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.