How to Get Ready to Die: Easter Lessons from My Mennonite Mother
“Just don’t say, ‘She fell into the arms of Jesus.'”
We were talking about death and funerals, fun topics for a 65-year-old woman and her 87-year-old mother.
When Mother described the clichés and embellished phrases of some obituaries, we both howled in recognition, eager to reduce the serious, universal, subject of death with just enough defiant humor.
Mother was expressing the most important idea she wants her funeral to convey. She wants her faith in Jesus to shine through — not in fancy language — but by how she lived her life.
It’s Holy Wednesday for the Christian church, and my mother, Barbara Ann Hess Hershey Becker, is with me in Virginia for her second visit since we moved here in 2010.
She brought along two new “friends” — her hearing aids and her cane.
I asked her what it’s like to be 87 years old.
Sometimes, she said, I feel like I am 39 again. Energetic. Interested in my surroundings. Looking forward to a new day and new challenges.
But when I go to bed at night, I am very aware of my age.
- I take out my “partials” that helped me chew and taste my food
- I take out my hearing aids, that (sometimes) help me hear and contribute to conversations
- I take off my glasses that still let me read (!) and see people’s faces
- I take off my elastic hose that helps reduce the swelling I get in my legs
We laughed at the image of the deconstruction of the elderly self, one item at a time, but then Mother got serious and said, “When you are really tired, you just want to flop into bed like you used to, and suddenly, you are exhausted in a deep, new way.”
During the visit, Mother enjoyed reading, writing, and reciting — three activities she started in fifth grade and has continued all her life.
We drafted an obituary — hers — and listed all the groups and interests Mother has been part of, getting lost in our attempts to remember dates of other deaths, which friends are gone now and which ones remain.
Mother looked up and smiled broadly, asking, “Where are we? Am I dead yet?”
Another eruption of laughter.
Our talk felt very healthy.
I only teared up once.
It happened when we talked about her funeral when Mother said, “I’d like Doris to sing that song. If she can.”
Her eyes grew misty.
“She can,” I said emphatically.
Then a thought struck me: “You will help her get through it,” I said, my breath suddenly constricted, as I let myself imagine life without Mother in it for just a moment.
Then I looked away.
As hard as it is, it also feels good to have this kind of “necessary conversation.”
Mother declares herself to be ready. She’s made peace with God and her fellow man, as the Mennonite Church examination required of her in her youth.
She wants all of us to be ready too. That’s why she can laugh when she talks about death. She knows who will have the last laugh in the end. She loves the Indian saying, from the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, “If it’s not all right, it’s not the end.”
Celebrating Easter with Mother will have a special meaning this year.
Death has been swallowed up by victory.
I now have Mother’s wishes for her obituary and her funeral written down in my own journal.
I’m not ready to let her go! But I also know that my own time is coming, and when it does, I too want to keep laughing. I will want to talk with my children about death, removing a little of the sting, creating memories which will come back to comfort them. If I go suddenly, they will have these words.
When it’s time to say good-bye to Mother, I will be like her, the person who described herself as “drunk with grief” when her mother died.
Mother says funerals in her youth contained more wailing and sobbing. Today they are more subdued, the focus being on celebration of life. “Celebration is good, but not suppression of feeling.”
Nevertheless, Mother doesn’t want her funeral sermon to be a eulogy. The focus should be on the Comforter, the Holy Spirit.
“My legacy is my family. They will sing and play for me.”
And so we will.
Have you talked with your parent(s) or children about your wishes surrounding end of life? What suggestions do you have to help make the conversations better, easier?
Shirley, how good that you could have this conversation with your mom! And how fortunate you both are that you can still have conversations like this. My mom was exactly your mom’s age when she passed away in 2008. She had a notebook and each of us five daughters could choose which of her treasures we wanted by writing it down in that notebook (this was about a year before she died). We had lots of fun doing it, and each of us picked something different. Our oldest daughter knew which songs her Oma loved and played piano at the funeral. Our second daughter had the eulogy and one of our sons-in-law sang a solo (George Beverley Shea’s “Lead me Gently Home, Father” which she loved). I wrote the obituary, another grand-daughter who is artistic designed the program, with tiny pictures of her 21 grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren all around the border. It was a wonderful celebration, even though we were all so sad to have to let her go! Thanks for reminding me of that. Just recently someone told me how much they had actually “enjoyed” that funeral!
Elfrieda, those ideas are great! It is a tribute to your mother and all your family that the distribution of her earthly possessions seems to have been done with care in advance. So often people are left to deal with decisions like this on their own and have difficulty finding a way to be fair to all. And according to the standards of fairness of each individual!
That program with all the pictures in it must have been a challenge to create, but what a wonderful idea! You actually created a keepsake from the funeral itself.
Thanks for starting off the conversation today. I think Mother wants to add a few words of her own.
Thanks for sharing your story, Elfrieda. I hope our planning will bless many others also, and especially our own family.
From Barbara Ann
It’s wonderful that you and your mother had such a loving conversation. I believe it will comfort you when the time comes. My mother and I have joked–but we’re also serious–that we don’t want people looking down at us and saying, “Oh, she looks so good.” That has always unsettled us! My mother is 86, almost 87, and she has written her obituary, though i have not seen it. She has also made her funeral arrangements. I hope they’re not needed any time soon.
I think it’s important to have “the talk” with our spouses too. I have told my husband about my wishes for cremation and where my ashes will be laid. We’ve talked about what we do and do not want in medical treatment if we become unable to communicate.
I hope I have more years ahead of me, but when I do die, I want to die with a book in my hands. 🙂
Tina, I loved that last sentence especially. I think I’ll turn it into a tweet when I offer this post on that medium. You bring up the many other topics and other people that need to be included in “the talk.” Thanks. I imagine others might want to follow your lead too.
Mother and I shared a good chuckle reading your words. Now Mother wants to respond also.
Be ready to be drunk with grief for a long time. I doubt my soberness most days.
Marilyn, Mother wants you to know that she knows what you mean. She’s missed her mother ever since she herself was 24.
“Drunk with grief” says a lot, doesn’t it? Mother actually thought of it when she lost her baby. But it applies to all deep grief.
To Tina. Mother says, “I hope I look good!!!” Thanks for the laugh and for the good response.
What a wonderful way to approach death. You are fortunate that your mother wanted to participate in this conversation. I hope the time will come when my children are ready for this same sort of talk. I’ve started a file for my own funeral, but I also think there is comfort in letting the remaining family plan parts of it, too.
I gave a eulogy at Mother’s funeral. I wasn’t sure I could do it, but when the moment came, I felt strong. It was very good for me to give her that as a final gift. I enjoyed writing it.
Shirley, perhaps the eulogy you gave was not your last gift to your mother. The words you chose live now in you and in others. Thanks for this response.
This post really spoke to me. “Drunk with grief” is a helpful image.
I have learned that you do not get over grief and loss but rather get used to it. Helen Aldefer told me, “People say to be thankful for the good memories but we want the real person.”
What you and your mother have done is waft our family had the chance to do with Jim the month before he died. What a gift to all of us!
I anticipate Glenn Miller’snew book about living and dying well.
Hi Mary Jo,
So glad to find you here too. I resonate with your words, “you do not get over grief and loss but rather get used to it.” No matter how long someone is gone, in my experience, I carry the love and grief together like the two sides of a coin. The “drunken grief” lasts a longer time than many in our society and communities are comfortable.
Mary Jo, you know so much about grief and have so much to teach the rest of us. Thank you for entering this conversation. And for reminding me of the wisdom of Helen Alderfer. Easter blessings to you.
Shirley, How blessed you are to have such a wonderful mother. And she is soooo cute.
I wish I could have had that kind of conversation with my mom. When I asked her about her burial wishes she was very flip and told me to not to buy any burial plot for her. “They’re way to expensive. Just take a tablespoon and dig a little hole next to your father’s grave and put my ashes in there.”
I hope your Easter holiday will be filled with family and continued blessings.
Joan, you made Mother smile very broadly tonight. Your own mother was quite a character. I’m eager to see your book about your last seven years together with her and how you dealt with your grief and anger. The literature on end of life and on parent-child relations in the senior years will be enhanced by your contribution to it.
Thanks for Easter greetings. I send you the same.
This is a lovely post, Shirley. My mind immediately took me to the conversations I have now had with three loved ones about their wishes when they died. I hold those conversations among my most precious and sacred. I would love to see people speaking about death more openly in our culture. Thank you for writing so beautifully about this important topic!
Thanks, Maria. You know more deeply than I how sacred these times are and how important it is to have the conversations. We’ve been blessed by loved ones who wanted to do this difficult work and did so gracefully. I so agree that we need to talk about death more.
May your Easter go deeper than ever this year. Without Good Friday there would be no Easter.
Thanks for a beautiful post, and for sharing your conversation. When I think of my mom’s death, which I hope won’t happen for a long time, it takes my breath away, and I remember almost guiltily all those times in high school when I wished she didn’t exist. 🙂 I’d love to shake that high school student now and then, and tell her pay a little more attention to the wisdom her mom was imparting.
Thanks for this refreshing look at the subject. You made me laugh, as you often do, Melanie.
I remember thinking at age 32 when my father died that I’m glad he didn’t die when I was a teenager and was still mad at him for being so patriarchal.
May you and your family, especially your mother, have a happy Easter.
You are two wise women to have had this conversation, Shirley. My dad asked me to write his obituary before he died so he’d know what it said. I think there was some sense of completeness in reviewing his life events and being sure the main points were included.
He also had a habit of listening to the local obituaries read on the radio each morning. After he turned off the radio, he’d say something like, “I didn’t hear my name. I must not be dead yet.” After he died, we all gathered around the radio and listened to the announcer read the obits. Afterwards I said, “Yep, he must be dead. They read his name. Then we cried. (And now I’m crying again)
Carol, you have a gift for writing powerful emotions in an understated way. You made me cry too, partly because we had a beloved family friend who used to say the same thing in her later years. “Well, I didn’t see my name in the obits today. I guess I get another day!”
Thanks for these words. I’m sure you touched many others also.
What a great piece to read this approaching Easter season. It reminded me of spending time with my mother planning her funeral. She wanted two women to speak at her service which was unheard of in her conservative Mennonite congregation. She got her wish. She also told me what she wanted to wear, which included her Mennonite covering. There was just one problem, when we got to the viewing, her covering was on upside down. We all had a good laugh. The other bit of humor – at her funeral service the sanctuary was so full, the lower dais where laypeople were supposed to stand to speak was filled with flowers which meant the women who spoke had to speak from the upper dais. it was the only time I ever saw a woman speak from the spot normally reserved for ordained “brethren.” I know my mother was pleased.
JB, I laughed to think of your mother’s groundbreaking (!) funeral. Thanks for sharing that great story. When the events of a funeral mirror the spirit of the departed, the loved ones seem very present. I like to think of it as a balm in Gilead. And also a little kick from the grave. Love both of those ideas!
This is so brave and beautiful. What a gift your sweet mom has given to you to share her wishes and give you a chance to honor her in all the ways she choses. My mom is 91 and is very open about dying though she is very invested in living right now. I too know the time is nearing to let her go. She has written us all a letter which includes the songs and readings she wants at her funeral Mass, what outfit she wants to be laid out in and specific instructions to each of us about her wishes for us as a family. I am visiting her for the next few days and will read her this post. As much as I don’t really want to talk about it, this has given me the courage to make it happen. Thank you, Shirely and have a blessed Easter.
Blessed Easter to you and your mom also, Kathy. I’m honored that you want to share this post with her, and I’m not surprised, after previewing your story, that your mother is willing to travel with you into deep conversations — right down to the outfit she wants to wear. Love that!
She is so thoughtful to leave messages for each person and to think about the values she wants to leave behind. And the greatest of these is love.
Shirley and Barbara Ann,
Thank you so much for sharing your conversation here. I have had this conversation with my own parents and my Friesen in-laws. One of these parents will have a funeral service that lasts about four hours … if we include all of the wished for hymns and scriptures! But, I treasure knowing their wishes and learning what things inspire their faith and life. The conversations are a gift in themselves.
Ha, Kathleen! Yes, when one has lived a long time and has returned many times to favorite scripture and music, the list gets long. That’s where the judgment of the loved ones left behind comes in. As some people said, there’s benefit of leaving some things to the discretion of the ministers and family in the final plans.
You have tasted deeply of the water of life and death. As you care for the wonderful elders in your life (I’m so glad I had the chance to meet them!) your compassion will carry the mark of your grief. And you will never let it go completely.
Easter joy to you and Jon and parents.
News anchor Diane Sawyer writes that she’s done a piece called “The Conversation” about having discussions before the end of life about a loved one’s wishes, this regarding her own Mother now age 94.
Years ago, probably about the age of your mother now, Mother and Aunt Ruthie wrote out their wishes for the funeral service, including the songs to be sung. Their obituaries are written, though not collaboratively as you have bravely done. And their caskets picked out. When Jean and I visited the Miller-Sekely Funeral Home in Elizabethtown last October to add something to the file, it was noted that the choice of caskets, cherry and oak, had been switched. That’s what can happen when both are named Ruth M. Longenecker! Fortunately, they are still very much alive.
Marian, thanks so much for bringing this Diane Sawyer program to my attention. Here’s the link to the excellent three-minute segment: http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/video/conversation-opening-death-21202158
There could be worse mistakes for a funeral home to make for two Ruth M. Longeneckers than which kind of wood they should have for their caskets. I’m sure they were both amused, and I’m not surprised that they (and you) have done excellent advance planning.
Happy Easter to you and Cliff.
Dear Shirley, What a loving, moving story of your talk with your mother about death, a perfect time to share your feeling at Easter.
I am one year older than your mother (88) and have had that talk with my children, although we may have more to say on that subject.
My book, Dolly Her Story, is my dedication and gift to my mother, whom I loved dearly. In writing it I felt she was with me once again.We really wrote it together.
Thanks so much for reaching out to me. You are amazing to have written a book at this stage in your life. What a tribute, and gift, Dolly: Her Story is to your mother. Like Shirley Yoder above, you found strength by writing about your mother’s life. Both preparation for death and remembrance after death can ease our pain.
Blessings and joy,
Shirley and Barbara Ann,
Thank you deeply for modeling such a touching and beautiful conversation about death between child and parent. I love your sense of humor Barbara Ann and I see now where Shirley gets hers! This sweet post took me back to a humorous moment with my own mother Saloma Bare Graber. She had leukemia and dementia at the same time so would repeatedly forget she was soon going to die. I was giving her a back rub on the sofa one evening and began to weep as it hit me: I came from out of this body I was gently touching and the warmth of her flesh would soon be gone from me forever. She heard me sniffling and said. “Honey, are you crying? Are you sad about something?” I told her I was sad because she was dying of cancer and I didn’t want her to leave. She was quiet for a moment then said. “Oh that’s right. I forgot.” Then another silence and then “well, you all are just gonna have to live without me because I’m ready to go!”
Wow, Barb. What a great story! I could see you performing this piece in a one-woman show about your own life. Have you ever thought of doing that? Some memoirs work best on the stage.
Such a perfect blend of poignancy and hilarity. Was dementia a blessing in this case? Or at least occasional comic relief?
Happy Easter. Can’t wait to help usher you into your beach-color rooms overlooking the mountains. Let’s grow old together!
These posts by yourself (ShirleyHS), your mother and your friends have touched me. Although my “plans” are mostly completed, there are some very good ideas offered for consideration. When you are near the end of life, it’s a weird situation. No previous experience can be brought into your decision-making process, since dying is a once-in-a-lifetime event. It is wonderful that you and your mother could sit down together and work out the plan for a celebration of life. May it be so for all of us.
Catherine, thank you for this comment and for the graceful way you model for me and many others what it is to life fully every day until the end. Your humor, honesty, insight, generosity, and courage shine through. I’m honored to be the recipient of one of the many items you have given to friends — along with the story of how they came into your life. You are among my greatest teachers, not just in the classroom, but in life and preparing for death.
May this Easter be a time of great joy, love, and peace for you.
Two things really touched me that your mother said, “She wants for her faith in Jesus to shine through — not in fancy language – but by how she lived her life.”
Very beautiful. Your mother is a wonderful example.
And “Celebration is good, but not suppression of feeling.”
My mother kept saying as she was dying, “I don’t want people to make a fuss.” Normally Amish funerals are very emotional. At her funeral it seemed the 400 people were blowing their noses quietly, remembering “not to make a fuss.” It was powerful, having that many people “holding back.” I actually felt deprived of the natural grieving process. This taught me the lesson of allowing everyone their own reaction to saying their final good-byes. There is a celebration of life, but I believe we also need to honor the grief of those still living.
Blessings to you, your mother, and your whole family this Good Friday and Easter.
Thank you, Saloma. I’m glad that those words resonated with you and brought back the memory of your own mother to you. Those 400 people blowing their noses, holding back, make a powerful image. I hope you were able to find your own ways to let out your grief. Knowing you, I’m sure you have found them.
Blessings to you and your family today and Easter Sunday also.
Thanks Shirley and Barbara Ann… This was a great vehicle to get “The Talk” started with my dear mother! In her words, “You’ve been trying to get me to do this for a long time”. Why yes, that would be true!! : ) Today, we “scratched the surface”, hopefully, we will have some “tomorrows”, to complete it!!
It is all about the Legacy, and the opportunity to “Pass the Baton”!!
Shirley – the way you shared the topic of this post — death — is wonderfully refreshing; not to mention my other favorite attributes: positive, uplifting, constructive, and healing.
Your mom is cute as a bug’s ear. Clearly, the apple didn’t fall very far from the tree!
We have a “death” file that contains everything our son needs to know; recently updated to include passwords to “digital data” and the information he’ll need for my “intellectual property.”
Hi, Carol. Yes, that’s what it’s all about. Thanks for letting me know that these words helped you move your own conversation along. I know your dear mother will be glad, along with you, when she does this.
I highly recommend the book Living Thoughtfully, Dying Well, the new book by Dr. Glen Miller.
Wow, Laurie. You are way ahead of the curve — again. Those passwords can be a great impediment to the practical work and legal matters that follow a modern death.
Thanks for being, as always, a model of both efficiency and empathy, generosity, and joy.
How I admire that combination in you.
Shirley, you are so lucky to have a mother that you can discuss death and dying with and laugh while you’re doing it. I feel the same way about being ready. We don’t talk about this enough in this country. It is part of life and needs as much discussion as birth!
Joan. you are so right! This was written six years ago, and Mother is still here. Our whole family feels fortunate. I am grateful to my sister who took Mother on a trip to the Southwest in early March, and then, after 14 days of self-quarantining after the trip, just kept Mother in her home instead of taking her back to the retirement community where she would not be allowed visitors.
And the issue of preparing for death deserves much more attention, as you say. I believe the pandemic will hasten the day when we begin to take this challenge seriously enough that we can even laugh while doing it!