I have not attended many funerals in my life. One was that of a dear friend who I’ll call M, who took her own life the year after I graduated from college.
It was a beautiful funeral. M’s voice rang through the messages of her parents, sister, and friends: a potluck of memories that celebrated her eloquence and honesty. Most of us had not prepared anything in advance, but almost everyone stood up and shared something about her. It was all so moving that I wondered why we couldn’t have these kinds of celebrations before we lost someone. Photos of M surrounded the hall—on a laptop slideshow, cardboard posters, a big banner that listed all the nouns that could possibly be applied to her: “Sister friend confidant rival philosopher teacher mentor…” And at the front of the room was M herself, the top half of the casket propped open to show her in a cream-colored jacket with black trim, surrounded by childhood trinkets. Although she was silent, it felt to me like she spoke through the reminiscences of everyone present.
In the past months, I’ve been reflecting on our mission at CAKE and why we feel it’s so important to take this universal experience of death and try to make it better. For each of us, it’s connected to our own personal experiences of loss. So for me, M’s death is certainly a part of it, even though it’s very different from what I see in the hospital.
M was a true Renaissance woman. She loved literature, philosophy, and neuroscience. We met the summer after our freshman year of college at a summer research program where we went whalewatching together and enjoyed outdoor concerts. She had this unexpectedly deep voice with a laugh that bubbled over, and her conversation was full of wisecracks and gentle jokes, some poked at you. She was the type of person who would give people presents on her own birthday.
A group of us stayed close throughout college. In our senior year, M took time off for what I understood as family reasons. She was back in the spring, her usual cheerful self, sending emails to organize her “dear dessert possee” (our favorite place to talk was over a bowl of ice cream). Because of her time off, M and I were still in the same city in the fall. Her life was complicated at the time. She shared with me and our other friends some of the depression she’d been experiencing through the year, disillusionment with the way the school had reacted, and the relationship complexities of a twenty-something young woman.
I hoped and thought she was on the upswing. When a close mutual friend called me to tell me about her death, it took a long time to fully integrate what had happened. M was such a joyous person that it was hard for me to understand how her brilliance could work itself in such a way as to convince her that this was preferable to living. Hard because I wish I had asked more about her suffering as she was going through it. What’s more, M talked about her emotions, her depression. She could share it with others and she could empathize with their suffering in the middle of her own. It made me wonder, are we all so polarized—capable of such rich emotions, accompanied by such pain and potential for tragedy?
In the years since, I have wondered often about the meaning of a “good” death and the role our healthcare system plays in shaping these experiences. M’s death coincided with a time that I was learning about palliative care and seeing my grandpa’s own struggle with facing death as he started receiving hospice services. But her death was particularly hard because those of us who loved her were never able to say goodbye. I was filled with regret that I didn’t better understand what she was going through.
This ability to say goodbye is perhaps one of the crucial elements of a “good” death—something that is missing in many stories of devastating experiences for families. It is also why advance care planning is so important, because these conversations help people reach a point where they can say their goodbyes. We are natural storytellers and we search for closure. Saying goodbye is not necessarily a sad thing: it is also a time of remembrance and celebration. It’s a time to express all the thoughts you were too embarrassed to speak before, to use the most expansive adjectives and accolades, to say a big heartfelt “thank you” for being alive.
M was all of the things we said at her funeral and so much more. By now she would probably be doing great research into the nature of consciousness and emotions. I often think of her when I am feeling particularly stuck in life. She is a reminder to cherish relationships and appreciate more—and that the time we take to understand what someone else is going through, what their fears and worries are, is never wasted.