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Glenna’s Funeral

Glenna’s Funeral

“I’ve come to understand that there’s a good deal of value in the ritual accompanying death. It’s hard to say good- bye and almost impossible to accomplish this alone and ritual is the railing we hold to, all of us together, that keeps us upright and connected until the worst is past.”
– William Kent Krueger, Ordinary Grace

I’ll admit my attitudes on the celebrations surrounding death used to be a bit callous. When I talked about my wishes for my own funeral, I’d tell Noel to just cremate me and sprinkle my ashes someplace people might actually want to visit. I absolutely did not want a viewing and any memorial services were to be kept to a minimum so as to not take up too much of anyone’s time. Over the years as Noel and I have lost grandparents and now a parent, my attitude has softened and I’ve developed a deep respect for the place of funerals in the grief process. I’ve participated in funerals before, but Glenna’s was the first funeral where I was intimately involved in the planning.

Kolob Canyon

Glenna and Mike were a bit nomadic (Noel moved about 17 times as a kid) so it was a little difficult to determine where her final resting place should be. Most of her family is buried in Nevada (Alamo, Las Vegas, and Overton), but she was very opposed to being buried in any of those cemeteries because she felt they were too desolate. She’d lived in Alaska for the last eight years (a record only her childhood could beat), but if she were buried there it would be difficult and expensive to arrange, plus rare that anyone would visit. As we pondered locations that would be close enough for family (especially her sisters) to visit, but appeal to her desire to be buried in a beautiful, peaceful location Noel thought of New Harmony, Utah. New Harmony is a small town outside of Cedar City, UT. Noel was in grade school when he lived there, but he has fond memories of that time. When he suggested it to his mom, she liked the idea as well – it was a place she had been happy and was close enough to her sisters that they could visit now and again. Before she passed, she said she’d be fine with any of the cemeteries in the area. We ultimately decided on the cemetery in Kanarraville because we had a family connection there that was able to help with acquiring burial plots and reserving a church building for services.

We’d talked about doing a self-transport of Glenna’s body to save on costs, but also because we thought she would have gotten a kick out of us taking her on one last road trip. (One of her favorite movies was Elizabethtown where the main character goes on a soul searching road trip transporting his father’s ashes.) After we found out that transporting her body was cheaper than we expected and that a casket wouldn’t fit in Chris and Joy’s Subaru, we decided to just let the mortuaries handle it. (Although we did briefly reconsider when there was a bit of doubt about whether they could get Glenna’s body on a flight that would get her to Utah before the funeral.)

Viewing

My brother, Spencer, is going to school in Cedar City and all of my family came down for the funeral. They watched the kids while Noel and I took care of funeral logistics and arrangements. We were able to help dress Glenna in her temple clothing which was a very touching and spiritual experience. Previously, I’d always thought it strange when people at viewings would remark about how good the body looked, but having seen Glenna before and right after her death I understood. I saw her a few hours after she passed and while her body had looked relaxed, it was very apparent that her body had only been a vessel and now that her spirit was gone she very much looked, for lack of a better word, hollow. It wasn’t necessarily upsetting, but there was something peaceful about seeing her after the mortician had done his work. She looked much more like a person at rest.

Kids at Cemetery

We tried to be as open with the kids as possible through the whole thing. They got to say their goodbyes to grandma a few days before she passed while she was still fairly coherent so she was able to tell them of her love. When she passed I told them it was okay to feel sad and Ellen said, “I’m not sad, I’m happy.” When I asked why she said, “Because she’s with Jesus and she’s going to be alive again.” I wanted Cooper and Ellen to be involved in the funeral, so they each shared a favorite memory. (Cooper’s was petting the cat with grandma and Ellen’s was giving her hugs.) The funeral director also involved the kids. He talked to them about how their grandma is going to be one of their Guardian Angels and gave them pins with angels on them. One to keep and a few to give to people that looked sad. (They’d each given away all of their extras by the end of the services.) He asked them to help “tuck grandma in” before they closed the lid of the coffin. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room.

Noel saying goodbye

While there were a few hiccups before the funeral happened, the whole thing was as close to perfect as we could have asked for. The weather in March can sometimes be unpredictable, but the skies were clear for everyone’s travels. (Glenna was always a nervous wreck when people traveled, we think she pulled a few strings in heaven.) Everyone and everything came together to create a memorial that I think Glenna would have loved. Her bishop and his wife (one of her best friends) came down from Alaska to officiate and attend the funeral. My parents made “Be so Careful” pins (Glenna’s catchphrase) for people to wear and Joy put together a display that paid a lovely tribute to her mom. All of the children and grandchildren shared a few words and Noel played a beautiful rendition of “If You Could Hie to Kolob.” Glenna’s sisters and nieces said prayers and offered short remembrances. Danielle had arranged for a casket spray that looked like Alaskan wildflowers and we had picked out a casket that was reminiscent of a log cabin. At the cemetery, Noel’s cousin-in-law played bagpipes and we all caught glimpses of the beautiful Kolob canyon. Afterward, we had a lovely luncheon (largely orchestrated by Melody, a family friend, and members of the local LDS ward – people who had never even met us, but poured out their love anyway) at the church where we reminisced and repeatedly traded hugs. It was a tender time.

Ellen and Joy

It’s been just over a month since her funeral and while it’s odd to say you have fond memories of such a sad event, I really do. It was so touching to be surrounded and strengthened by each other’s love. It was an honor to celebrate such a great lady. Overall, it was a beautiful day full of an overwhelming peace. It reminded me how valuable funerals and memorials are for the living.

Note on the gallery: all of the pictures, except for two, were taken by my talented mother.

 

And Then Comes Peace

And Then Comes Peace

“Death is the enemy. But the enemy has superior forces. Eventually, it wins. And in a war that you cannot win, you don’t want a general who fights to the point of total annihilation. You don’t want Custer. You want Robert E. Lee, someone who knows how to fight for territory that can be won and how to surrender it when it can’t, someone who understands that the damage is greatest if all you do is battle to the bitter end.”
― Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

Being a caretaker was a lot like being a first time mom. On the outset, I kind of thought caretaking would come naturally and I had rosy expectations of how wonderful this would be. It would be a special time of growth for our family. Sure there would be hard times, but it would be so meaningful that we wouldn’t hardly notice the inconveniences. In reality, it wasn’t as idealistic as I had imagined. I wasn’t as patient or good natured as I’d imagined. Much of the time I was tired, overwhelmed, and didn’t know what I was doing. Our life revolved around Glenna’s care – we even slept with a baby monitor for the times she needed help in the middle of the night. All of our energy was being funneled into surviving. Half the time the kids homework didn’t get done and we were constantly bailing on any plans we made. Just like life with a newborn, keeping everyone alive for another day was considered a success. There was one glaring exception though where it wasn’t like having a baby at all. When you have a baby the future is filled with the hope of milestones and the promise that things will get better, but when you’re caring for someone with a terminal illness the future is harder to look forward to. However distant or imminent, the decline will come and things will get harder.

In retrospect I feel a little guilty about how difficult it was for me. Glenna was truly a gem to care for. She was rarely grumpy or demanding. For the most part, she was extremely upbeat and did everything she could to not be a burden. But still, it was hard.

Because her cancer, at least in her lungs, was shrinking, but her overall health was declining it was sometimes hard to know what to hope for.  When Noel or I would take her to appointments, we would always return extremely frustrated. At the onset, the oncologist team was extremely encouraging. They told us her lungs were improving and the rest of her health would follow. We just needed to wait and she would turn the proverbial corner. So we waited. As the appointments went on, Glenna would be buoyed by the news that her lungs were looking better and we would be frustrated because it didn’t feel like we were rounding that corner. Noel and I would stay up hours later than we should have, debating whether we were just having bad attitudes or whether we were the only people who really saw what was happening. It was frustrating to watch her suffer and we often felt helpless. Many days it felt like she was in limbo, neither making strides to improve nor decline. There was no clear direction on whether we should we be pouring optimism into the hope for a cure or preparing ourselves for the worst. The emotional flip-flopping was exhausting and with no end in sight we worried about our ability to continue indefinitely as her caretakers.

Some dark humor on inauguration day. Glenna often joked that she wanted her obituary to say given the choice of a Trump presidency or death she chose the latter.
Some dark humor on inauguration day. Glenna often joked that she wanted her obituary to say given the choice of a Trump presidency or death, she chose the latter.

Because of the conflicting evidences, it took Glenna a long time to decide whether or not to continue the Tarceva. She hated taking it. Every day when 4 o’clock rolled around I felt like a heartless jerk when I would give her the pill. But Noel and I agreed that she needed to be the one to make the decision to stop, not us, and we tried our hardest not to influence that decision. On February 1st, she made the decision to stop taking the Tarceva and not pursue other treatments, but even having made that decision, it took her 10 more days to decide that she wanted to start hospice. Glenna often said she hated it when people would talk about “fighting cancer” because by that vernacular if you died you were a failure who was either not strong enough or didn’t fight hard enough. When she started with The Denver Hospice, they gave us a family guidebook. These words rang true to me, “Understandably, most people are uncomfortable with the idea of stopping all efforts to cure their disease. It is courageous to fight terminal illness, and it is equally courageous to know when to discontinue treatment that is no longer helpful.”

Hospice was a hard pill to swallow for many family members, but it was a godsend for Noel and I. They came to us and were available for consult 24/7. They brought in better equipment and sent medications directly to our house. Noel and I had both read Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal and had positive views about hospice. We knew the stats that people that start hospice earlier often live longer and have better end of life quality. Again, we were hopeful. The hope was short lived though. Days after starting hospice, Glenna began to decline mentally. She’d been having hallucinations for months, but with a few exceptions she always knew they were hallucinations. At first, Glenna was sure it was the changes her hospice nurse had made in her drugs. They’d switched her short acting morphine pill to a liquid since it worked faster (which is desirable when one of your main problems is breathing), but because she was so paranoid about it, her nurse told us it was okay to just let her keep taking the medicine in pill form, especially since swallowing was not a current issue. Glenna was relieved to go off the liquid, but she was still loopy. She kept pulling her oxygen cannula off and would become disoriented about where she was. We were constantly calling the hospice nurse line and when the nurse came out to check on her only a few days later she told us that from her experience Glenna was nearing the end. (This was also the first of many times it would be suggested that the cancer might be going to her brain. Scans are no longer done in a hospice situation since the goal is no longer fighting the illness, but based on the number of nurses that suggested this and the experience of a friend whose mom died of lung cancer that spread to her brain, I think it probably did.)

Family changed their lives around to arrive within the next few days and soon our house was filled with her sisters and daughters. Glenna’s paranoia kept mounting. She was afraid of falling asleep and was sure that we were involved in some sort of a shady business scheme. Hospice had us try a couple of different anxiety meds to try and calm her down, but they all seemed to have a paradoxical effect where they actually made her more paranoid and anxious. The final night she spent at our house they tried the last anxiety med in their arsenal. It’s hard to say whether she had a worse reaction to this drug or whether the sleep deprivation had built up to an unbearable point, but her paranoia that been mounting in the preceding days reached its pinnacle that night. We decided to split the night up into shifts. Danielle would take the first shift, I would take the middle of the night shift, and Noel would take the early morning shift. I can’t hardly find the words to explain that night, but Glenna was out of her mind with fear and paranoia. She acted like we were holding her hostage and kept trying to escape. Towards morning, when the anxiety med should have worn off, she refused to take her medicines from us and wouldn’t hardly let us come near her. Her strength had diminished in the previous weeks, but in her bewildered state she was stronger. It was the worst night of my life to date. Worse than any of the nights Cooper had night terrors. When Noel woke up for his shift, he called the nurse hotline and they sent a nurse over immediately. Based on our inability to stay on top of her pain meds and the fact that she had no idea where she was (when asked, she said she was in Provo on the BYU campus – a school she never attended), the nurse told us she strongly recommended a transfer to their inpatient facility.

In my heart, I knew if Glenna left our house she would never come back. The last time she’d been hospitalized there had been a moment as we were waiting for the ambulance. She’d turned to me and asked, “I can come back, right?” Her face had this vulnerable, pleading look and my heart almost broke. I kept picturing her face in that moment and felt like I would be betraying her if I let them take her away. I felt like a child and wanted someone to tell me what was right. In tears, I called called her sister, Marsha. Marsha said they would be right over, but that this needed to be our decision. Fortunately, Danielle and Noel were much calmer and more objective and realized that we really didn’t have a choice.

The Denver Hospice.
The Denver Hospice. Courtesy of their website.

I pulled myself together and arranged for a friend to pick up the kids and take them to church while we figured things out. The transport ambulance came to pickup Glenna. Noel and I followed in our car. The family gave us a head start to take care of paperwork and get her settled, kindly cleaning up our house while we were away. The whole ride over I still felt torn up inside about what was happening, but the second I arrived at hospice I felt my anxiety fall away. There was a special spirit there. When we walked into Glenna’s room she was dressed in a white nightgown and sleeping peacefully for the first time in days, maybe even weeks. When we asked what they’d given her, they said all they’d done was give her a dose of pain medicine through an IV and she’d relaxed. I may never know for sure, but part of me wonders if in all of her trying not to be burden, she just couldn’t allow herself to pass away in our home.

After filling out all the paperwork and talking with the hospice doctor, Noel and I had some time to sit in Glenna’s room while we waited for family to arrive. Noel too said he’d felt a peace when we entered the building. It was  peace that neither of us had felt in months. It would still be six more days before Glenna passed away, but from that point on, we both just knew that everything was going to be okay.

Faith of a Child

Faith of a Child

Caring for my mother-in-law the last four months has been hard, but I’ve been so grateful to have my little family during all of it. We’ve leaned on each other and grown together. When I told the kids that their Grandma Glenna had passed away, I told them it was okay to feel sad. Ellen told me “I’m not sad; I’m happy.” When I asked why, she said, “Because she’s with Jesus and she’s going to be alive again.” I’m so grateful for the knowledge that our family relationships can last beyond the grave and for a little girl with simple faith.

Perhaps They Are Not Stars

Perhaps They Are Not Stars

Star in heaven

Glenna/Mom told us she did her best sleep in the early morning hours. She spent the last six days in inpatient hospice care because her needs became too great to take care of in our home. Early this morning, she passed peacefully into the next world and is finally at rest. We will post funeral details when we have them.