Memorial Service Provides Important Closure for Family and Friends
Recently, a friend lost a parent to Alzheimer’s disease after a long struggle. The parent, who lived in another state, was cared for by one of my friend’s siblings. My friend along with the other siblings (who also lived in other states) would try to visit periodically, but didn’t have major caregiving responsibilities. Still, they were kept in the loop as the parent’s health decline. Therefore, the phone call announcing the parent’s death wasn’t a surprise to my friend, but it still was a shock. My friend soon began talking to her sibling about when the memorial service would happen, but the sibling said not to worry about making travel arrangements. The parent’s body was being cremated and the sibling who had served as the primary caregiver said she planned to distribute the ashes in her garden.
I have to admit that I told my friend that I was kind of surprised by the sibling’s suggestion. I urged her to suggest to her sibling that a memorial service in whatever form would celebrate the parent’s life, but also bring closure to the challenges that were faced by everyone who watched that long battle with Alzheimer’s. Furthermore, the service didn’t have to happen right away; instead, schedules among the multiple siblings could be coordinated so that everyone could congregate at a convenient time.
My friend knew that our family marked my mother’s passing from Alzheimer’s and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) almost a year after her death. Part of that was due to logistics since Mom, who died in late September, wanted her cremated remains spread in the Colorado Rockies. By the time Mom died, snow was beginning to accumulate, making travel into the Rockies difficult, especially with our 80-year-old father. Another reason that we held off was that my brother’s girlfriend was dealing with serious health issues at the time. Thus, we as a family felt that his priority needed to be on dealing with the emotional and mental stress that comes with caregiving. (Fortunately, his girlfriend got past this health scare.) By the time that we did make it to Colorado in August 2008, we were joined by good friends who brought along the ashes of their neighbor, who had died from Alzheimer’s and whose family did not want her cremated remains. The memorial ceremony for Mom and Lorraine was perfect, including the setting among the mountains, the readings by Kahlil Gibron, and the people who were involved. As we drove back from the mountains, we saw two rainbows, which seemed to affirm that Mom and Lorraine were happy with the day. That ceremony and long weekend really made me happy and gave me closure, even though it was almost a year after Mom’s death.
Based on my experiences, I encouraged my friend to talk to her sibling about whether an alternative could be arranged if the sibling didn’t want to bring family together for a service. Perhaps the ashes could be divided and distributed to each sibling so each could hold their own commemoration of the parent’s passing. When thinking about this option, my friend started considering taking the ashes back to New York, where the parent lived as a child and where an aunt lived.
The sense of exhaustion and level of stress released by a loved one’s death from Alzheimer’s can make organizing a funeral or memorial service just one too many things to do. However, I believe that some sort of service gives family members and friends a chance to come full circle by celebrating a loved one’s life, marking death, and the start of a new phase of life for caregivers, family members and friends. And whether that ceremony is held during the same week of a loved one’s passing or several months later, it’s worth taking the time and effort to make this event into one that respects the wishes of the loved one who has died as well as the needs of those who remain.