Monday, April 13, 2009

What no one tells you about a death in the family.

We've all been to funerals. We've all seen them in the movies and on television. We've all seen death on the screen and some of us have seen it in person, but what none of those things show us is reality. None of them prepares you for the depth of emotion when a beloved child, or any age, dies. None of them tells you that you will be plunged into a whirlwind of activity to try to plan a funeral or memorial service, arrange for cremation, find a place for burial or inurnment, notify relatives and friends, figure out what to do about the deceased person's mail, accounts, and belongings.

Sometimes, if someone is anticipating a death or is old, there might have been some preparations made, such as a planned funeral or the purchase of a cemetery plot, but in the case of an unexpected death of a young person, in addition of the shock of their death comes the shock of everything you have to do and all the paperwork that comes with it. I found myself dealing with Leif's workplace, his insurance, his apartment complex, several government offices concerning his veteran's benefits and retired military pay, the national cemetery. I tried to find out how to let his friends know, since I didn't know all of them or how to contact them. I needed to contact his bank, credit card and loan accounts. I had to find a location to hold his memorial services and pick a date.

Because of the manner of Leif's death, I also found myself dealing with law enforcement, the medical examiner's office, the investigating detective, the sheriff's records department.

I had to keep records and account for everything so that I would know what was happening and could follow the myriad conversations with so many people I never even met.

I wanted to create a digital slide show of Leif's life so I started scanning photos by the dozens, finally coming up with the completed show the night before the memorial services, comprised of over 400 slides.

How does one create a meaningful memorial service for a man who professed to be at least an agnostic, if not an atheist? How does one create a service that honors who we really was and how we felt about him?

How does one go about cleaning out his apartment, selling his furniture, giving away his clothing, taking his carefully constructed life apart piece by piece?

That is what you have to do. This is a part of death, and that is what I found to be all-consuming. I moved forward alternating between businesslike numbness and periods when I would break down in tears.

Somehow the things that had to get done within the month after he died got done. Somehow we were fortunate and found the St. Petersburg Unitarian Universalist Church and Bay Pines National Cemetery.

Somehow we managed to clean out Leif's apartment in time to avoid paying another month's rent. Going back there was a sad reminder of the day we found him there, but eventually, it was just a place with walls; nothing of his remained.

I did what I had to do, and then other family needs intervened. I still have belongings of Leif's here that I need to sell or give away. I still get mail for him. On rare occasions, I even see someone who knew him "friend" him on Facebook or MySpace without reading his profile, not knowing he is dead, and I try to let them know.

Today is Peter W's birthday. Last year, his 65th birthday started out to be a totally unhappy and depressive day, just three days after we found Leif. Leif had always been there for his dad's birthdays, except for the three years he was in the army. We always looked forward to his being with us and now he would not be there ever again.

We were both sobbing and crying. The day was saved by my sister, Lannay, my nephew, Rick, and his wife Mac, and their two sweet daughters Kimberly and Christina. They drove all night from Washington DC to be with us, just for that one day. The girls climbed up in Peter's lap and cheered him up. He read to them. Mac cooked a great Thai dinner and I made a Black Forest Cherry cake. We managed to celebrate his birthday. I will always be grateful that they came, for their love, for the girls' charm and sweetness. They came back later in the month for the memorial services and stayed for a week to help out.

This year Peter's birthday will be less tragic, less sad. This year we can try to focus on each other. We will enjoy our time together. Leif will be in our thoughts, always, but the pain is lessened after a year. This birthday will be better than last year.

This time the photo is of me, because I'm the one who had to take hold and do all those things after Leif died, and I'm the one remembering. The photo was taken April 11, 2009 using PhotoBooth and the Colored Pencil effect.

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