Dr Bill: Meaningful memorials for the muddled

words: Dr Bill Webster, Grief Journey

George and Nora came to Canada from England decades ago, and in their advancing years were residents in a care facility. George, a veteran of World War 2, was a remarkably lucid, practical and intelligent gentleman, who had been living with cancer.

The challenge was that Nora had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease some years before and her dementia had left her completely dependent on George.

When he died I was asked to assist with the funeral. George’s family were concerned about how we could break the news of his death to her, how she would react, and what we could do to have a meaningful service that would not be too overwhelming.

It was decided to have a short committal service within the week where Nora could come and view George’s body, and spend some time familiarising herself as much as possible with the reality. A few months later a celebration of life would be held, when family could assemble from England and elsewhere for a memorial service.

I gained guidance from the Alzheimer’s Society: Go slowly. Take things at Nora’s pace. Nora’s only job is to process everything.

Your job as facilitators and family is to help by:

  • Being on her shoulder at all times (one-on-one).
  • Keeping her engaged by:
    • Asking small questions
    • Checking understanding
    • Giving her reassurance, such as ‘We’re here for you’ and ‘George loves you.’
  • Don’t force information on her
  • Intimacy is helpful
  • Play on her desire to be the centre of attention

The three key themes are:

  • Re-direct
  • Occupy
  • Reassure

I prepared a committal service including a eulogy, scripture readings, poems, prayers – all standard stuff.

When Nora arrived at the door of the chapel, after a few pleasantries, I asked: “Do you know why you are here, Nora?”

“I am here to see George,” was the instant reply. I told her George was in the room in his casket, wearing his favourite cap, and asked if she would like to go in now. With her nieces on either side, we proceeded into the room and as soon as she saw him she cried out ‘don’t leave me, George’, which was heart-rending. She proceeded to view his body, looked at the flowers and noticed the TV screen in the corner playing pictures as a visual life tribute. She sat transfixed on this during the service, commenting on the who, what, and where of each.

At one point, she turned to me, in full flow of my eulogy, and said: “Can’t you keep quiet? I’m trying to look at pictures.” I looked straight at her and with a smile stated that many had told me to keep quiet before, but just for her I would. With a brief committal we brought the service to a close, and went and had a cup of tea together where she told me stories about George.

I learned two things. In similar situations, keep the service shorter than you think, and involve numerous, preferably familiar people.

So, when the celebration of life was held two months later, with cremated remains present, in consultation with the family, we organised a process and order of service that worked magnificently.

When Nora arrived at the funeral home, I again asked her if she knew why she was here. She responded differently: “I am here to say ‘Goodbye’ to George.”

We gave her more time to familiarise herself with the surroundings, talking with family members and caregivers. We seated her directly facing the TV screen, strategically situated behind the urn, so she could focus on the pictures.

I kept the order of service moving, subdividing the eulogy into three parts, and read an ‘About George’ segment, interspersed with short poems with an English connection.

Every couple of minutes, I sat down and her nephew and niece gave personal tributes, announcements and thanks.

The service lasted 20 minutes, no one was on their feet longer than two or three. Nora watched the pictures, but turned to listen especially to her family members, and seemed fully engaged.

You are never too old to learn a new way of doing the same old thing, especially when it is going to be meaningful for someone struggling with challenges like dementia.

I like to think this was, and others seemed to agree.

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