A Memorial for the Living: Don’t Wait to Celebrate Your Loved One’s Life

How many times have you sat in a memorial service, hearing heart-felt tributes to a deceased friend or family member, and thought, “I only wish that he (or she) could be here to take all of this in”?

I have planned and participated in memorial services for my parents and several friends, and I expect that I will do so again. However, I now hold a new possibility for honoring a loved one—planning an event to celebrate that person’s life before he or she is too ill to hear those wonderful tributes.

When I learned that my friend’s husband had terminal cancer and that no other treatment options were available, I asked how I could be helpful. To my surprise, my friend said that I could help her arrange flowers for a party celebrating her husband’s life, to be held at a local banquet hall. She and her husband had decided to invite all of their friends, including the musicians with whom her husband had performed, to a benefit event to raise funds for his favorite charity, a children’s hospital.

One of their grown children designed and mailed the invitations. The other was master of ceremonies for the afternoon event. To maximize the funds raised for the hospital, my friend bought cases of glass vases and ordered flowers in bulk from a local florist. Then, the day before the event, we gathered at the hall to do our assigned tasks. I brought a “boom box” with a CD of my friend’s husband’s band music, and we listened to his music as my friend and I created 24 centerpieces of red and white long-stemmed roses and her two children set up the tables and put out the table linens.

The next day, 240 people came together to honor this wonderful man.

The hall was festive and the air was filled with the wonderful fragrance of Polish food. My friend’s husband, looking dapper and wearing his favorite baseball cap, wisely let people come to visit him, one or two at a time, as he sat at the head table. A live orchestra played sets of Polish music and polkas, interspersed with tributes. There were also long periods of low background music to allow genuine conversations to take place without people straining to be heard above the music. What was truly amazing was that everyone at this party knew that he had terminal cancer and that this would likely be the last time that they would see him.

Nevertheless, the mood was not somber but filled with gratitude and love.

Holding an event at which friends and family gather to share stories and tributes–and the loved one is present to receive those expressions of respect and honor and gratitude–is a care giving tradition that I plan to continue.  Perhaps it is a tradition whose time has come.


Joanna Lillian Brown is the author of  Caring for Dying Loved Ones, a Helpful Guide for Families and Friends.

Joanna Lillian Brown was in her late 30's when she became the hospice care coordinator, and a primary caregiver, for her 97-year old grandmother. When speaking with dozens of family members, work associates, and friends, she was surprised to learn that no one she knew had been with someone at the time of a loved one's death. During the final three months of her grandmother's life, she kept a journal of her thoughts and fears, as well as notes about special moments shared with her grandmother and family members. The experience of being with her grandmother at the time of her death was a deeply spiritual experience that removed her fear of death. Eight years later, she and her spouse bought a home four houses away from her elderly parents to provide them with daily support. She was a primary caregiver for her father during the last two years of his life and was with him as he died. Again, the process of journal writing provided a path for reflection and comfort during the challenges of caring for a loved one. Following her father's death, she provided daily visits to her mother, enabling her to stay in her home for another five years, until she had a stroke. For the last eighteen months of her mother's life, she provided direct care to her mother in a nursing home every evening, where she learned about the problems inherent in even excellent nursing care facilities. She was with her mother when she died at 4:00 am on May 7, 2008. Following her mother's death, Joanna reviewed her journals from prior years and began to wonder if her reflections could benefit someone who had not yet been a caregiver. A supportive writing coach encouraged her to continue writing, and the book Caring for Dying Loved Ones: A Helpful Guide for Families and Friends was written within a period of 20 months, based on journal entries, stories contributed by personal friends, and additional research. Joanna Lillian Brown also provided hospice care to her earliest childhood friend, who died at the age of 54 from pancreatic cancer. She has been a caregiver or hospice caregiver to several members of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Northampton and Florence, Massachusetts, where she and her spouse, Jo Lower, have been members for 20 years. She has written and given eulogies for her mother, her father, and three close friends, as well as designing and participating in memorial services. Throughout her years of caregiving, Joanna Lillian Brown has worked full time in the fields of alumni relations and development.

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  1. I also appreciated this story. I work in healthcare and work with seniors on a regular basis. These people of “the greatest generation” are proud and independent. This independent streak can be pretty frustrating to the family who are frequently the primary caregivers.

    The last memories that I have of my parents is them being surrounded by family at home having been cared for by their children. Because of my own experience with caring for my parents, I try to encourage my senior patients to “allow” their family to do things for them… to “take care of them” and let these be the lasting memories that the children have.

    If that’s a celebration of their lives while living, so be it. Memories are all we have. Let’s make them positive.

  2. What a wonderful story. We couldn’t hold such an event for our Mom, so we had everyone write memories on little pieces of paper. We stuck each in a matching envelope, as they arrived from near and far, and put all the envelopes in a pretty box. We had a special luncheon for just the family, here at the house, where we surprised Mom with her treasure box of memories. Some were from people she hadn’t seen in 25+ years, and it made our hearts soar to see how happy it made her to know so many loved her. Everyone who participated wanted Mom to know what an important part of their lives she had been and how she had influenced them by having known her. Some were touching memories, some were funny, and some were sentimental, but each was special. Mom passed away about a month after, and I am so happy we were able to do that for her while she was able to enjoy it.

    • Oh wow that is such a beautiful way to celebrate your mom’s life… That must have meant so much to her… Thank you for sharing that with us!


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