Giving Gifts to the Dead

Giving gifts to the dead, Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a new dress for her daughter who died.It’s birthday time again—for my daughter—who’s been gone physically for eight years now. Happy Heavenly Birthday to Marika, some people will say. I love it when she gets birthday greetings; it warms my heart even after all this time. Bereaved parents, other than getting their beloved deceased ones back, just want their children to be remembered. And often, on birthdays, they feel compelled to do or get something ‘for’ their beloved. So, as our big day approaches, in my resolution to keep Marika close and include her in my world, I am considering the various options for giving her a present.

Maybe you’re thinking, I’m taking this a little too far. But I did not invent this idea of gifting the dead, myself. Since the Neanderthals, people have been burying their dead with all kinds of offerings. And today, Cambodians, Mexicans, Chinese … people all over the world have holidays where they leave flowers as well as food and drink at the burial grounds of their ancestors and other deceased loved ones. Go visit any cemetery to see lovingly placed teddy bears, toy cars, … balloons. It is a positive coping strategy for mourners. The folks at The Conversation call it “restorative giving,” recognizing that giving gifts to the dead is one way to deal with the pain of loss while maintaining ties with a deceased loved one.

If there’s no grave, a griever who wants to gift the dead has to be more inventive. Some possibilities for making a meaningful and beneficial contribution of some sort that day: I could buy a gift Marika would have liked and, with the help of a local pastor, I could give it to some girl from a needy family. Or I might leave a pretty bracelet in Marika’s favorite park for some lucky person to discover. I could make a donation to a charitable organization in her name. Maybe I’ll plant a rosebush. Maybe I’ll make a small campfire in the yard and invite a couple of old friends over for s’mores. Or I could bake (or fetch) a cherry pie and do a ritual with peach tea by candlelight, reading a special poem aloud.

And, in addition, because Marika opened the doors to social media, technology, and photography to me, I will take this opportunity to Photoshop a new dress for the girl who, even dead, still changes my life every day.

 

What do you do to honor a deceased loved one on a birthday?

 

 

How Long is a Lifetime?

How Long is a Lifetime?Over the last week, in addition to Notre Dame, so much seemed to be falling apart or perishing. In my world, more friends died. My house was invaded with ants and stinkbugs. A mouse got trapped in the kitchen sink. Two unopened containers of yogurt expired. My car’s rear brakes wore out completely and had to be replaced. My back went out.

And early one morning when the dog was squealing her gotta-go-potty noises, I tried to let her outside and discovered the knob on the front door wouldn’t unlock the deadbolt. The back door had quit working just two weeks earlier. Horrified that I couldn’t exit the house north or south, I phoned a locksmith.
“It’s lived the end of its life,” George at Ace Security said about the doorknob. Not exactly the message I needed to hear, being thoroughly invested in the challenges of living forever and trying to keep life going for my household and various ailing friends. Plus, being obsessed with loss and death, the idea that even inanimate objects can have lifespans really bugged me.

“How old is that doorknob anyway?” George asked, certain I had an ancient house with parts that had never been replaced.“Only twenty years old,” I answered, suddenly realizing my daughter was only twenty when she got to the end of her life.

So. How long is a lifetime? In Google it says that in the tiny country of Monaco, people live an average of 89 years. The average life expectancy for Americans is 78.7 with women living 5 years longer than men. Greenland sharks live 400 years. A friend is rehoming her 11-year-old macaw that will live another 40 to 70 years with multiple new owners. The mayfly only lives 24 hours. A typical lifetime for a car is 10 to 15 years although I usually sell mine after 6, and I hear 20-year-old Toyota Corollas still cruise the road. A home can last hundreds of years with diligent maintenance and timely renovations. The plastic bags I hoard in my closets take 10 to 1000 years to decompose, but if you bring a pint of rum raisin ice cream to my house it’ll be gone in nanoseconds.

Notre Dame was over 800 years old.

It was the week the daffodils finally started popping. Fresh, young flowers that will be gone before this new week is over. I can see them waving in the wind, just outside the aging front door which is falling apart even further as it awaits new parts. Twenty years. Seems too short for a lifetime, even for a doorknob.

What lasts forever? Or almost forever? What is the oldest thing you still own? Who is or was the oldest living relative in your family?

Getting Hit With the Reality of Loss

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops an old image of her mother who died. Hit with the reality of the loss of her mother, she is learning to adapt to a new reality.After someone you love dies, your brain doesn’t always completely register that your beloved is no longer here. Like when my daughter died eight years ago, it wasn’t until weeks later, when I sold her car, that I understood for sure she wasn’t coming home. Fairly composed up to that point, when I handed over the car keys, a massive tidal bore broke loose from deep within me.

Getting hit with the reality of loss, just when you think you’re in control of your emotions or beyond mourning, can knock you upside down. A totally unpredictable, ridiculous little event has the power to erupt into a pivotal moment when you realize what you lost and that something big in your life is changing as a result.

After my mother died in January, I wondered for months, Where’s my grief? Then, last week I was stuck in the bathroom doing a pre-colonoscopy prep — you know, the dreaded procedure where you flush your insides out with gallons of clear liquids and laxatives, and then sit on the toilet and wait. Filled to the gills, I sat there alone, bored, picking away at my cuticles, trying not to think about the next day’s procedure. It was a time I would have phoned my mother. And she’d have told me, “Go drink a glass of white wine, it’s a clear liquid.” But I remembered my mother was no longer just a phone call away. That’s when the reality of her dying hit me. Hard. And even though towards the end of her life she was too deaf to hear me over the phone to reply with encouraging words, it would have been enough to simply hear my mom ramble on about what she ate for dinner, how she was doing the best she could, and that nothing else was new.

When I stopped sobbing, I phoned sisters and friends. I phoned the Halco Heating Company to say I was appreciating the new heat pump in the bathroom. I called the gastrointestinal nurse for the umpteenth time, “Nothing’s coming out yet” — anyone — just to have some company during my lonely mission. Until I thought I could hear my mother growling at me, “Shit already, or get off the pot.” And that kinda worked the magic.

 

What was a moment in your life when reality whacked you over the head? What was the moment the loss of a loved one really hit you?

 

 

Continuing a Relationship After Death

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York photoshops photos of her daughter to illustrate continuing bonds grief theory.“Become all the things you love about the one you lost.” This was a post that appeared on Facebook recently. Shortly after finding it, I discovered that one of my favorite authors, Alexandra Fuller, wrote a new memoir, Travel Light, Move Fast, that suggests the same idea. Due out in August, its description begins:

After her father’s sudden death, Alexandra Fuller realizes that if she is going to weather this loss, she will need to become the parts of him she misses most.

You may be wondering, how does one ‘become the parts of’ someone else? This is something I’ve been practicing ever since my daughter Marika died eight years ago. Broken and miserable, first I wanted to die too. But I got distracted from that as I searched through all Marika’s belongings to learn everything I could about her. Then I made desperate efforts to honor, imitate, follow, dress like and eat like my daughter. She sang, so I sang. She wrote, so I began writing. She was courageous so I tried to be less fearful. She loved photography, so … Allowing my daughter to inspire me, I simply did what she did and learned to love what she loved, until I could barely remember my life as it was before.

Holding on to Marika and continuing a relationship after death was the only way I could survive. It has turned me into a better person. A happier person. Having incorporated different parts of her life into my own life, I carry her with me as I continue to participate in the world. This is one approach to the Continuing Bonds grief theory that is based on redefining or creating a new relationship with a deceased loved one rather than detaching oneself and moving on from the loss.

Sometimes I think of myself as the mother who swallowed her daughter , and then really became alive herself. I am here now because of Marika. When I found who she had been, I discovered who I could be.

 

Who would you die for? Who would you live for? Who would you change your entire self for, to keep alive and present in your life?

Talking About Death

Talking About Death Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a drawing found in her daughter Marika Warden's room. She pictures death with the face of her daughter so it isn't so scary and unapproachable.During our almost-three-year journey through the Wilds of Cancer, my daughter Marika and I never spoke about death or dying. To do so would have been to abandon all hope of ever being free of cancer. It’s like we made some sort of pact to pretend that everything would turn out all right. Our discussions focused only on coordinating the here-and-now. This way, we could stride always forward from setbacks and disappointing news.

So towards the end, as the palliative care team took over, hinting about unplugging the life support system, I made them whisper and would not mention aloud that Marika was not going to live. At that point, I was too crushed by the thought of losing her. I couldn’t utter the D-words. Death. Dying. Dead. They pulsed in my head as I tried to convince myself of the terrible new reality. Marika, mostly unconscious by then, only heard encouragement from me as she lay there, “You’re doing fine, keep it up.” I’m pretty sure she already knew she would not survive. Holding back the truth has haunted me ever since.

Eight years later, a good friend of mine is in the end stages of her cancer. In the strange circumstances of life, I have been granted an opportunity, a second chance, to do a better job of supporting a loved one through the process of dying. I’m still wondering why it is so difficult to talk about the tough stuff with the ones we care about. All the very difficult, very human things one needs to address at the end of a loved one’s life — like apologizing, forgiving, thanking, acknowledging love and appreciation, and saying goodbye — are easy to ignore.

Then came the day my friend announced she was stopping treatment and starting hospice care. It was time to step up beyond my comfort zone, to acknowledge her dying.

Now Death is turning into a third friend in our company. In my mind I picture Death as having the face of my daughter, so it isn’t as scary and unapproachable as it used to be. Most days she (Death) sits peacefully between me and my friend. Sometimes she hugs us close. Other times, like when I’m being less than thoughtful, she (Death) blatantly slams our heads together. I’m getting used to Death’s gaze waxing and waning with my friend’s energy.
“What will happen when you die?” I ask my friend, “I’m going to miss you. You know?”

 

How can we make death and dying easier to talk about with our loved ones?

 

 

I Want to Live

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York photoshops her old heating system as she puts in new heat pumps and hopes to live to be 100.At some point it becomes apparent that no one is going to be able to fix you, fix what’s wrong with you. Nothing lasts forever, my father used to say. Including health and youth. And life.

I always said I wanted to live to be a hundred. Why wouldn’t anyone want to last a whole century, I used to wonder? That was before I started noticing friends and family coping with chronic pain. It was before losing a daughter to cancer. Before I knew about Alzheimer’s and dementia. Before a friend was reported to have howled in the emergency room, “Kill me now.” This was before my own body began deteriorating with age.

I love living. When it comes right down to it, I would sooner give up my independence, my house, my limbs, my eyesight, wine and magnificent food, … before giving up my life. Even though my daughter died. Even though I often feel unnecessary and unneeded. Even though I feel depressed just thinking of the day I’m told I am beyond fixing, I want to live.

This line of thought consumed me weeks ago as the twenty-year-old heating system in my house started to die. Nothing’s wrong with the boiler, my plumber had said. But meanwhile, the loud grinding noises and stinking were keeping me awake at night. And it was expensive to run. That couldn’t be fixed. So I shut it off and began the process of gutting the closet that contained the mess of old pipes and outdated parts. It made me think of outliving my own parts and becoming a useless, non-functioning nuisance. It brought up some of my greatest fears around dying: disappearing, losing myself, not mattering, and then being erased completely like I never existed. I killed the plumbing system anyway.

I could look at strawberry shortcake or anything and relate it to dying. But I stood mesmerized, elated, watching the shiny state-of-the-art heat-pump units being installed up and down the house, and forgot the old familiar plumbing system that was being removed. And now I’m calculating the lifespan of this new equipment, considering how long it will keep me warm, how many more decades I can keep this house, how many years I can keep living — until the time when I, too, can no longer be fixed.

 

Would you want to live to be one hundred? What do you fear about aging out and dying?