Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Process After Death

As a doctor, I've been asked to record the time of death for hundreds of patients.   I carefully examine the person, verify there are no signs of life, and document my findings.   I offer my prayers and condolences to the family in an attempt to comfort them.   Then I leave the room.  

As a son, I'm the one left in the room.

Next to me is the body of someone I have loved my entire life.   I'm emotionally and physically exhausted.   What are the next steps?

Hospitals typically have great social work and palliative care/hospice staff who can offer recommendations.   Churches have bereavement ministries for funeral planning.   Mortuaries have the staff to orchestrate the next steps.

My mother and I relied on the support of friends and hospital staff for recommendations.

We called church bereavement staff.   They explained the nature of the funeral mass, our options, and the guidance offered by the church.   For Catholics, cremation is fine, but scattering of ashes is not endorsed.

My mother and I had long talks about my father's preferences and her future desires.   We agreed that cremation would be better than burial.   I asked the church about facilities for internment of ashes.  I learned that they are 11 3/8 wide by 13 3/8 high by 11 5/8 deep and can store two urns.  My mother and I agreed that interment of their ashes together in the same niche was desirable.  We agreed that a mass should be a personalized memorial service and not just repetition of scripture.

We worked with the church to select a funeral time when the priest, church, and organist were available - this Saturday at 11am.   We did have to rearrange the monsignor's schedule and he was happy to accommodate us.   We are meeting with church staff on Friday to personalize the ceremony.  

We sought recommendations for a good local mortuary which would work with the church.   I called them and arranged a planning meeting for tomorrow.  We will shop for urns that will fit in the church's niche. We officially released my father's body from the hospital to the mortuary.

We asked our local realtor to help with reception planning.  We decided upon a buffet brunch so that the guests could eat the foods that they like.

We arranged a walk along the ocean on my father's favorite path.

We made a list of all local friends and family who should attend and called/emailed/texted them.

The end result is that we have mortuary plans for cremation, a mass/memorial service customized to my father to celebrate his life, and a reception to thank all those who have helped us so much.

My wife flew in at 1:30am this morning and my daughter is flying in on Friday night.   We've asked a farm hand from an adjacent property to oversee Unity Farm in our absence.

My advice is that the process after death requires just as much preparation as the healthcare proxy.     Pick a mortuary.   Pick burial or cremation.   Buy a plot or chose an internment/ash scattering site.  Decide on a church/temple service, memorial, or other event.    We completed these steps in the hours after his death when we were not at our best.

My role as healthcare navigator for my family does not end with all this planning.

My next step is to keep the survivors healthy.   I'll be flying to see my mother quarterly and help her decide if living alone is working or if she should consider a nearby over 55 community.    Last night, the kitchen drain developed a major clog and every appliance with a clock needed to be reset (we had not been home since Friday night and missed Daylight Savings Time clock adjustment rituals).   Without my father, my mother will have to manage plumbing, electrical, painting, maintenance, and landscape work herself.   It could be that she'd rather spend her time on cultural events, conversation, and intellectual pursuits with like minded people.

On New Year's Eve, I told my wife that 2013 would be less traumatic/dramatic than 2012.    Maybe the second half of 2013.


MS said...

I'm so sorry for your loss, John. Your father and mother clearly inspired you.

Know that you are an inspiration to me and many others. May you and your family gain some strength from the warm wishes and thoughts of those whom you inspire.

Alex I said...

My condolences to you and your family during this very difficult time.

TomL said...

Dr. Halamka, I was sorry to hear about your Dad's passing. I'm sure he was proud of you and the life you've built in Boston.

Thanks for posting such an important and timely topic. It is a humbling experience to work with a parent on funeral and internment details. You have the right plan to schedule check-ins with your Mom. She'll need the support. Blessings and Prayers from Our Family.

Will Snow said...

John, I'm so sorry for your loss. Your father (and you) inspired me to be the engineer I am today. Please let me know if you or your mother need anything.

Aaron Seidman said...

Our thoughts are with you. May you be comforted by your memories and those who love you.

Unknown said...

Condolences to your and your family, Doc. Even in your grief, you're giving us that follow your blog useful information about coping with the details and the emotions. The human race makes progress when we learn from each other's experiences. So many things we experience only once as individuals.



Medical Quack said...

So sorry for your loss at this difficult condolences...

Lisa said...

It's tough to lose a parent at any age.

My best to your family, and especially your mom, who now faces a new chapter of her life without her partner.

Take care

Anonymous said...

May his memory be a blessing

Anonymous said...

Thinking of you and your family and praying that God's love will embrace and comfort your mom, you and your family. God bless!

Anonymous said...

I am so sorry for your loss. At the time of my parents' deaths I found Thomas Lynch's books of essays and poems particularly helpful.