by Wendy Jones.
My friend passed away recently. Nobody saw it coming. He was just hitting the midpoint of his life. It was an unfinished story with loose ends that will never be tied. So much potential was just gone. I found myself struggling with the idea of attending his funeral. I knew that I should go, I knew that I needed to go, but it’s like my mind and body wanted to go in opposite directions. While my mind was telling me to go, my body wanted to physically get as far away from it as possible.
The first time I attended a funeral was when my mom died. I had just barely turned seventeen. She died the day after Christmas. It’s been over twenty years and I still have a hard time around the holidays. At my mom’s funeral, my dad insisted that we touch her body, lifeless in the casket. I was horrified. I wanted to shout at him and get the hell out of that room. But when I saw the look in his eyes, I felt compelled to do as he asked. I walked up to the casket, reached in and squeezed her arm. It took everything I had to maintain my composure although I felt wretched. I was moving in slow-motion as I pulled my hand out and put it back by my side. Then I turned away from her in that casket. I couldn’t stomach looking back. I’ll never forget how she looked that day and how her cold skin felt under my warm fingers.
I hated that funeral. I couldn’t understand how putting a dead body on display was useful. I couldn’t find solace in all of the pomp and circumstance. We were all dressed in our Sunday best as if to celebrate, but it was certainly the opposite. I felt like someone was repeatedly punching me in the heart. My stupid tear ducts would not shut off. Despite my whole family being there, I couldn’t talk to anyone. I wanted it to be over. No, actually, I wanted my life to go back to normal, with my mom.
A few weeks after the funeral, my dad came to me, fell to his knees with tears in his eyes, and said he didn’t have anything left to live for. I hated him for saying that. Weren’t his kids reason enough? I felt abandoned.
But that’s what death does to a person. It destroys them. It takes away all rhyme and reason. Someone gets sucked out of our lives and they pull pieces out of us as they leave. Pieces that will never be recovered, leaving gaping holes. Eventually we’re able to stitch them up. But any number of unexpected triggers can burst the stitches wide open. After some more time, if we’re lucky, they’ll slowly heal leaving behind only scars.
I didn’t want to allow myself to ever be that vulnerable again, so I decided to put up walls to protect myself. I cut ties with my best friend and I held everyone else at arm’s length. I didn’t want anyone to get close enough to tear my heart out. It was hard for me to open myself up to unconditional love again.
So now, when my friend passed away, a fresh wound opened that pulled the pre-existing wounds back open. I thought about my mom’s funeral and how I hated looking at her in that box, and feeling her cold, hard skin. That’s really what was holding me back from going to my friend’s funeral. Then I thought about his wife who is also my friend. I thought about my other friends who would be grieving and looking for people to lean on. So I had to go. I had to bring myself to face death again, head-on.
This friend was a movie fanatic. When we walked into the funeral venue, a red and white striped popcorn machine was popping away. An adjoining room had piles and piles of picture albums on display and people were chatting about their memories with him. In the main room a large screen had been set up, playing slides of his life accompanied by his favorite songs. The people who spoke had very moving stories about intimate shared moments. And we ended by all joining in a tissue-soaked karaoke song, which was another of his favorite things to do, minus the tissues. Everyone knew what his favorite things were because he wasn’t afraid to let people in. Then I had a stark realization that if I suffered the same unexpected fate right now, none of this would be possible.
Going to his funeral was hard, but it turns out it was a nudge I needed to see that I’ve been living my life wrong. I need to try to break out of this protective shell I’ve been living in. I felt the love there. I felt the true friendship there. I realized that if I don’t turn it around now, I won’t have people in my life that will care so deeply about me and I’ll have missed out on experiencing what it is truly like to live.
Wendy Jones is a writer and artist residing in Salt Lake City, Utah. You can follow her on Instagram @wendy__jones.