One Saturday morning last summer while driving to the airport, I listened to a story broadcast on NPR called "I Know How I Want to Die." It was about a little girl, Liza Lister, who died of leukemia 12 days after her 6th birthday. Liza's mother, Elena, was the narrator. The story was achingly sad, but at the same time, it was also beautiful and awe-inspiring. This is just one of the personal histories included in the book, "Giving a Voice to Sorrow: Personal Responses to Death and Mourning," by Steve Zeitlin and Ilana Harlow.
The book explores how we can use the arts and creativity as responses to death and dying. It is organized into three sections: storytelling, personal ritual and memorials, each of which contains a selection of illustrative anecdotes based on personal interviews.
"Those who no longer walk the earth are dust and spirit. We can only know them through the creations they leave behind - memory albums, letters, poetry, drawings, music - or through our memories of a shared past with them. Commemorative narratives, rituals and art that we create from those memories can capture the essence of a person who has died and serve to evoke his or her presence among the living. These artful forms of remembrance have a particular poignancy because the motives behind them - evoking a loved one, recalling a life, shaping sorrow - are so pure."
Art, music, ritual, and storytelling are, traditionally, the ways we have responded to death and dying. What makes them different now is that increasingly the creative endeavor is done in collaboration with the dying. They have an active part in writing their past and helping to decide the ways in which they will be remembered. What is created in the process has the potential to become a visible sign that relationships endure even beyond death.
There are many unforgettable stories in the book. The one about Liza Lister will stay with me forever, as will "Jesse's Story," about a small community's response to the death of a seventeen year-old boy after a five-year struggle with t-cell lymphoma. I also really liked the story "Crafting a Vessel For My Father," in which five siblings build a coffin for their deceased father, at his request.
The day after I finished reading this book I was at the Alaska Memorial Park saying good-bye to Paul Helmar. Paul had gone to Seattle for by-pass surgery and died following the surgery. On that cold and rainy Sunday friends and family were gathered in the pews, Paul in his coffin at our head, and naturally, the stories began to flow. Kim Metcalf Helmar's brother, Mark, shared a story that was very similar to the one I'd just read in "Giving A Voice to Sorrow."
When Kim's father Vern died, Paul Helmar suggested they build a coffin rather than buy one. The family thought this was a fine idea and a space to work was made in the kitchen, which was also under construction. Jake Metcalf was laid out and used as a template, being the closest to the deceased in size. Wood was purchased. Sewing machines were put to use to make the lining. Neighbors stopped by to see what was happening. "Are you making new cabinets for the kitchen?" "Actually, we're building a coffin for Vern."
Their shocked faces made it irresistible to add, "Yeah, we've got Vern out back in a snow bank, gotta keep him cold until we're finished." Children were underfoot, in and out of the emerging structure, popping up like Dracula when the moment was right. When the coffin was completed the guys loaded it into the station wagon, back end sticking out precariously, and skidded down the icy hills of downtown Juneau trying not to lose their payload. Being at Paul's viewing helped me to move him in my mind from someone who walked in the world to someone who would now exist within the photographs he took, the family he was a part of, and the stories we would tell.
I think there is always a sense of helplessness when we are confronted with death. We rarely encounter absolute finality in our everyday lives. A creative response will not change the course of events, but it can help to give us a sense of control and guidance when our lives have been blow apart by loss. It can be a healthy and empowering way to personalize and enrich our deeply personal journey through grief.
Mary Cook is the volunteer coordinator at Hospice and Home Care of Juneau.