By Nancy Manahan, Ph.D., and Becky Bohan. M.A. —
In their last Open to Hope posting, “Washing Diane’s Body: Caring at the Crossroad,” Nancy described the extraordinary ritual of washing Diane’s body. In this installment, Nancy’s spouse Becky recounts the four-hour home vigil, which gave family members and friends a chance to be with Diane’s body, to grieve, and to support each other in a sacred ritual.
While Nancy and others were washing Diane’s body, I heated up the Indian curry and rice I had brought from home. I sat at the kitchen table, eating with Bill and Diane’s four sons as they took a break from calling people about their mother’s death and the viewing being held that very day. Later in the afternoon Diane’s body would be taken to the crematorium, so this would be the only chance to see her.
Once Diane had been dressed and the room cleaned up, the bedroom door was opened for the visitation. Silently, the family and friends who had gathered downstairs filed in. I was a little apprehensive, but the scene was beautiful. Diane was tastefully dressed in a navy blue skirt and top she had chosen, and a white silk cloth swirled over her legs with an artistic flair that seemed true to her spirit.
The room was peaceful, with candles burning on the dresser and soft music in the background. A big bouquet of daisies sat on the bedside table. A few folding chairs were nearby for mourners who could not stand for long. The room was not air-conditioned and even with the window open, it felt hot on that July afternoon, so we brought in a quiet oscillating fan.
For the next four hours, friends and family streamed through the bedroom. Some people stood, some sat on the bed beside Diane for a time, and others took chairs. Diane’s brother-in-law, Jim Manahan, arrived with his two teen-aged grandchildren visiting from Singapore. Perhaps this experience prepared them for the death of their Taiwanese grandfather the next year and the Buddhist rituals surrounding his vigil.
Jim’s wife scooped up the smallest grandchildren and drove them to Madelia, our home town, for the annual Madelia Days parade. I admired her thoughtfulness at getting the children out of the house and giving them something fun to do. I also thought how appropriate it was that the streets of Diane’s home town were lined with flags and celebrants, as if cheering her on.
One of the most touching moments was when Bill’s mother arrived from Madelia. When she entered the room and saw her beloved daughter-in-law, her face crumpled. Weeping softly, Ruth sat next to the bed and held Diane’s hand, which bore the diamond ring she had loaned her two months earlier, knowing that Diane would not live to inherit it.
Diane’s friends Chuck and Mary Lofy arrived from Minneapolis. When Mary saw Diane on the bed, she knelt and sobbed on Diane’s chest. Tears streamed freely down Chuck’s face. Their tears let loose the floodgates for me and others.
I stayed near Nancy, sometimes standing, sometimes sitting on the bed, as we had at the moment of Diane’s death. I had attended visitations in funeral homes, but never had I experienced the peace, intimacy, and profound caring for a departed one as I did in that room. I was struck by how comfortable it was to be with Diane’s body. It felt natural, but also sacred.
As the hours of visitation neared their end, Diane’s sister removed Ruth’s ring from Diane’s finger and gave it back to Ruth. “Annie’s Song” by John Denver started playing. Most of us joined in, tears welling up again. Bill, his voice cracking, sang the love song to his wife for the last time.
The mortician who had helped Diane and Bill pre-plan arrangements said he would arrive at 4:30. By that time, all the people who could make it to Mankato had arrived. One by one, we took a moment to be with Diane and say a final farewell. I kissed her cool forehead, and said good-bye to my beautiful, amazing sister-in-law, who had just shown us how to have a different kind of death and visitation.
Now it was time for Diane’s body to leave for the crematorium. She would also show us how to do this part of after-death care differently.
The next installment from Living Consciously, Dying Gracefully: A Journey with Cancer and Beyond describes how family members accompanied Diane’s body to the crematorium and carried her remains back to her husband Bill later that night. For more information, or to order the book, visit nanbec.com or amazon.com.