Rituals, Dying and Death

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It was two years ago today that I lost my husband of 21 years, Shinko, to pancreatic cancer. He was my lover, my travel companion, my hero, and my best friend. I miss him every single day.

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I remember, when Shinko was dying, having no rituals to fall back on. I’m not religious, so I prepared for his death by creating my own rituals. The day before he passed, I sang and played for him most of the day. He was already catatonic, but I knew he was listening. I’m so glad he was at home with me.

He passed away sometime in the early morning, around 4:30 or 5, not long after I had drifted off to sleep. I tried so hard to stay awake, but it had been several days since I did anything more than nap for an hour or two and I just couldn’t keep my eyes open any more. It was 8 when I awoke to find him. He was finally free from the pain.

I burned incense and opened the windows to let his spirit go, even though I don’t believe in souls. I washed his body as best I could until the hospice nurse could come to help me finish bathing him and dress him in his traveling clothes. This felt appropriate since traveling was such an important part of our lives together.

I kept him with me for another day; my state allows this for 24 hours without embalming or refrigeration. Friends, neighbors and family came to say their goodbyes. Everyone had their own ritual concerning this. Some quickly passed by Shinko, unsure of themselves; they were there mostly to support me. But others lingered, talked to him, shared stories and love. Some stroked his face or arm. I’m glad I was able to allow them all to come and share their grief in their own ways.

The next morning, the crematorium came by, and then he was really gone. Like magic, all the medical equipment disappeared from our living room, the furniture was pushed back into place, and everything looked “normal” again. But, of course, that was just an illusion.

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Part of the ritual of being in a family is, they come to be with you. My sister-in-law and niece stayed with me for a week. My own family came and went during this time.

After a week, I went back to work. This is also ritual. After a time of reflection and grieving, we start to return to life and figure out what the new normal is. My co-workers were uncertain what to do or say when they saw me. I had to tell them words were not necessary; a hug was the best thing. A lot of us have not gone through a death, so their uncertainty was not surprising.

Seven weeks later, I had a memorial party so family and friends could gather to grieve and celebrate Shinko’s life. I tried to talk to everyone, but there were so many. They gathered in little groups and shared stories of Shinko. And my family had a little reunion, my siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, that I basically missed, being busy with everything else that was going on.

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It’s kind of sad that we don’t get to see our relatives very often. Everyone is so busy. Lyle Lovett said it best in “Since the Last Time” from “Joshua, Judges, Ruth”:
I went to a funeral
Lord it made me happy
Seeing all those people
I ain’t seen
Since the last time
Somebody died

Turns out seven is significant in Asian rituals, but it was partly coincidence that seven months later I took half of Shinko’s remains to Japan to inter with his parents in the family cemetery plot. It was a time of grief but also family bonding. It was important for his family to have their own rituals observed and I was thankful to be a part of that.

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On the first anniversary of Shinko’s death, I traveled to Orcas Island to stay with friends. I had constructed some paper lanterns to float on the water, and we went out on their sailboat at sunset to release most of his remaining ashes. It was magical with the seven little lanterns floating off between the islands, porpoises and sea lions nearby, the sun a red ball low in the western sky.

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I still need to get to Africa to fulfill a promise I made to Shinko. I kept a small amount of his ashes to take with me. I’ll go to Ethiopia, the cradle of mankind, the place that broke his heart when he was deployed there on a feeding program, the place that made him fall in love with Africa. I wish I could be doing this today, but my life has changed so much in the last two years and now is not the right time for me to go.

Although I lacked formal rituals about such things as dying and death, I had the luxury of time to prepare for the latter. Shinko and I talked about his desires. I knew he wanted to be cremated, that I should take some of his remains home to Japan and to try to take some of his remains to Africa. While honoring those, I also was able to make my own plans. This aided me in going through everything when he died. When my world disappeared out from under me and I felt I was falling forever, I was able to focus on the things I had planned and pull myself back into the world. When it was hard to think, let alone make decisions, I had less of a burden. I think this is why we have rituals. To give us direction when the world turns upside-down and we don’t know how to find our way.

We don’t usually discuss dying and death. It makes us uncomfortable. I strongly recommend talking to our loved ones about this, about their wishes and our own. You never know when a loved one might be taken from you. It will help if you have some rituals of your own.

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