Monthly Archives: January 2018

Open Caskets

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Last night I attended the wake for a magnificent young man who died of a heroin overdose. He was the epitome of sunshine.  The line to get into the funeral home was endless for the entirety of the scheduled three hours for people to come and pay their last respects.  There were young and old brought to their knees in fits of sobs.  There was a video being looped of highlights of his life, the smiling and happy him that he will be remembered for.

I spoke to his mother on the day after he died and in her flurry of processing the pain and logistics of losing her son she mentioned that there would be an open casket.  This didn’t come as a surprise since the majority of non-Jewish funerals I’ve attended include the opportunity for mourners to “view” the body of the deceased that one last time.

I’ve learned that the casket is generally just feet away from the receiving line made up of the distraught and suffering.  Last night and in the past I have done everything I could to avert my eyes in order to avoid the reality and finality of death but to no avail.  At a funeral for another young man who also died from an overdose, his arm was outstretched with a rosary draped across his fingers.  I will never, ever be able to unsee that.

Last night I watched as people knelt in front of the casket, weeping, howling in pain, some touching the body, others whispering to him.  Some brought flowers and placed them in the coffin, some went up in groups in order to support each other.  When the priest came to speak I had to stand in the back of the packed room but the casket, and this sweet young man’s body was directly in my line of vision.  It made no sense to me that he was being put to rest in a suit.  This was a kid who had pink hair, piercings and wore black concert tee-shirts.  I keep thinking how appalled he would have been to know that people were seeing him for the last time in an ill-fitting suit.

I watched as his teenage brother slumped in a velvet chair in the receiving line, at first with a bored look on his face and a split second later burst into tears.  His 19-yr old niece who was the most visibly devastated throughout the evening came up to me and wrapped her arms around me, sobbing, repeatedly saying that she wished she had told him more how much she loved him.   I had to tell her over and over again that he knew how important he was to her.   It seems clear that she will never forgive herself for what she perceives as the worst of transgressions.

I’ve heard that wakes were traditionally held as a way for loved ones to watch over a body in the hopes that the person would “wake” up.  I’ve since read that that is a total myth and am much happier knowing that in the Irish tradition, a lot of drinking is involved.  Either way, as much as I want to understand it, I just can’t wrap my head around the desire to see a lifeless person laying among stark white ruffles particularly someone who was once so full of life.

 

 

 

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The Snuffing Out of Light

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Two days ago I learned of the death of one of my first clients as a substance abuse counselor at an all-male halfway house.  As is often the case I hear about these deaths from a former resident and their biggest concern is how I will receive the news.  My husband has gotten too used to me getting a phone call or reading messages on my phone and having me crumble into a mass of sobs.   He will gently ask me, “Who?” and on this past Tuesday night, just as we were molding our bodies into our respective tv watching positions, I answered with the name of someone he knew I cared deeply about and one of a handful of guys that he and my daughter had actually met.

“T” was an exceptional young man.  When I first met him I was stunned to learn that he was almost 30.  He could easily pass for 19.  He had the words “Sick Boy” tattooed on the nape of his neck, the name of a character from the book and movie “Trainspotting,” and when I, a 50-yr old woman told him that it was one of my favorite movies, he instantly adored me.  He smiled his broad and welcoming smile, and I immediately saw the incandescent light that had to have been trademarked as his somewhere along the line.

“T” was open and out as a gay man among a house filled with brawny and toughened guys and he was adored by every single one.  Some of the guys let him color their hair pink and green, file their nails, and rub their shoulders.  He was the “pet” without EVER being condescended to.  He was the one who got up early to write famous and inspirational quotes on the white board in the kitchen, every single day for six months.  One day he picked flowers for me straight from Boston’s Public Garden which I had to tell him he could have been arrested for.  After that, every time he went home on the weekend he would snip a flower or two from his mother’s garden like he did below:

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When he met my then 14-yr old daughter for the first and only time, he had a flower ready for her too.  When I told her he had died, she hugged me longer and harder than she ever has.

I spoke at the AA meeting where he received his one-year chip.  He beamed at me, and I at him, assuming that he had reached the end of his struggle with addiction.  He was ten months into a job that he loved and where he was adored, like he was everywhere.  When I learned four months ago that he had relapsed and essentially lost everything he had worked so hard for, I was devastated for him.  I reached out to him and got a text back that said, “Hi my love, things are pretty rough these days.  I just don’t know what to do.”  I answered back that he DID know what to do, that he had done it so triumphantly before, and that was the last I heard from him.

Every single Facebook post that started to unfurl on his page as people learned of his death uses the word “light.”  It is a somewhat overused descriptor, but with “T” it’s really the one word that can sum up his beautiful soul perfectly.

It makes sense for me to cite a Smiths song here, since “T” was a huge fan of the melancholy and angst in music.    In this case Morrissey got it all wrong when he writes “There’s A Light That Never Goes Out.”  “T” took his light with him and those that remember it, and him, will try so desperately to hold on to it, to bask in it, for as long as we possibly can.


This post was originally published on gaylesaks.com.