Column: Letting Go

Many ways to say good-bye to a loved one after death
Jo Mathis

Jo Mathis

My father, the quirky, crusty, and surprisingly sentimental Don Collins, went to bed the other night and never woke up.

At 84 and in failing health, he was set to move to an assisted living facility in two weeks, never again to enjoy my mother’s cooking or daily attention. Instead, he slipped away on the sunny Thursday between my daughters’ birthdays, reluctant, it would seem, to ruin their days.

My mother, siblings and I quickly drove to St. Joe’s, where our initial grief was gradually tempered by quiet acceptance. A social worker suggested we each spend time alone in the room with him. His hand was still warm as I said goodbye.

My father had asked for cremation, which took place that night. Nine days later, after the rest of the family had flown in, we greeted friends at the church immediately before the funeral, where his tearful grandchildren and great-grandchildren placed flowers beneath the chest containing his ashes.

A brief military service honoring my father’s service in World War II was followed by lunch in the church social hall, where my mother and brothers told funny “typical Don” stories. Then some friends and all the relatives came to my house for the rest of the day.

There was no embalming, casket, or sad music in an unfamiliar funeral home. We seven Collins kids never agree on anything. But we wouldn’t have changed a thing.

There’s no one right way to handle a death, or anything else. But this felt right to us.

People facing the death of a loved one should know there are options, said Merilynn Rush of Dexter, who believes after-death care has been taken out of the realm of normal experiences.

“We’ve handed it off to undertakers,” said Rush, a consultant to families interested in after-death home care. “Whereas everyone used to take care of their loved one at home – they’d lay out the body in the front parlor and they knew what to do and were involved in it. Now people die in hospitals and the body’s taken away and cared for by someone else. That’s not the most natural way to grieve or handle it.”

It’s not for everybody, Rush is quick to say. But for some, especially those who’ve been caring for a loved one at home while they’re dying, continuing that care after they’ve died for a few hours or days seems natural.

“Funeral homes discourage public visitation without embalming for aesthetic reasons,” said Rush, a former home birth midwife. “And so caring for the body at home – as long as you’ve cleaned and cooled the body – allows out-of-town relatives to get there. They can come and say good bye in the familiar surrounding and comfort of a home, rather than having to pay for a viewing at a scheduled time.”

It also allows for more personal expression.

“You can place photos, flowers, mementos, make the atmosphere in your own home the way you want,” she said. “People can gather around and share stories, laugh or cry, share food. Kids can be around. It’s a very natural setting. Not a generic, impersonal environment of a funeral home.”

The funeral home personnel are required to sign the death certificate and transport the body to final disposition, either a cemetery or crematorium. The total cost can be as little as $700 for cremation, said Rush, comparing it to at least $8,000 for typical funeral home care involving embalming, a casket, and viewing hours.

So far, Rush has helped one local family with after-death home care.

“It was just so natural,” she recalled. “When the grandchildren came by, they were able to see the body and get it – that she had died. It wasn’t traumatic for them. They’d touch her, then they’d go out and play. It was familiar, and the family was all together.”

Sharon Harris in her bedroom

Sharon Bailey in her bed at her daughter's home, a few weeks before her death. Her grandsons are in the room with her. (Photos courtesy of Beth Barbeau.)

That family belonged to Sharon Bailey, 72, who died of bone cancer Nov. 2 at the Ypsilanti apartment of her daughter, Laura Bailey. Laura, along with her sister, Beth Barbeau of Dexter, had been caring for Sharon in their homes for several months.

After Sharon died, Rush gently guided Barbeau and Bailey in what steps to take next. The sisters washed their mother’s body, then applied fragrant salve and dry ice to strategic parts to help preserve it.

Over the next two days, friends came over, brought food, shared stories. Sharon’s body was in the living room, resting in the same bed she’d shared with her husband as a newlywed. The grandchildren wrote love notes which they tucked in her hands. The Threshold Singers visited, as they had before Sharon’s death.

On Thursday morning, the family finally felt ready to say goodbye.

“We looked at each other, and realized we’ll never be done grieving, but we don’t need her body to do it,” said Barbeau, a home birth midwife.

Because they didn’t want her body out of their care, they then accompanied the body to the crematorium two miles away. And stayed til the end.

A memorial was held a month later at the Webster United Church of Christ. Afterwards, friends and family gathered for a potluck at Barbeau’s natural family store, Indigo Forest in Scio Township.

The sisters agree the entire process was much more natural and healing than the death of their father eight years earlier in Illinois.

“By the time we got there, he was already at the funeral home, embalmed and naked under a sheet,” said Bailey. “It was so unnatural; so weird. It put it into perspective for me as to what I didn’t want for myself.”

Bailey said having hospice care for her mother meant home care after death was a natural progression, and she credits Rush for helping them through the grieving process, and knowing what to do, when.

“It was an amazing experience,” said Bailey, who works as a doula. “We didn’t know we were doing something so different that would affect so many people, but it seems to, and we’re really grateful.”

Barbeau believes that being with her mother’s body for a “winding down” period after death allowed her to come to terms with her passing.

“People think they’ll be protected from the rawness of death if they create distance,” she said. “But we were less hurt, less disabled from my mom’s death because we were so close.”

Merilynn Rush is forming a local support group for people interested in after-death home care. For information, contact her at her website. You can read more about the after-death care of Sharon Bailey here.

Applying salve

Merilynn Rush guided the family in caring for their mother's body at home. After washing her, they oiled her skin with a fragrant rose salve made by their friend Annie Elder of the Community Farm of Ann Arbor.

Holding hands

Laura Bailey holds the hand of her mother, Sharon Bailey, after Sharon's death.

Love notes for Sharon Bailey

Love notes for Sharon Bailey from her family, tucked into her hands after death.

Merilynne Rush, and sisters Beth Barbeau and Laura Bailey

From left: Merilynne Rush, and sisters Beth Barbeau and Laura Bailey.

About the author: Jo Mathis is an Ann Arbor-based writer.

Section: Opinion

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  1. March 20, 2010 at 5:44 pm | permalink

    Thank you, Jo, for sharing your own experience so eloquently. And also for your fine writing job about an emotional & complexed topic. I am comforted to find our story being shared with the greater public, and for your grace in the telling. To others reading the story, in the first photo of the family with Sharon in bed, this was actually taken a few weeks BEFORE her death – she’s still quite alive in this photo of our everyday life with Hospice in the midst.

    Thanks also to the AA Chronicle for publishing this special article!

  2. By Mary Morgan
    March 20, 2010 at 5:59 pm | permalink

    Beth, thanks for your kind comment, and for sharing your experiences with Chronicle readers, via Jo. My sincere apologies for the inaccurate description in the photo caption – I wrote the caption, and it was my misunderstanding.

    Having lost my own mother almost exactly a year ago, this column resonated with me, as I’m sure it will with many others. Thanks again for allowing us to see that there are alternatives for families that confront the death of a loved one, and that we don’t have to accept – if we don’t want to – the status quo.

  3. By Linda Diane Feldt
    March 20, 2010 at 5:59 pm | permalink

    Spending a few hours with my mom right were she fell when she died turned out to be an incredibly valuable part of the grieving. It was on the floor of her living room. I have always regretted that we let the crematorium take her before my brother was able to arrive, as does he. My sister, my father and I had an experience of completion that he never got.
    I’m so glad that Sharon’s death is helping others consider options and take more control of the end of life. Merrilyn also did an excellent presentation at A2 Ignite on the same topic.

  4. By Nathan Smith
    March 21, 2010 at 2:52 pm | permalink

    What an illuminating article. I am Sharon Bailey’s nephew and I have to say that the way that Sharon’s passing was handled has changed my perspective on the “appropriate way” of handling the death of a loved one. I’m encouraged to see a wonderful alternative that can help a family process the grief in a more personal, intimate way.

  5. By jo mathis
    March 21, 2010 at 8:54 pm | permalink

    I was so touched by the way Sharon Bailey’s daughters handled her passing, and can’t imagine a more loving tribute.
    No matter what kind of arrangements a family chooses, It’s important to talk about it before the death so a plan is in place when everything seems surreal. My parents had decided upon – and paid for – cremation years ago. Following my father’s death, I simply took my mother to the funeral home where the director kindly dealt with the death certificate and a few other details. It was simple and peaceful.
    Too many people have told me they were shocked by a final bill for funeral home services, which weren’t exactly what they wanted anyhow. We much preferred greeting friends at the church just before the funeral, for instance, which is an option some people may not consider.

  6. By Susan Jones
    March 22, 2010 at 9:25 pm | permalink

    Such a beautiful story and loving message about embracing end of life with personal touches and dignity. This is a poignant and powerful column with many lessons to be garnered from the experiences Jo shared. Thank you for the lovely pictures and the narrative and your own personal reflection from a big loss in your own life. You are a person of much grace and courage, Jo Mathis, and I have known that about you and your wonderful family for a long time. It touches the Hospice heart in all of us and helps us to find and honor the voice that longs to do what feels right for the passing of loved ones. I will share this with a friend who is saying good-bye to his father as we speak. I will treasure your article and save it in my collection of things I hold most dear.

  7. March 25, 2010 at 6:50 pm | permalink

    Dear Jo and Beth and Laura,
    Thank you so much for sharing from the heart about this difficult topic so that others can know about the option to care for their own dead at home. It was a blessing to work with and learn from you all.
    Merilynne Rush