The One Year Milestone Approaches…

by Cynthe on October 16, 2009

Marc & Bri Brownlow, October 2006

Marc & Bri Brownlow, October 2006

BIRTHS, GRADUATIONS, WEDDINGS, and DEATHS are family affairs. Our American culture, generally speaking, has a weird relationship with death. We deny it. Live like we’ll never die. Admire youthfulness and sexiness decades past when other fine attributes should gain importance… On a whole, we avoid discussing the subject at all costs.

When someone close to us ~ a friend or family member ~ dies, common rituals are so far removed from their everyday lives and our relationship with them that most people end up feeling confused, estranged, out-of-place, out-of-touch, isolated, alone in their grieving process, unable to speak or participate in meaningful rituals, and spontaneous commemorative gestures.

After my daughter-in-law Briana died, Marc and our family decided to forgo conventional death arrangements: having her remains picked up by the coroner’s office, followed by an autopsy (since she died at home), funeral home arrangements, formal religious services, a casket burial, etc.  We wanted to do things more intimately…just as Bri would have preferred.

The kindly Memorial Hospice nurses told us we could keep Bri’s body at home for a few days to say our farewells. So, we did…for a day-and-a half. This allowed Bri’s  closest family & friends to come say their  “good-byes.” A family friend, who had helped care for her & shared homemade food, came. Bri’s best friend & husband drove up from Daly City for a tearful good-bye. Bri’s Uncle, Aunt, and cousin, whom she had lived with for several years, drove up from Marin county. Her Dad, step-Mom, another aunt, step-brother & step-sisters drove up from southern California as soon as they got the news. Marc’s Dad came, too. Another good friend from Hawaii, who was in California at the time, also stopped by.

Bri’s body had been lovingly washed by Marc after her death under the tutelage of the gentle hospice nurse. I washed Bri’s hair….which her aunt &  I had done weekly in the last three months of her life. Marc, the hospice nurse, and I  put a clean sheet under Bri’s body covering up the foam mattress and the armchair, she had lived in for the last few months of her life.

Brizy's Hands with Photos

Brizy's Hands with Photos

Then Marc dressed her body in Bri’s favorite navy blue flowered summer dress. She took that beautiful dress on every vacation and had worn it for many special occasions. Marc decided to leave her feet, now marble white and a bit swollen, bare. Bri had loved being barefoot anyway. He arranged her hands across her lap and selected two precious photos, a favorite of them together and a darling bright-eyed one of Bri as a girl that her dad had taken, to lay on her ~  honoring her inner child and Marc & Bri’s loving marriage. She was now ready for visitors.

In my great-grandparents’ time, this used to be the way families did things and some of our American ethnic cultures still do so. In many families, the wake would be held in the living room, but we didn’t want to move her body downstairs out of the master bedroom, which had been Marc & Bri’s ‘apartment’ in our home. Leaving Bri upstairs allowed each of us some privacy to be with her and to grieve, alone or with others. Marc played an exquisite chant by the Dalai Lama softly in the background. Music Bri had listened to, almost continuously, for the last few days of her life.

Everyone who came by, despite heart wrenching grief or fears of seeing a dead body, really appreciated the chance to spend some time with her body…and their feelings of love, gratitude, and loss.

Bri’s Family Home Funeral

We held an impromtu gathering for Bri in our living room ~ a family directed home funeral. Originally came across information on what possibilities there are for these sorts of services, and what’s legal in California, from Jerrigrace Lyons of Final Passages (Sebastopol CA). I had been researching information the year before to make things easier for our family members, when Bill’s & my own deaths happen.

Jerrigrace came to our home the morning just after Bri’s death. She explained what steps had to be done, made arrangements to have all the legal paperwork done, obtaining Bri’s oncologist’s statement confirming her death so we didn’t have to have to agree to a coroner’s autopsy, made the cremation appointment for the following day, and agreed to come back in the early afternoon to take Marc around to sign the death certificate, etc.

It’s very peculiar to be hiring someone, chatting about their services, within hours of your beloved’s death. All these details are painfully awkward to discuss when you’re not familiar with them…and have no plans in place. And pretty much impossible to handle oneself, when you’re in shock from a profound loss. But Jerrigrace and her husband are as natural as utter strangers can be in a profoundly uncomfortable personal situation.

With Final Passages handling those details, we were left with ourselves and time to process our feelings.

A Natural Goodbye

The next day, Jerrigrace & her assistant delivered a simple cardboard casket for Bri’s cremation. We didn’t have anything planned and without any cultural precedents to guide us, improvised on the spot. Jerrigrace & her assistant with Marc and other family members lifted Bri’s body into the casket, while I was busily gathering items from the house & garden to include in the casket as symbols of Bri’s life and loves.

It didn’t seem right to me, to send her off in a bare cardboard box. Bri’s life had been SO rich, full of passion & enthusiasm. I urgently wanted to honor all those facets of her life as part of our goodbyes.

Ocean, Earth & Sky ~ Offerings to be transformed by Cremation’s Fire

With only a few minutes to assemble things to honor Bri’s life (we were on a tight schedule to get to the crematorium on time), I looked around the kitchen, one of Bri’s favorite places since she was an avid cook & food blog author; through a collection of shells Bri had given me that her Mom had treasured; and then out in my garden.

Here’s what was selected to go with her.

Symbolic Mementos ~

I placed a new white dishtowel embroidered with a bright cheery insects ~ a red ladybug, a blue butterfly, and a yellow bee ~ on her lap: representing her love of cooking & gathering with family and friends around delicious food.

Colorful Garden Bugs Dishtowel

Colorful Garden Bugs Dishtowel

As I put each item in the box, on the towel or around her body, I explained what it represented in her life:

Ocean, Earth, Air ~ Roots & Fruits Offerings for Bri's Cremation Ceremony

Ocean, Earth, Air ~ Roots & Fruits Offerings for Bri's Cremation Ceremony

A porcelain hummingbird with a broken beak that had been hanging in our kitchen window for over a decade: The hummingbird was one of Bri’s animal totems. Didn’t she delight us like hummingbirds do? And though her spirit soared, her body was broken….like the fragile beak.

A tiny brass bell from India that she used to ring to call our attention when she needed help with something, if we were downstairs. She didn’t have enough breath or strength to shout.

A tiny oxblood hued heart-shaped pebble from a friend. Bri was full of heart and heart-felt.

A zig-zag patterned seashell from Bri’s Mom’s collection, two sculpted beach stones from Santa Barbara where she was raised, and two different kinds of kelp we had gathered from a northern California beach outing we had taken earlier in the year – one of the last times Bri had been able to go. Bri LOVED the ocean, being near water. A native Californian, who had always lived within an hour’s drive or so of the Pacific  coastline, the beach was in her blood.

Seasonal Roots & Fruit ~

A Persimmon, an Asian Pear, a Meyer’s Lemon from Bri’s little potted tree, three dark Mission Figs (Of course! Bri’s food blog is entitled FigsWithBri.com), two fat orange Carrots & a fresh head of Garlic from the farmers market.

Flower & Leaf Offerings for Bri's Cremation Ceremony

Flower & Leaf Offerings for Bri's Cremation Ceremony

Flowers & Leaves ~

A Fig Leaf (naturally), from the 6 foot tall fiddleleaf fig Bri’s had been growing since she was young. Bri & her mom always grew potted fig plants, even using them as a southern California version of a Christmas tree!

Purple Mexican sage flowers to feed her hummingbird spirit guide.

Fuzzy rose-scented geranium leaves from her luxuriant potted plant. Bri LOVED the rosy fragrance. And stalks of fuschsia & brilliant red geranium (pelargonium) flowers, since it was autumn, long past when the scented geranium blooms.

And Bri.

Even with the impromptu rushed presentation, people sighed, murmuring in agreement, as each item was placed in the box with its “story”. This was right. After a moment of silence, we closed the box to transport it  to the crematorium via the Final Passages van.

The Cremation ~

Marc’s mom-in-law was able to come and Bill’s folks too. They joined us at the crematorium set on a Sebastopol hill surrounded by lovely cemetery gardens. It was a beautiful autumn day with blue skies, warm sunshine. Turned out to be the same place where Marc’s paternal grandmother had been buried in the rose garden, decades ago. Another “happenstance” family connection.

The thirteen of us gathered there were permitted to come into the kiln room, to see Bri’s precious form for the last time before closing the lid in farewell, and witnessing the box sliding into the cremation oven. With the turn of a switch, the gas fires roared orange through the viewing vent. It was a powerful moment. Sacred and natural. Personal and meaningful. As it should be. And as Bri would have wanted.

*   *   *

You may read more on family-directed home funerals:

~ In this July 21st, 2009 New York Times article: Home Burials Offer An Intimate Alternative
~ Or at the Final Passages website

Cynthia Brush, Young Living Oils Distributor #168709Cynthe Brush ~ Certified Clinical (Medical) Aromatherapist, Therapeutic Essential Oils Practitioner & Self-Care Health Educator has used therapeutic essential oils for personal, family, & client health issues since 1999.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Victoria Brush October 17, 2009 at 10:06 am

I’ve been thinking about the approaching anniversary of Bri’s death. This year seems to have passed quickly. My heart and thoughts are with you and I ponder what changes may lay ahead with the passing of this major milestone.

Cynthe October 17, 2009 at 6:52 pm

Time is odd, seeming both slow and drawn-out, fast and ephemeral….all at once. Especially, in grief.

Each of us is processing differently. Marc was just saying this morning, and Bill and I agree, that he/we “feel weighed-down” since losing Bri. Bri was vivacious, dynamic and enthused, infusing the household with energy and activity. One of our tasks is to find “our own joyfulness.” We will. And we are.

I use essential oils, deep inhalations of joyful oils, if the sadness seems too much at times. Writing this EOH blog and carrying on FigsWithBri and doing my SpringMoon digital etchings, helps me a lot. Communing in nature is very nurturing, too…so we take family trips to the ocean or the forest or the hilltops to clear our heads and open our hearts. And connecting with people in a thoughtful exchange, helps hugely.

Victoria Brush October 18, 2009 at 8:19 am

Yes, it’s easy to get lost, both in other people and in the routines of life. I’m not necessarily saying that all of you have gotten lost, but I think it’s normal to get “lost” in small ways when we come to depend on others and have to “take care of business.” Finding your own joyfulness is daunting in the face of such a major loss, but it’s there if you can look for it.

In Morocco, there was so much joy in color blue – aqua, turquoise, indigo. It was everywhere from the ocean to the sky to the buildings and clothing. It made me really, really happy. Made me think about when Dad had his cataract surgery and blue came back into his life. Do you remember that sweet essay he wrote?

Perhaps one of Bri’s lasting gifts to each of you will be showing you that you need to find “your own joyfulness,” since you can no longer depend on her for it.

Stanley & Beverly Brush October 22, 2009 at 7:20 pm

A profoundly meaningful and tender way of taking care of final tasks and saying goodbye. Thank you for sharing it in such detail. Mom and I are impressed by the flexibility in conducting “last rites” that is available and legal under California law. This is a situation where freedom of choice is a reality. Thank you for spelling it out so eloquently.

Cynthe October 22, 2009 at 9:48 pm

Bri’s courage during the last months and the way she lived life has left us with lots to consider. It’s odd to say, but there have been many gifts in the whole experience….along with the grief. I’ve been experiencing a wellspring of creativity, which I’m sure is related to my raw and tender emotions. The intensity is mellowing. We’re doing okay.

As I commented on Facebook, BLUE in all of its hues is a marvelous color, definitely joyous and SO much more. Yeah, I do remember Dad’s essay. Have it squirreled away in my files of treasured writings.

Cynthe October 22, 2009 at 10:01 pm

Dad & Mom ~ Glad you came to read this post. Means a lot to me.

Saying “good-bye” to Bri this way made ALL the difference for us. Having her body at home for awhile, was so important. Doing the ceremony ourselves reduced the awkwardness and allowed us each to participate in a meaningful way.

Most states permit a surprising amount of hands-on-flexibility. I prefer to research options in advance, but that’s not always possible. It was comforting to be guided by Jerrigrace, who knew exactly what needed to be done for our impromptu circumstances.

Katrina January 5, 2010 at 8:17 pm

Cynthe, your sensitivity and perception is so inspiring. Of course this is how I’d like to go and use it as a template for my loved ones, if they agree. Since we are living in a culture without a tradition of perceptive passing rituals, we are free to create our own. That is freeing. Thank you for sharing your final respect and expression of love for Bri with us.

Cynthe January 6, 2010 at 11:11 am

Kat ~ Thanks for taking time to come read & for your comment.

A family directed funeral really is the ONLY way, in my opinion….so much more personal, meaningful, and intimate. Felt it was important to write this article to let others know that this choice is available.

If possible, plan ahead before anyone’s sick or near death. This allows you & others time to consider what each of you would want to have happen. The packet from Final Passages explains everything to consider, making planning much easier.

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