A few weeks ago, I went to a funeral at a Greek Orthodox Church. The death was expected, though still sad. I’d kept in touch with one of my clients (from my senior center internship), visiting and calling her on a regular basis for the past two years. She had been actively dying for at least fifteen years (from cancer), and inspiring everyone with her persistence and her capacity to live fully within her limitations. But for the last year, things were slowly coming to an end and we talked our way through it together; coming to peace with her death, as much as that’s possible.
The funeral was open casket. Jewish funerals are, traditionally, closed casket, so this was not something I was really prepared for. Even from my seat six rows back, I could see her head clearly (they cranked up the bottom of the casket, with an actual crank, to make her visible during the funeral, and then cranked her back down at the end so they could close the lid). I think I was the only one in the room who didn’t go up to talk to her. They had dyed her hair, and put on makeup, so she looked sort of alive, but not really like herself.
The only people I knew at the funeral were from the senior center, and a few family members; everyone else was a picture I’d seen, or a story I’d been told (she was a great story teller). She told me, often, that I should write her life story for her, and I told her, just as often, that I wanted her to write it for herself. But she never did. I know there are rules about this in the social work code of ethics (avoiding dual relationships), but also just for me, writing her stories would have felt like stealing.
I didn’t start crying until the eulogies started. The director of the senior center talked about my former client as if she was right there in the room (she was!), and I used up all of my tissues within minutes, and had to reuse them, until I was basically wiping my face with snot (don’t judge me, I was desperate).
The saving grace was the distraction of the Greek orthodox rituals. I could focus on my curiosity and hold the grief at bay, just a little bit. The sanctuary had a domed ceiling, and gold painted apostles on the walls, and hidden doors where the gofer (I’m sure there’s a more dignified title for him, but I don’t know it) would sneak in and hand one of the clergymen something they needed. One clergyman was dressed in all black and stood in front of three microphones. The other one wore dramatic white robes, with an overlaid floor length scarf, and had a microphone attached to his head so he could walk through the room and swing incense around the coffin and down the aisle.
They both kept talking about how my former client had “gone to sleep” (at least in the English, I can’t tell you what they said in Greek or Latin). And with the raised pillows, and the hair and makeup, you could almost believe she really was just sleeping. The fact is, she would have loved to have been there, just to hear what people were saying about her, and of course, to critique all of the performances.
As they wheeled her (now closed) coffin out of the building, the crowd followed her out through two enormous steel doors into the fresh air. Everything about the setting was so dramatic and impressive. She would have loved that.
I knew she was ready to die, and that her body had been ready for even longer than her spirit, and I was relieved for her when the end came. But she took up such a big space in my heart – as one of my first clients as a social work intern, but also as a friend. And I miss her.
It was a hard day. I sat with my former supervisor afterwards, both of us trying to absorb the loss and put it into some kind of safe, protected place where it wouldn’t leak out into the rest of our lives. But grief doesn’t really work that way. I remember everything: the times when my client was heartbroken, and enraged, and confused, and as lost as a child. The times when I couldn’t wait to see her, and couldn’t stop laughing, and the times when she cut me so deep I could barely breathe.
The idea that social workers can have a full caseload of clients and not be impacted by them, and not care about them, or miss them, or hate them, or love them – is crazy. We’re human. Yes, we have to choose how to behave, given those feelings, and follow our codes of ethics as far as we can, to make sure we are doing no harm, but the connections are real.
My former supervisor goes to a lot of funerals. That’s what happens when you work with seniors as your life’s work (and maybe why I’m reluctant to follow her down that path, even though I really like the population). You meet people and make connections and do as much as you can to help them, and then, often, you watch as they slip away. Seniors are just as complicated and troubled as everyone else, but maybe more so because they are usually more aware of death, and sometimes that makes them angry, or depressed, or desperate to fit as much as possible into each day, and it can be hard to live up to their needs and expectations.
The funeral did what it was supposed to do: it let me grieve, and it let me say goodbye. But I feel sad that I never wrote my client’s stories down. Even in my progress notes, I didn’t quite capture her voice, and that feels like a loss. For me, for everyone who didn’t get to meet her, and for everyone who did. But I will always remember her, and that’s a good thing.
If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.
Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?