How It Felt To Finally Receive My Parents’ Headstone
Yesterday, my parents’ headstone was delivered to the cemetery. I want to talk about that.
Growing up, I never really gave much thought to what goes on in the “after process” of passing. And of course not, because kids aren’t supposed to know that level of detail yet. In fact, my mom kept me away from my grandfather’s funeral when I was five so as to not expose me to the reality of death before I was ready.
But eventually, death went from something that wasn’t a big deal because my young brain couldn’t comprehend it to normal during childhood when my teachers talked about the circle of life. Grandparents, elderly aunts, uncles, family friends—they all aged out of the system, so to speak. And that was normal. Beautiful even, especially if they went peacefully, as my father used to tell me. “The goal is to die in your sleep,” he’d say. No suffering. No fear. Just close your eyes to one reality and if you believe, wake up in another.
I don’t really know if the state he was in was sleep.
I know he wasn’t conscious.
In 2007, when my family and I all gathered around the hospital for my grandmother, it felt like she existed on a different plane of consciousness from my dad. Neither of them could open their eyes. Neither one could talk. But as I said my goodbyes to my grandmother, I held her hand just as I did my dad’s, and I felt movement.
The memory of it always makes me a bit sad because I wonder if it’s scary to know you’re moments away from the Big End. Was she scared at that moment, receiving heartfelt goodbyes from her loved ones, or was she excited to rejoin her husband (again, if you believe in that kind of stuff)? Or was that really her at all? Were her mind and soul and all we loved about her already floating off to an alternate universe that existed outside of IV tubes and machines that go beep, beep, beep?
I wondered all of that as I sat across from my dad, holding his still-warm hand, telling him that he was the best father I could have asked for. For months, he had difficulty walking and had been mostly bedridden, but while we sat there, me in shock and him unconscious, his legs kept moving, almost as if he was running. To my mom, maybe? It was the only thought I could muster up. The only explanation. Then he drifted off. The Big End. The Final Beep.
That’s when the whole “after process” of death begins. And a lot of it is handled by other people. The funeral director handles the death certificate. You only have to tell them how many copies you want—I’d recommend 10. They coordinate the cremation, which I’m forever grateful for. The Surrogate Court officially begins probate, though you have to gather up and fill out the forms. Flowers arrive. As do bath salts. And gift cards to Starbucks and TGI Fridays. You send out the standard “Thank you” text that’s always followed up with “How are you holding up?” The answer: “fine.”
You write the eulogy. Deliver the eulogy. You go to the unmarked grave and as everyone walks to their car, you see that your father’s urn is already in the ground. Out of sight, but not out of mind. A check in the cemetery’s to-do list because they have seven of these today. You’re treated like just another number, a feather in the cap, driving off into a new reality that doesn’t include their number popping up on your phone screen, hearing their ringtone, or buying them a Christmas card. Ever again.
And it takes time to get used to that, especially because everything you come across is new. Community yard sales were a big deal for my family. And the first one without them is hard. Christmas shopping on Black Friday is one of my favorite things to do. But passing by the table of flannel shirts I always used to buy for my dad for the first time is hard.
Thanksgiving, Halloween, Mother’s Day, those three-day Labor Day Weekends. Hard, hard, hard, and yes, hard. Because what I’d do now doesn’t include the options of what I would have had then. Grabbing chili from their favorite diner. Going out yard sailing. Taking advantage of the deals at JCPenney.
Eventually, you get used to it—the living without them. Soon after their death, you’ll know what it’s like to experience every major holiday without them, including your birthday. Soon, you’ll have heard their favorite song play on the radio. And you’ll see someone whose face looks so much like theirs that it’ll give your heart pause and a split second of joy. Then there’s year two. And three. And four. And five. And, as I’m writing this, year six. A whole 2,191 (and a half days) without them.
That’s how long it’s been without my mom. So far, this article has talked about my dad, but my mom is the real star of this journey. She died on February 28th, a day I hate. And my dad died on February 20th, another day I hate, albeit five years apart.
And in the “after process” of my dad’s passing, his name has still been very prevalent in my day-to-day. His bills still get sent to my house. The funeral home recently sent me a holiday card. Hell, I still get emails from the VA asking him to rate their quality of customer service after I call them for insight into payment issues. Considering he’s dead and listed that way in their system, I’d have to say their quality of customer service sending an email survey to a dead guy falls flat, how about you?
The point is, I still very much feel like my dad is a big part of my life. Because he is. That’s why finally seeing both their names on stone—nearly 2,191 (and a half days) after my mom first passed and nearly 365 since his own—made me feel so…weird.
There’s this strange phenomenon that happens when you watch someone you love die in front of you. Calmness. Maybe what’s happening is so shocking that calmness is the body’s way of helping you cope, but I didn’t feel the way I’d feared I’d feel when the time for all this finally happened. I thought I’d be scared. I thought I’d feel this compulsion to rush over and make it all stop, to beg the doctors and nurses and anyone else who ran in to intervene. I thought maybe I’d pray—to God or my mom or Walt Disney to make a Hail Mary pass.
But I couldn’t do anything other than watch. Watch as his eyes stayed closed and his body stayed still, listening to the beeping machine turn stale as his heart pumped its final pump. It took about five minutes for his body to shut down and finally pass on, which was surprising to me because I’d always thought everything closed up shop together. Then when it was over, he still felt warm. Like my dad.
I’d always envisioned getting a headstone for my mom to be the same way. And that’s why she went without one for five years. I’d tried in years past, but the idea of seeing her name on a slate of stone wasn’t an image I wanted to store away, only to pop up on the nights I’m battling insomnia. I didn’t want to get a headstone because I thought it’d hurt. I thought it would make me sad. I thought it would make it real.
But once my dad died, like the eulogy and the filing of the forms and the standard thank you texts, I knew I had to finally get one. Their plot deserved a marking. An announcement that they were here, that they existed, and that they were beloved beyond all recognition. I thought seeing their name on the pale pink stone I paid extra for would hurt. But it didn’t.
It instead brought me calm because I hadn’t seen my mom’s name written down like that in six years. Unlike my dad, I don’t receive bills in the mail for her. I don’t receive coupons or marketing materials. She never had a Facebook account or private email. It’s a byproduct of passing. And her “after death” process has been over for quite some time. No more gifts or questions asking how I’m doing without her. No lawyers to get involved in her estate. No phone calls I have to make. I wouldn’t even begin to know where her eulogy is.
But seeing her name, for one split second, almost made her real again. Like there was our connection again. She had a name. And she had a year she was born. And she had a year of passing. And she had that dash in the middle that told stories. Our stories. It wasn’t scary at all, it was instead rather comforting that after all these years, I can still find a way to be near her.
My dad’s funeral was the first time in years that I’d been to my mom’s plot because she existed in this unmarked grave and I was entombed in the theory of procrastination, fear, and self-doubt that seeing their names etched out on stone would make my grieving process worse. But all it did, in that weird juxtaposition kind of way, was make me feel whole again.