LOSING MY FIANCE
When my fiancé died suddenly in 1998, I had the heart-wrenching task of identifying him at the funeral home. Wildly, madly I wanted it not to be true and to see someone else on that gurney. But no, I didn’t even have to enter the room. I could stand in the doorway and look across and see the familiar face I loved, shattering my last hope that some sort of terrible mistake had occurred.
Everything moves so fast in those first, frantic moments after a death. Consumed with grief, I leaned heavily on a friend who gently suggested I might want to spend some time saying goodbye to his body before giving it over to cremation. This, to help me begin the slow acceptance that he was truly gone.
Seeing His Body
She explained how, in other cultures and traditions, cleansing and preparing the body for burial helped those left behind both to process their grief and to absorb the realization that the body was not the person, only a shell where the spirit resided in life.
At first, I was totally repulsed by the idea. It seemed almost ghoulish. But the more I thought about it—and considering how much I respected and trusted my friend—I relented and decided to do it.
What follows is a passage from my novel, My Dead True Love, which tracks exactly my own experience of spending time with my fiancé’s body. The only difference: I brought scented oil with which to touch and caress my beloved. Here’s the excerpt:
TOUCHING HIS BODY
All my uncertainty, my doubts and fear of revulsion fell away as soon as I was standing alone next to Gregory’s body in a small, formal viewing room at the funeral home. As before, Gregory was on a gurney with a quilted gray blanket wrapped tightly around his body from the armpits down—the way a woman might wrap a towel around her body after a shower. The blanket covered everything except his shoulders, upper chest, arms, neck and head.
Seeing him up close like this, I forgot my hesitation and wanted to drink in every detail. Sear them into my mind so I’d never forget.
At first, I just observed. Inspected, really. Here were the face and lips I’d kissed a thousand times, the eyes through which I’d plumbed the depths—or at least wandered the shallows—of another soul. The ears into which I’d whispered “I love you” countless times. I whispered it again.
Something rustled in the distance.
“Is that you, my love?” I said, straining toward the sound.
Shhh. No time for words.
HIM BUT NOT HIM
His color was drained, in its place an opaque waxiness. Hesitantly, I touched his face. It was cold, like the inside of the refrigerator where he’d so recently lain. All his features were slightly flattened and the crook of his nose, sharpened. Some well-meaning mortician had combed his hair back, accentuating his receding hairline. Gregory would have hated that. Gingerly, I pushed it into a more natural arrangement.
Standing at his head and feeling more daring, I leaned down to smell his forehead, intent on drinking in his scent one more time. But I was met with disappointment: There was no scent here. In its place was only an unfamiliar plastic odor—not unpleasant, just not him. Death had stolen his scent. Slowly, I traced the outline of his ears with my fingers and followed the crest of his brow and the line of his strong chin, still rough with stubble. I was struck by the weight of his head as I rolled it between my hands. It had never seemed so heavy when the life of his muscles lifted it.
I ran my hands down his neck, over his strong shoulders, down his arms to his hands. You can love someone for years and be hazy on the fine details of their features. It was as if now I had to look at him with my hands as well as my eyes and burn the memory into both senses—every line and crevasse, the faint mole on his upper lip, the bend of his long, elegant fingers. He was perfect and unscathed, save for the thick black thread where the autopsy incisions were sewn closed on the back of his head and on his chest, extending just above the blanket line. It all felt natural, like a meditation.
I wanted to touch his feet, to see again those uniquely slender toes, but they were beyond my reach, tightly bound beneath the blanket. I loved those toes that he wiggled in the grass on our first date. Such lovely toes. One time when we were at an Assyrian art exhibit, I looked up at a massive wall relief of soldiers in battle thousands of years ago to see dozens of toes exactly like Gregory’s. Here, truly, were his forebears. We marveled and had a good laugh.
Standing next to him in this alien setting, I realized how much I loved this body—its shape, its smell, the form of it—and how difficult it had been up until that moment to separate the body from the life that was once within. I loved the way Gregory’s spirit moved and animated this body—with confidence, but not swagger. He seemed so comfortable in his skin, even with the long jagged scar that disfigured his torso.
A Strange Peace
As I stood beside him one last time, I was struck by the thought: The man I love is gone.
After brushing his forehead lightly with my lips, I backed away slowly toward the door, stretching my farewell and taking in the whole of him one last time. Then I withdrew and closed the door firmly behind me. I felt strangely peaceful. (My friend) Connie got up from her chair and met me in the hallway.
“You were right,” I said. “I’m still sad, but he’s not there. The man I loved isn’t there.”
“No,” she said.
“Without his energy, the body is simply a shell,” I said, feeling the grief pool in my belly.
This was precisely my experience as it happened in real life and precisely the relief it provided. I still loved my fiancé so much and hurt so much that he was gone. But spending time with his body helped me to know, truly know, that he was no longer there. It didn’t give me closure, but it did bring clarity.
Excerpted from My Dead True Love by Kim Pierce.
Learn more about the author at her website, https://mydeadtruelove.com
Read more from Kim Pierce on Open to Hope: Exploring Contact Through a Medium – Open to Hope