Why do we gather when someone dies? It’s a major milestone in both the deceased’s life and the life of his/her survivors. It’s often too horrible to bear alone. We need the company and comfort of others, to know we are not the only ones grieving the person who has died, to express the intense sorrow in the presence of others who are likely feeling something very similar. It’s important to not go through something like this alone. It takes a village.
That’s a picture of my son Julian’s 21st birthday cake. I shared it with friends about six months after he died at the way too young age of 20.
On what would have been his 21st birthday I gathered a circle of women to remember him and comfort each other. The loss of him was still raw for many of us. Some of the women at this gathering had never met Julian, but wanted to support me during what was still a vulnerable time for me. It was my way of honoring my son’s memory, of making sure that others were remembering him too, and of simply taking care of myself.
Some may have found this exercise a tad morbid, but we saw it as a celebration. There were some tears, but mostly there were funny stories shared. We each got to know my son a little better and left feeling as though we now carried a fuller picture of who he’d been.
We went around the room, each expressing a wish we’d had for Julian while he was alive, a wish we had for his Spirit or Soul or whatever form we each believed he now “inhabits”, and finally we each expressed a wish we thought Julian might have for us. I believed his wish for me was that I would forgive myself and find joy again. This wish has come true.
We lit the candles, sang “Happy Birthday,” and all together we blew the candles out.
Celebrations of life have become more prevalent throughout our culture. The traditional rituals remain – masses, funerals, the Jewish tradition of sitting shiva, the Irish wake, and so many others – but the practice of mourners getting up and waxing poetic (or awkwardly droning on and on) about the deceased has become more common, either as its own event, or tacked onto the more traditional ceremonies.
In Julian’s case, we held a memorial celebration at his middle school, perhaps the last school where Julian was truly happy (or at least more often happy than not). His father and I both spoke and welcomed almost one hundred friends and family members. I was stunned by the turnout.
I created a montage of photos, from his birth to his young adulthood, with carefully chosen songs to accompany the slideshow. And then his peers, his teachers, parents of his friends, and family members took turns telling us stories about “their” Julian.
Because Julian was an avid reader, his father decided to bring all the books that he had in his apartment at the time of his death, and we asked people to take one or more books that in some way reminded them of Julian. Of course, his Dad and I went through the books first and picked our favorites, but almost everyone left with a book or two with Julian’s name inside the cover. They were able to take home a little piece of Julian with them.
I’ve been to other memorial services or celebrations of life where photos were displayed, music was shared, stories were told, tears and laughter were given full permission to be present. It is consoling to the heart and soul in a time of painful loss.
We all want to be remembered. We all hope to be celebrated.
How have you honored the memory of a loved one? How have you celebrated their lives? How did you feel afterwards? Please share in the comments below.