The finality of the funeral

funeral (2)

Arlington National Cemetery does a fantastic job of burying those individuals who have served our country. I appreciated the time between the passing of each parent and their burial. However, it was hard to help my Mom who had multi-infarct dementia remember that Dad had passed away.

Her calls asking me to give her a ride to visit Dad were heartbreaking. I broke down in tears on the first few. I eventually found a way to choke out a response that didn’t end in both of us crying on the telephone. I was thankful that for whatever reason, we had taken a picture of us (mom, me and my three siblings) around my deceased dad in his hospital bed. I printed that gruesome picture and posted it in my Mom’s room with a note about the event so she had a reminder that we were all there together. She was ready for the burial service once it arrived.

I was relieved to pass the burial milestone for both parents. I knew it meant I could finally finish the long grieving process that began when I recognized that their dementia’s were stealing them away from me bit-by-bit. The reality that we have to watch as well as care for our loved ones with dementia is a cruel fate for everyone. May we one day have a cure for the sneaky beast called dementia. Hoped. 

Honor A Vet or $15.00? Heck Yeah!

wreathacrossamEvery year, volunteers all across the United States place donated wreaths on the graves of hundreds of thousands of veterans. It brought tears to my eyes when I arrived at my dad’s gravesite and found one already laid in his honor last year.

As of yesterday morning, a Wreaths Across America spokeswoman said approximately 130,000 individual wreath sponsorships had been received for Arlington National Cemetery. A total of 245,000 sponsorships are needed to ensure every service member buried at Arlington is honored with a wreath placement—meaning 115,000 more sponsorships are still needed to meet the goal.

I hope you will consider helping ensure that all of our veterans are recognized by making a $15.00 donation that covers the cost of the wreath here. Every cent is used to purchase wreaths that are placed in Arlington National Cemetery by a gaggle of local volunteers.

If you would like to make a donation at a cemetery near you, use this link. Suggested. 

A Beautiful Farewell

walkingcaissonThe funeral went off beautifully. There were lots of possible last-minute issues but the icy roads, rain and cool temperatures failed to impede us. Wonderfully, the rain stopped so we could walk behind my Dad’s caisson to his gravesite.

My Dad requested a “life celebration” and I worked to imagine I was witnessing one of the many military ceremonies held in his honor that I attended over my Dad’s career — which helped me be proud instead of sad. The picture I included was taken by my nephew as we walked to the burial site.

Telling my Mom that we would have half the burial service inside the chapel if it was cold outside was acceptable to her. My brother brought her to the service and we worked to keep things simple and calm. We were expecting more than 100 guests and had asked that the medical team at Assisted Living provide her with something that would help her experience the day but minimize her anxiety. Unfortunately, she knew there was an extra pill in her cup, and refused to take it.

As we are sitting in the pew and she takes in the flowers and photograph of my Dad, she turns to me and says “I can’t understand why I can’t stop crying. I don’t want to cry in front of all these people.” My brother had the pill she refused to take in his pocket. I suggested that she take it because it would help her enjoy the day and minimize the tears. She told me to go get that pill. She was able to take it before the ceremony started and immediately seemed to gather her strength.

My Mom did brilliantly. She was able to speak to most of the guests and managed through the entire reception. We had moments when she would ask where Dad was, but those that attended and surrounded us only responded with loving smiles on their faces. Celebrated. 

Dad wrote “No Funeral” – Why is there a Funeral?

caissonAt T minus 40 hours to my Dad’s 20-minute funeral service, my Mom’s calls regarding the service begin. Currently, my Mom has two personality modes — the Lion or the Lamb. The Lion is in an uproar.

In the last month of his life, my Dad wrote down on a scrap of paper “No Funeral”. A decade prior, he had updated his documented burial wishes, which was such a gift to us. These were the plans he wrote before he got dementia, and were consistent with what my parent’s had been telling me since my early 20s. I know it seems odd that we had that conversation, but at the time, both my parents were traveling around the globe as part of my father’s job. Before every trip they reminded me where they stored their “written wishes” if something should happen.

Back in October 2012 my Mom talked me through their written burial wishes. My Mom wondered who was going to help her when my father passed away. I asked her why she always started this discussion assuming my Dad was going first. He was sitting in the room with us and was the one to reply “The men die two to three years before the women do.”  Back then, their plans remain unchanged from our previous discussions.

After my parent’s moved into Assisted Living in February 2013, my Mom started to bring up the conversation that they were not interested in having funerals any longer. I supposed it was because they had grown so isolated, they didn’t have many friends left and maybe thought no one would attend their funeral – but that is purely my conjecture. I still try to apply logic to dementia — it is a constant battle I fight and never serves me well. It’s such an easy trap to fall into.

My Dad is being buried with full military honors tomorrow. The service has a caisson with military band and the common practice is to walk with the caisson to the grave site while the band plays. It’s January and the remnants of the polar vortex promise to make a chilly burial.

On each call, my Mom is very angry. She doesn’t understand why we aren’t just going to the “burial site.”  I explained to her that Dad wrote his wishes and that Arlington National Cemetery has them. Logically, I understand her need to manage and bury her husband based on his wishes. However, given the dementia, as their children, we had a brief conversation and decided we should follow the wishes they laid out before the dementia. The problem is, we need to navigate through this with my Mom who doesn’t recognize her dementia and can still manage to engage in a verbal disagreement (she’s a little too good at it now).

My Mom brought this up constantly right after my father’s death but it stopped. It resurfaced a few weeks ago and has now erupted. She tells me that she is getting calls and doesn’t like people telling her there is a “funeral”. I realize that the many friends and family coming to town have no idea about my Mom’s dementia or how to really engage her now. They are wonderful to call but the conversations are setting my Mom off.

My Mom doesn’t understand that the caisson needs a place to pick up the casket and traditionally, the family walks with the caisson and marching band. After going through it once, I tell my Mom that the burial service will start in the chapel and end at the burial site. Due to the cold weather, we are doing some of it indoors so we don’t have to stand in the cold during the entire burial service. She liked that answer. Finessed. 

Please know that some of this is very uncomfortable for me to share with you, however, I wanted to be as open and honest about what we are facing in hopes that it helps you deal with your situation. This is a tough road to navigate. We continue to use the moral compass our parents provided us with to make the best decisions we can while still being mindful of our parent’s wishes. 

For specific suggestions on how to manage a difficult conversation with someone who has dementia, check out Three Go-To Tactics for Dealing with Someone who has Dementia. 

Did you know we have a date for Dad’s burial?

dateAs I entered a holiday celebration at a girlfriends house, my phone is ringing. My Mom is calling me at 7:30 p.m. She hasn’t called me “late night” in over a month.

Kay: “Hey Mom. How are you?”

Mom: “Kay, Did you know we have a date for Dad’s burial? He’s gonna be buried next month.”

Kay: “Yeah.”  I’m a little dumb-founded. I hesitate to say anything and I don’t have to wait for my Mom to continue.

Mom: “We need to get all the other plans finalized. He doesn’t want a funeral, just a few people around his grave and a burial.”

Kay: “Okay Mom, E’s (my brother) is coming in town in ten days and he has offered to help with all of the planning for Dad.”

Mom: “What do you mean, I’ve planned it all. There is just going to be the burial. I already arranged it with Arlington National Cemetery. His plot has been picked out. What does your brother have to do with any of this?”

My Mom has not had any conversations with the funeral home, Arlington or the minister. We have continued to provide her with details when she was interested and taken her our driving tours of the cemetery.

This is the part where the record screeches (Internet connection is lost) and I struggle with the perfect way to manage this call. While my Mom can’t remember what she just did, she does keep some elements of memory. Most importantly, I recognize her need to do this final act for my father — at least be involved in the process.

Since my 20’s, my parents had written instructions for their funeral plans. They never changed, until about a year ago when my Mom started telling me they wanted burials, not funerals. I never really understood why and it wasn’t a discussion my Mom would engage. However, I felt the inner turmoil growing as I sensed this was going to be a problem. My only response was often that “a funeral isn’t really for the person that died, it’s for the people who are left behind.”

We are in the final stages of working out the funeral program, we will have at least 40 people just from the family in town, in additional to dozens of colleagues who have expressed interest in coming to the funeral. I hesitate to let the idea that Dad will just have a grave site burial settle into my Mom’s brain. Instead of lying, or trying to explain what’s been planned, I usually just stop talking about the topic and change the subject.

Thankfully, my Dad wrote up his plans years before the Alzheimer’s started to cloud his thinking. My mother-in-law reminded me, than even with well made plans — you may have to improvise. Her mother had picked out an outfit for her burial that she and her sister’s changed. It turned out that she would be buried in the middle of winter in North Dakota and the dress she choose just made her look cold. The story still makes me giggle.

We all need this event.

Personally, I need a funeral. I need to witness the full honors service he will get for his years of service to our country. I need to hear the preacher share the prayers, songs and remembrances at the funeral. I need to say a final good-bye. Desired.

If you have had good success in handling a situation like this, I’d love to hear from you. 

Thank you for Documenting your Burial Wishes

brilliant mindThe death of my father has been easier to manage because he had done so much advance preparation.

My parents worked to update their estate and financial plans in 2002. Most of you have been reading about my journey to pull together the information I have needed to assist them which was the reason I launched MemoryBanc almost two years ago. A Durable Power of Attorney has its limits and there are several financial institutions that won’t accept it. Helping someone requires more information than traditional estate and financial planning provides.

In 2009, my Dad went the extra mile and wrote up his wishes – funeral, casket choice, songs, what we should bury him in … as well as several varieties of his obituary! He gave me a copy and it was sitting in my safe … until we needed it.

My Dad was a decorated military veteran and served for 35 years. He then left to a civilian career and consulted on environmental and engineering issues around the globe. He even served with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq. We still have some road to travel to finalize all the details (thanks to my brother for stepping in – they all aren’t that trivial) and thankfully, many of his colleagues are helping us manage this process who know more about his career and the military process for burial than we really do.

My Mom has been surprised by all the work my Dad did in advance. What a gift he left.

I appreciate what he did so we can do some simple task management without having to really ponder which option to choose. I continue to be impressed by the brilliant mind of my Dad the engineer. Blessed. 


Documenting all of your personal details with the MemoryBanc Register

A past colleague wrote this book which can help you through the process of planning: The Ultimate To-Do List When Your Loved One Dies

The Value of the Open Casket

open casketI was surprised by the open casket. While I have been to other funeral’s, I have not been involved in the funeral planning — I won’t complain about being a newbie to this task at 49 years of age.

When I shared my expectation of our visit with my brother, had we been in better humor, he would have just given me a look and added “dope”. It’s funny how much of  our banter hasn’t really changed over the decades.

We both commented that we’d never choose an open casket, but a few days later, I’m happy I had the experience. My Dad looked stately and peaceful. He was in his “dress blues” which is akin to a military tuxedo. I typed up the obituary he wrote in the event of his death, and in it, he shared that “Duty, Honor, Country” are the words he felt fit his entire career as an engineer in the U.S. Army.

While my Dad had dementia and some days he was a little less put together, he still resembled his former self, just a little tuned-out.  My Dad’s appearance changed drastically over the last two months of his life. He lost nearly 50 pounds and his tongue and throat started to swell.

The last time I got to see him in his open casket, I got to revisit the father, the soldier, the man he should be remembered as. Moved. 

Grief is Exhausting

flagdrappedMy Dad died a week ago. While he suffered from dementia, the time that a doctor first found a lesion on his tongue, to a diagnosis and his death was 4 weeks.

I’ve been mourning my Dad’s loss for several years as his short-term memory vanished and being able to have a conversation got more difficult. The loss of the car, the end to his racquetball and the changing dynamics of his independent life muted his humor. The sudden end due to cancer was a shock.

We have been mired implementing his burial plans and communicating the details and information about his death to our extended family, friends and his vast array of former colleagues. I cried so much the first two days, I was starting to worry about myself and wondered if my glum was preventing my children to feel like they could grieve. By Day 4 I could discuss that my Dad died without breaking into tears and each day has been getting better – until today.

They say it’s normal to feel the roller coaster of grief as you process your loss. We were asked to return to the funeral home to identify my Dad. My one brother stayed in town and is helping manage through the details.

When we arrived we are told we will be escorted to the parlor, I’m confused. I thought we were going to the basement cellar where they would roll out body in one of the morgue like storage units you see on TV and confirm that is our father. I even brought a sweater on this 85 degree day for fear I would get cold.

My Dad is laid out in an open casket in his “dress blues” with an American flag over the casket. He looks peaceful and I find myself rushing to touch him one more time. Loved.

Who is going to help me when your father isn’t around any more?

I’m worried that I may be getting a little cocky. I have had several visits with my parents that ended pleasantly. I spend time planning before I arrive and have gotten more masterful at managing my visits and avoiding conflicts. I have to say that I needed things to go a little better lately.

Today as we were doing a jigsaw puzzle together, my mom stands up and returns with her burial instructions. She has been showing these to me since I was in college and I know where they keep this information. After putting the papers away, she asks “Who is going to help me when your father isn’t around anymore?”

I stop working on the puzzle, look her in the eye and tell her I will help. My dad is sitting right next to her and keeps his focus on the puzzle. I have to address the elephant in the room now and ask my mom why does she always assume Dad is going first?

My dad looks up at me with a smile on his face and calmly states “The men die two to three years before the women do.”

As frustrating as it is to witness my parents mismanage many daily activities, they really think they are doing just fine. It’s obvious they have had this discussion. They were both very comfortable with it. Surprised.

Please share how you have helped a parent or loved one recognize they need more help than they are willing to accept.