrangements. She only made clear that she would be alone. She wanted no one with her at the end except the doctors. The family stumbled around during this time, often in darkness, with many questions about the estate, about her last super, about the day of her death and about her funeral arrangments. But otherwise, she remained mute, leaving everyone wondering and guessing. She became increasingly angry, hostile and argumentative. A culmination of fear, exhaustion, pain and medication, no doubt. She was still a very virile woman, who was doing this preemptive measure, before becoming sickly and incapacitated. She was feisty and most times she just said she didn’t want any thing. There was to be no funeral, memorial, announcements or anything.

It was Catherine Porter, the reporter who was covering an expose on the Right To Die In Canada, which  included June’s own story, that changed the outcome of this event for the family. She had stopped by June’s during that last week and Bill had met with Catherine. The rest of the family already had met with her. He later told us that Catherine, without much thinking had said to him “You must have a ritual,” before becoming embarrassed for perhaps speaking out-of-turn. But a seed had been born for Bill that smoldered for a couple of days. As Thursday March 30 approached, we all wondered what we would do for June’s last night on this planet. She didn’t know and couldn’t tell us what she wanted. I asked her what she wanted her ‘last meal’ to be and I was met with ambiguity. Then on Thursday morning, we got a call from Bill. We would spend the evening inside, were we would have sandwiches and salads brought in and we would do a round circle of farewells, lead by Bill. We were given time to prepare what we all wanted to say to June on her last day with us all.

As we gathered at June’s apartment that day, some family members were busily writing on cards, preferring to have something prepared to say, than to try and go off the top of their heads. Sue and I decided just to wing it. I had an idea of what I wanted to say. We sat around and talked for quite awhile. Bill and I gravitated towards each other, as we often do when in the same room. We both enjoy our political and social conversations, sometimes of one mind and others of opposite camps. We just always seem to connect very easily. He told me he had been to speak with the estate lawyer that day and gave him a run down of all the persons and players in the family. He said the lawyer called us the family of trend setters. You see, June divorced her husband back in the late seventies. It was unheard of during those times, and it cost her the love and support of her parents and friends as she became an outcast. The concept of couples living together, or splitting, or divorce were unheard of and there was no such thing as a blended family. The lawyer had said that June had begun her early life as a trend setter and as she neared death, she was particpating in setting another trend. Bill was still reeling a little by all this, as we all were, and wasn’t especially appreciative of his mother’s trend settings at that very moment. However, as he listed his sister and her wife (me), the lawyer stopped him and asked “Are they legally married?” When he was told yes, the lawyer just smiled and said “It seems your entire family is about setting the trends.” Bill was able to appreciate the comments even while still feeling the emotional impact of some of those trends. He would later, when the hurt had subsided a little, write about the humanity he experieneced through this process in his local newspaper in NZ.

As we gathered in a circle with our plates of food, Bill facilitated the ritual that was being created in this family on this night. We would use the concept of a talking stick of the elders from other cultures and each would take a turn. We used a wooden spoon. A rice spoon really. It was symbolic in the family. Although not THE wooden spoon, used to discipline a child in the past, it was symbolic of that spoon. Somehow, while using it and passing it around, for Sue and Bill, a little of the past was healed and transformed into forgiveness through the last week and this final round robin with their mother. And June acknowledged THE wooden spoon, putting a band aid on the hurt of her children. And although we didn’t really know what to do, or how to do it, nor did we have anyone to talk to who had done this before us, we sat as a family, one last time and created our own ritual and said our own unique farewells. There were many tears.

The next day, March 31, was almost surreal. As June was being hooked up to the interveneous bags, she sat in her nightgown, a shocker to me. If I had bet money on it, I would have figured she’d dress up a little and definitely put make up on. I think that’s what I probably would have done. So, I was very surprised to see her in a nightgown. Actually, I had never seen her in one. She suddenly looked old and feeble. I finally saw some of the ravages of the cancer eating at her. She was skinnier and she kept touching her belly as some sharp pains went through in waves. She looked around the room and said “I just go to sleep and there is nothing more, its done, there is nothing beyond death right?” She looked around the room at us all, hoping for confirmation, becoming scared, what if she were wrong? She was serious and she wanted an answer. She looked at her doctor, expecting an answer. He replied “It is an individual belief that each person holds and I can’t tell you what to believe. You have to decide for yourself.” Something fluctuated across her face, just briefly for a minute. I think she thought of the depths of hell and a fiery ending and became scared. She quickly started, almost desperately, to make amends, in code, in her own way, publically, in front of family, doctors and housekeepers. Afterward, she seemed more at peace, settled, and ready to press on in this journey.  She settled in her bed in her night gown and we each took a turn going in to say goodbye. She was at peace and so ready. There was no question about that. In the end, she asked that her children stay and be with her for the process, to share in her journey. She was surrounded by loved ones as she told them how much she loved them and she felt the love coming from them in her final moment.

And five days later, after being cremated, there was to be no funeral or memorial, an instruction from June. However, she had allowed for the family to gather as she was placed in her niche. She may have got a little more than she wanted, because as we all gathered at the niche with the ashes that were now June, Bill produced the wooden spoon. Here again, we created a ritual before burying as we passed the spoon one last time amongst us all. And before they closed the niche, the spoon was placed very meticulously by her children in the niche with June. The ritual created by the family, now complete. June may not have wanted the fan fare and such, but her family, the ones left behind needed something and this ritual, suggested by a reporter, helped the family journey through this with their mother, their grand mother and their mother-in-law. Rituals are powerful healing and we all need them. May you rest in peace June.

June’s last words: Some say its cowardly. Some say it heroic. I say, I did it my way.

This post was written over a year ago. However, it was June’s birthday this week on the 26th, and Bill will be arriving from New Zealand next week. It seemed a fitting time to post this, as we will gather again as a family, and we will visit the grave of June. We will once again, engage in our family ritual.

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