F or weeks, I had mentally prepared myself to dig my stepfather’s grave. The first shovelful of sod was the hardest. I placed the first piece carefully to the side and stared at the clump of dirt and grass. The solemnity of the moment was inescapable—I was about to prepare his final physical resting ground here on earth.
The emotions of death are unlike any other, I thought to myself as my shovel hit a root from a tree that no longer was there. We prepare for the inevitable by building barriers against sadness to come, but the suddenness, the finality, penetrates any emotional walls that we may erect to protect ourselves from our fears of mortality. Like the slow seeping of water forever looking for crevasses to exploit, the emotions of death are similar. There is no hiding.
The day was overcast but dry, the morning silence broken only by the sound of family members digging alongside. With each shovelful of dirt, I wondered why we try to bottle what was never meant to be bottled. Instead of building emotional dams against the inevitable laws of nature, we should be building emotional spillways. Emotional health can be so fragile. Months before my stepfather’s death were filled with laughter and precious stories of a life well-lived. Now my vision was blurred as I worked through my tears. Nothing prepares us for being present when the final breath of a loved one is taken. No words exist to describe the intensity of the moment or to explain the emotional swing between numbness and profound pain.
Fortunately, the physical act of digging—first through sod, then through a rich topsoil, and eventually down to a sandy loam—was cathartic. The experience was intensely personal and yet simultaneously selfish. I was wearing my stepfather’s jacket that I gave him the previous Christmas to keep him warm while walking. In my pocket was his headlamp, a Christmas present that year as well. I didn’t need the headlamp to dig, but I felt closer to him with it in my pocket. As I dug, I was initially focused exclusively on the now and the husband of 31 years that my mom just lost. By the time that I reached the sandy loam, however, my thoughts wandered and turned to beauty of the circle of life itself.
Just days earlier, my stepfather lay in bed at home, unable to move except to ring the bells in his hand to summon help. The bells were well-used in the weeks and months prior to his death. Day after day, my mom was lovingly at his beck and call, to the point of exhaustion. But her patience never wavered, especially when he awoke in the middle of the night. She would laugh and kiddingly say “I would hide those bells if I could,” because he had no concept of time during those final days. I have no doubt the heavy burden tested the depth of her dedication to him. But love is powerful and beautiful beyond human ability to express. I came to Whatcom Hospice Care the next day after my stepfather was transferred. There was my mom, sitting by his side, desperately tucking the bells into his non-responsive hand, just hoping that he would ring them for her one last time. He never did.
For the living, the impending death of a loved one is unsettling. There’s the obvious—what to say, what to do, and how to act—but more fundamentally for me and my stepfather, how to say “thank you” for giving my mom the life that she deserved. A son’s love has limits. He gave her what I could not—and for that alone, I placed my fears of the emotions of death aside. I dug out of gratitude and respect and to honor him.
That afternoon, our family buried my stepfather in a simple ceremony befitting the man he was and the life he lived—no coffin, just the family’s handmade shroud with hemp rope extensions to help lower his wrapped body into the earth. The rawness of the visual images will never leave me, nor do I want them to fade over time. The moment may have been hard; the moment may have been emotional. But the moment had depth and profound meaning that made me proud of my family. We bury our dead.
As I walked to my car afterward, I looked back at his gravesite and couldn’t help but wonder if all of us in life would be more empathetic or sympathetic toward each other if we opened ourselves up to the emotions of life. Would we treat each other with more kindness if we knew the day would come to shovel dirt over the face of a loved one? Instead, we tend to hide from difficult emotions behind technology that for some, at least, serve as avoidance mechanisms. Whether it is breaking up relationships by text or email or announcing changes in relationship status on Facebook or tweet, emotional health is not well served. No one can hide him- or herself through life. Eventually, we all have to come out from behind the keyboard.
My coming out just happened to be with a shovel in my hand. As I drove away and looked in my rearview mirror, I didn’t have the urge to email or text or Facebook. I just had the need to feel.
Note: My special thanks to Brian Flowers, Funeral Director and Green Burial Coordinator for Moles Farewell Tributes, for his wonderful, heartfelt support and assistance.