Celebration of Life

May 16, 2010

Yesterday I attended a memorial service — or as Nancy, spouse of the recently departed, prefers to say, “celebration of life” — for one of our support group members. In the 11+ years I’ve been facilitating support groups for adults with neuromuscular diseases, this is the first service I was invited to. Several members have passed away but often I found out much later. But Nancy has continued coming to the support group and feels a part of our “family.” I was delighted to see many familiar faces from our group.

The service was meaningful; we learned about Frank’s youth and several parts of his life that were never mentioned in our group. We had the opportunity to share our memories of him and remind Nancy of how much he loved her.

After the ceremony we lingered, going from conversation to conversation, partaking in the spread of some of Frank’s favorite foods. Gwen and I talked about the comfort that organized religion can bring to people, James and Alicia offered suggestions for my summer trip to Brazil, and Jill told  me  about the “below market rate” apartment she’s getting after being on a list for 12 years.

Nancy gathered everyone outside to unleash a blue balloon — Frank’s favorite color — off into the ionosphere.

A bittersweet occasion brought us together and I realized again how honored I am to have this opportunity. I can’t help but reflect on much of what I’ve studied about social support over the past few years. The “celebration of life” could be a case study with check marks for the five types of social support:

  • Emotional: Everyone’s warm embraces greeting one another and upon leaving.
  • Informational: James and Alicia sharing resources with me for my upcoming trip.
  • Tangible: An offer of a ride to a member using public transportation.
  • Esteem: Sentiments shared with Nancy about the brightness she brought to Frank’s life
  • Network: Phone numbers exchanged between a relatively new member and a “mentor” member that hasn’t been in regular attendance.

Of course, dissecting an experience like a memorial service takes away from the whole gestalt…and the experience typified for me the importance of support groups — forming a unique community with people you might never meet in your life. This community doesn’t replace your family, friends, or other groups you’re affiliated with to reflect your multi-faceted life. The support group exists to transcend all of that and to realize that we as humans can form bonds based on our utter humanity, or rather, mortality.

And we don’t celebrate the mortality but we acknowledge it and celebrate the life — hopefully well-lived — that came before it. Thank you, Nancy, for giving us this opportunity.

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