Have you ever gone to a funeral, and the deceased wasn't there?
Recently, I went to a funeral of someone I have known since I was a child. They had died after dealing with a lifelong chronic illness, and although they had been declining in the last year, it was still unexpected. (Do we really ever expect people to die? Like, really die? Forever?) I arrived early to a quiet room, a hand-carved urn at the front of the room and the usual "life highlights" slide show playing off to the side. A few hugs, a few quiet stories, and quiet hellos to people as I made my way to the back of the room.
Gradually, the room filled, then overfilled. Quiet hugs and greetings turned into a steady buzz of conversation, then a loud semi-roar. The funeral directors pulled in chairs, chairs, and soon every chair in the place. Still, there were people standing at the back and people perched on the windowsills when the service started. For a person so beloved, so clearly known and appreciated, I expected to be nearly overwhelmed with their presence during the service. I grabbed a handful of tissues and leaned against the wall -- ready to feel the loss of them while hearing about their life. I waited. And waited. And... waited.
At the end of the service, with a handful of dry tissues and full of confusion, I left. The only thing I felt was hungry. In the whole of the service, their name was mentioned a handful of times, and other than listing their still-living family, there was nothing personal about them. They weren't there.
I think of this funeral a lot as my Healwell colleagues tell stories of people they work with, the people hovering around the edges of being alive. I think about this funeral as we practice and talk about presence, about opening to the mystery, about being human. It reminds me of the need for what we do here -- what we are trying to do.
See, everyone I talked to about that funeral said it was a lovely service, very dignified and so appropriate. That's a problem. So many of us are so wrapped up in "appropriate" that we have lost the ability to feel deeply, to express honestly, and, with it, to love freely.
That person who died? They gave me my first ever stuffed animal -- a tiny leopard that still sits on my meditation table at home. They were kind and thoughtful and full of mischief. They had striking green eyes and they loved their child fiercely. Their death leaves a wound that can only be tended, never fully healed. But none of that, apparently, was appropriate for their funeral.
This leaves a gap in our grieving that can only be filled by being vulnerable. I am grateful for the lessons of being first a student and now an employee of Healwell that continue to teach me how to be vulnerable, and to make a safe space for others to be vulnerable. I hope to gently carry those lessons with me as all of us who knew this person tend to our loss.