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Death In History
Fact | Tradition | Fiction | History | Funerals

An Opening: Revisiting An Old Loss
By Stephen Gilbert

I can't explain where, after thirty-one years, the need to visit my mother's grave came from. I was driving south on Highway 99, thinking about this and wondering what to expect when I got there. I first started feeling this need a few months earlier and had ordered a copy of her death certificate from the Office of Vital Statistics in Sacramento. The death certificate gave me information that I had never known: what the coroner had determined to be the cause of death, where she was found, that she had been cremated, and where she was buried.

My older brother, who was then twenty-one, had made all the arrangements for cremation and burial. He had not seen the urn that mother was put in, nor the grave plot where she was buried. Our family handled difficult times by getting the job done, ignoring the pain and "bucking up" — we were all that way, even me at fourteen.

Not one of her children, a daughter and three sons, had ever been to see her grave. Our mother represented some significantly painful times in all our lives. As much as we claimed to have moved on and gotten over these issues, we still couldn't bear to be in her presence. So, now, here I was, entering unfamiliar and somewhat frightening emotional territory, drawn by a need which I could no longer ignore.

The cemetery personnel helped me find mother's plot. The sight of her name engraved in the granite plaque began to bring the reality of my mother into my heart. I sat in the grass before her grave reading her name over and over, feeling in the same breath a deep sadness and a sense of relief. I wrote a poem:

Elizabeth A. Gilbert
1912 - 1965

The phone call
just after Christmas
and I was carefully told
that mother had died.

I was only sad:
what had been a slow process for her
was now confirmed.

Today - thirty-one years later -
I came to see her grave.
I came not expecting anything from her
and not knowing what to expect from myself.
For those thirty-one years I have tried
to ignore the life of this one person
who carried me in her womb.
When ignoring didn't work,
disclaiming, dishonoring and disengaging came,
and almost too easily.
I thought maybe I would cry tears of anger
of loss, of loneliness, of despair,
but none of that was there.

She is planted midway between a valley oak
and a lovely spreading willow tree,
each not more than ten paces away.
The simple concrete and granite marker,
I realized, had never been touched
by anyone she had touched.

That changed today:
I passed my hands over its surface
and blew the dust
out of the channels
of the engraved letters that have spoken
her name only to the unhearing ears
about her.
They now spoke to me.

No. There was no anger or remorse -
although I did ask forgiveness
for this visit taking so long to happen.
I closed my eyes in the shade of that oak,
and I remembered...
my mother's abundant laugh and energy;
the way she shielded my eyes from the Arizona sun;
the songs and circle of glowing faces
about the campfire.

There are not many memories yet,
but these are the ones that came to me
as I looked at her grave.
You are not abandoned, mother.
I need you and want you as you did me.
I am finally here to learn the remaining lessons
and to remember.

Upon returning home, I wrote my two brothers and my sister a few words about this experience and enclosed the poem. I expressed the thought that this cemetery in the Central Valley really isn't where mother belongs. The response I got from all three of my siblings showed me that something in their hearts was drawing them in a similar direction - my visit and my poem had opened some possibilities that none of us had considered before.

We decided to have her cremated body removed from the cemetery. We would take them to a place in Oregon where she had grown up, and where we had spent many summers as a family. This seemed right and good to all of us. Being the funeral director in the family, I offered to make the arrangements with the cemetery. I had no idea of the power that this next experience would hold for me. I again drove down to where mother was, this time to bring her home with me. Afterward, I wrote a letter to my niece describing this experience:

"When I arrived at the cemetery, they had already dug down to where mother's remains were encased in a cement vault. Two young guys had done the digging and were taking a little break, leaning on their shovels.

Everyone was quietly respectful of me when I walked up. The lady there offered to bring me a cup of coffee. One guy in a tie commented on the beautiful valley oak — quercus lobata — and educated me on their efforts to save them.

It was an interesting perspective for me as a funeral director to feel the efforts to make me more comfortable — sincere, yet unnecessary. People just need to be allowed to have their experience, and given the emotional and interpersonal space for that experience to happen. It doesn't need to be facilitated, encouraged or stoked.

They were able after a little effort to loose the top of the urn vault, and lift it off. Mother's cremated remains had been placed in a simple pine box, and then inside the concrete vault. When the vault top was lifted off by one of the guys lying on his belly, arms outstretched into the grave, I could see that the pine box had deteriorated, and the cremated remains sloughed out. After the top of the vault was out, the guy carefully lifted out the flat concrete bottom on which were the old pine urn and mother's remains. He set them down on the grass next to the hole. I had brought a container with me for just this purpose. They all stood around watching me.

Up to now I was pretty removed from the occasion. They were doing their cemetery duty and I was familiar with it all. But now, there I was, kneeling in the grass with what was left of my mother in a little pile before me. I began picking up the ashes in my hands and placing them in the container I had brought. I couldn't remember the last time I had touched mother over thirty-two years ago. Here I was touching her: not a picture or a memento - I was touching her. These cremated remains became something different to me now. I have seen thousands of "sets" of cremated remains in my work, and have had the intellectual knowing that they had once been a person. But now my personal experience was that here was my mother.

I had the sense that at this time, this occasion, this place of awareness, I was touching and holding her more intimately and closely than I ever had before. Perhaps this intimacy could only be borne out of the journey of our lives to this time: my life passing through the crucible of my experience, and her body being reduced to ashes. Fire does reduce things to their most basic elements.

One of the fellows brought me a brush and a little scoop, but I continued to gather mother up in my hands. He offered to help, but I declined the offer saying that I needed to do this myself. He shook his head, seeming to realize that his good intention came more from something stirring in his heart than he realized. He stepped away a few paces.

When I was done, I asked that the large and quite heavy grave marker be placed in my car. I also took the vault that had held mother beneath the earth for thirty-one years, and the decrepit pine urn. My sister and brothers would want to have an experience of all this: where she has been all these years, waiting for a reunion of those who carry her legacy.

As I drove north, I pictured mother sitting next to me — she really was present in the car. I pondered what I would say to her, what I would want her to know about my life, who I am. I cried. I realized how much I had missed mother, how much I have loved her, and how ready I am to let go."

My brother, the one who had made the cremation and burial arrangements thirty-one years earlier, came to visit me. He knew I had mother, the grave marker, the urn and the urn vault. He wanted to see it all. As he looked at the marker with her name engraved in the plaque, he began to weep. He wanted to wash it. I got him a bucket of warm water, a brush and a sponge. He knelt down and began to gently and carefully wash mother's name and the granite which held it. I could relate to what he was feeling, but this moment was for him.

We have not yet taken mother to Oregon, but the plans are set. The four of us will gather on her birthday in June to scatter her cremated remains. We will have our families with us. I am taking the time now to consider what words I will say and what will be most meaningful for myself, my three siblings and our children — and mother. I have the distinct awareness that this time of unity with my mother will be a significant moment for my children in knowing a grandmother they have never met.

In my profession, I hear the word "closure" used frequently. I think this word reflects an attitude that permeates much of our culture — that following a death something needs to be closed or brought to a conclusion. In my experience I found that "opening" is what truly brought the life, death and influence of my mother into the light of understanding, love and release. I am not an expert in psychology, but I have come to my own conclusions about grief: it is not an emotion, it is an emotional process. In our culture pain is something we avoid, hence we want "closure," we want it over. Grief is painful, but avoiding the pain is avoiding the process, which only keeps a person stuck. Moving through the process — however long that takes — brings not closure, but opening.

For better or worse, I am a person that has a history, a legacy, a heritage. What has been before shows itself in who I am. And then this is given to my progeny. This experience with my mother has opened me to an awareness that my life doesn't just begin and end, but it is a part of a continuum of life and death. I am now learning to honor who I am now and where I desire to go by honoring where I have come from. My sincere desire is to contribute to the lives of those I love most dearly, to make a difference for them and for the world I live in. I have seen that "opening" is the only way to do that with both conscious intent and personal power.

Stephen Gilbert has spent more than 30 years in personal and professional coaching, griefwork, training, ministry, and funeral service. He is certified as a Management Effectiveness Coach, a Griefwork Coach, and is a licensed funeral director. He works both in corporate settings and with individuals. Through his coaching, individuals become more effective in critical areas of life, such as career direction and change, addiction recovery, creative expression, interpersonal relationships, and attaining personal and professional goals.

He is well known as a powerful workshop leader if the field of griefwork. His workshop, called Being With Grief™, has help hundreds of people move through some of the most challenging of human experiences. He also offers training and workshops care giving professionals and other that work directly with the bereaved.

Stephen offers coaching services for personal transformation, grief process and professional development in either group or individual contexts.

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