Saying Goodbye To Loved Ones
(Column appeared on March 9, 2015, in The Montclair Times)
There's been a lot of focus, lately, on end of life issues.
One issue that is just beginning to be explored is how to say goodbye. There are, of course, many customs and religious traditions which help people cope with sorrow and grief after the death of a loved one. Nestled among the streets of Montclair, for example, is a wealth of different houses of worship that prescribe a variety of ways to mourn the dead.
But what is there to guide people during the time immediately preceding the death of a loved one, when people often struggle to achieve a precarious emotional balance, and the signals from the person facing death can be contradictory and/or confusing?
There is, of course, no right or wrong way to say goodbye to a loved one, but in the course of my work for a new book project, I became aware of a story that deeply moved me, which I believe might help and inspire others.
I've written about the Skelton family before, in my column "Hannah's Excellent Idea." At that time, Hannah Skelton was six years old. She's now 13 and, approximately a year and a half ago, she and her family were forced to say goodbye to her dad, David Skelton, who was about to die far too young from pancreatic cancer.
Jann Skelton, David's widow, recounts the poignant decisions she made during that time. "For the entire last 10 days we opened the house. I simply sent out an email that said, 'We have just a few days left. If you want to come and see him, come. Don't call, just come.' And I said, 'And if you want to do something in the spirit of love and joy, help his children understand who he was.' It was spontaneous when I did it, but I could never have imagined the healing process that that created. Hundreds of people came to my house in those 10 days from all over the country. People flew in that hadn't worked with David in 10 years. They came to the house, sat with him, and said goodbye. They sat with my children and told them stories about their daddy and why they loved him.
"We rolled David out onto the patio. It was beautiful weather. So we just rolled the hospital bed outside and his friends put the big, huge umbrella over him. We had fans blowing at night. He was surrounded 24/7 for the last 10 days of his life by everybody who loved him. They sang songs, they told him stories. There was this hubbub of activity. Fifty kids, 20 feet away, played in the back yard. It was bizarre, but not, at the same time.
"My daughter, Hannah, is a lot like me. We both like to be busy, especially in bad times; that helps keep our minds off things. So she and my son, William, decided they were going to have a business. They incorporated Bracelets for a Cause. And they sat for the 10 days of my husband's hospice period in the front yard with, literally, 50 kids at a time, making those rubberband bracelets. I think they've raised today almost $3,000 by selling these $2 crazy bracelets. But it gave them something to do. It gave the kids of our friends something to do. They felt it was valuable and they were making a difference. People would drive down the street, true story, and throw $20 bills at them. The money that they were collecting! William was vice president of sales.
"All of this was happening around David. And occasionally he was up and with it, but for the most part he was kind of dozing, so I wasn't sure how much of it he was really processing. There were all these different patterns on the bracelets. The kids put one of each kind on each arm, so he was like the showcase for which kind of bracelet people wanted.
"After a couple of days his arm was beginning to swell, so I tried to take the bracelets off. Before that, David had not moved an inch, but when I tried to remove them he slapped me and said, 'No, no.' So, at whatever level, he knew that his kids had made them for him. He was buried in those two bracelets.
"People said that they had never seen anything more beautiful about death. And I think people were grateful. So many people said to me how grateful they were that we allowed that to happen. I have friends who have gone through the exact situation now and would let no one in, who let no one come to the house. They didn't want anyone to see their husband in that state. I have a different philosophy."
What the Skeltons did may not be possible or right for every family, but it gives us all something to think about as we inevitably face the prospect of saying goodbye to our own loved ones.
Janice Cohn is a psychotherapist with offices in Montclair and Manhattan.