Monday, October 31, 2016

Delivering Their Soul

My mother always told me that we have to collect “other mothers” for those moments when our own isn’t there or is unable to give us what we need.  I never really thought about it until my mother died and her surrogates, relationships I had been cultivating for years, stepped up to fill the void.  

There are several and each serves a different role in my life.  Cumulatively, they have been able to see me through marriage, becoming a parent, divorce, major moves, and a new job.  They have picked up the phone in those moments when I needed to celebrate a success or mourn a defeat.

Cathy is the kind of woman who carries with her no pretense.  Cathy and her husband, both devoted Catholics, raised five children.  As an only child, I loved visiting their house where we would all squeeze in on the benches at their dining room table.  Once a week we would arrive with pizza and while we played, the adults would talk.

We all have a calling in life and for Cathy it has been a life spent preparing people for death.  Growing up in Baltimore in a family run funeral business, Cathy was intimately acquainted with death and dying.  But rather that making death maudlin, Cathy aims to help people find peace and celebrate the experience.  Some people call them death doulas, but Cathy never put a name on it.
It began when Cathy started volunteering with a local hospice organization to provide end of life services.  People began hearing about her work and started calling on her to provide guidance and support.  She counsels families who are preparing for a loss, but her real love is working with the patient.  She comes armed with a video camera which allows them to leave messages for their loved ones.  She also helps them record their family stories.  “What’s the point of keeping track of birth dates and death dates without also keeping track of the stories that came in between?," she explains. She even helps them plan their funeral, giving them ownership and control over an otherwise uncontrollable situation.
When the University of South Alabama was expanding their pediatric unit, Cathy was called in to design the playroom.  Her goal was to make it an escape from the daily rituals of the sick and dying.  
My mother, who spent years teaching sick and terminally ill children, often called on Cathy when she had a student who was facing death.  Once she had a student who wouldn’t eat so she and Cathy came up with the idea to have her finger paint with pudding, hoping that she would lick the pudding from her fingers.  The plan worked.
When my dad died Cathy was my mother’s first phone call.  It’s difficult to manage another person’s grief when you are overwhelmed with your own.  And even though my parents had been divorced for years, my mother still grieved the loss of her childhood friend and the loss she knew I would spend the rest of my life trying to make sense of.  I remember Cathy quietly sitting on the floor of our living room, which I listened to music on our old stereo.  When the album came to an end I had no other choice but to talk.
When my mother found out she herself was dying, Cathy was once again her first phone call.  It had been years since we had spoken, but like all good friends we were able to pick up where we left off.  
She prepared us for mother’s death, talking to me weekly and making trips down to my grandmother's retirement home.  When the end was near, Cathy was there with us.  There was music playing in the background.  Cathy stood in the corner and quietly prayed, giving us the space we needed to be close to mother.  
Cathy is who I call when I need a sounding board.  Her advice is always objective and practical.  I still find comfort in her home, which is now frequented by her grandchildren.  Her role as a surrogate now extends to my daughter, who blends into the fold, playing with the same toys that I played with as a kid.  She has become part of my chosen family.

She has become a surrogate for my grandmother as well.  They laugh and tell stories.  Cathy has become my grandmother’s confidant, giving her someone to talk to who doesn’t have the same emotional investment that I do.  Grandmother can talk frankly about her wish to die without worrying that she is burdening her.  
In the days preceding my mother’s death Cathy helped prepare me for what to expect.  Her thoughts ranged from the spiritual to the practical.  She helped me think through not just the moments just before mom died, but also the moments after; she wanted me to be able to visualize what I wanted that moment to be.   She said to me, “We must surround our loved ones in death, just as we do in birth, because what we are doing is delivering their soul.”

We often think of the dead as unsettled souls who wander about trying to find peace.  But perhaps it is those who are left behind who are the unsettled souls and it is not until we find peace that those we love are able to move on. Cathy helped me do just that.

If you're looking for honest support while grieving and are tired of people telling you your loved one is in a "better place", check out What's Your Grief.

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