A New Haven funeral.
Writing on death and loss is always difficult. Usually, further distance from a person makes it easier, disconnecting you from the messy feelings that accompany losing someone you love. But in this case, the loss of someone dear to someone dear, I find words fail me. I’ve had lots of time in the last week to keep writing, and yet I find myself with nothing to say. How do you write about someone you never really met, except technically?
In the months before his grandmother’s death, Maki and I talked about her on a number of occasions, particularly as her health concerns became increasingly serious. We knew at Easter, as we visited her in the hospital, that there was a strong likelihood it would be the last visit. We knew, too, that she was in a lot of pain and the quality of her life had been in steady decline for months. But knowing something is inevitable and likely imminent does not always make it easier, which I can say from personal experience. But of course, even expected deaths are extremely sad, in part, because nothing seems final until the end has really come, when you walk through the now unoccupied home or see the prepared gravesite.
We left California on a Wednesday afternoon, arriving in New York City at 5:15 am the following morning. Bleary eyed and lugging an awful lot of stuff, we braved our way on public transport and found ourselves in New Haven later that morning, a little worse for the wear. After a nap and an emergency shopping trip to Macy’s (all of Maki’s suits were left behind in Ann Arbor, as he saw no particular point in dragging them out to California for his short tenure there), we arrived at the wake just as it was starting. Lying in her coffin, his grandmother looked finally at peace. After a couple visiting hours and the gathering of friends and family, the priests came to offer up the panakhyda, a prayer service offered up on the eve of the funeral, and his father and uncle gave their eulogies, one in English, the other in Ukrainian. They told of the life of a remarkable woman, born in a peasant village in Western Ukraine, transported for slave labor in Germany. A woman, who despite inauspicious beginnings, made a new life for herself and for the family she raised, first in displaced person camps in Germany, and finally in New Haven, where they settled. Who, nearly twenty years ago, lost her husband suddenly, but continued to pour her energies and love into her family — her beloved children, her growing grandchildren, and, as of some 20 months ago, her first great-grandchild — and into her faith and her community (obituary here). And, we learned on a lighter note from his uncle, she was a woman who fostered particular interest in the British royal family.
In conversations about his grandmother, Maki usually settled on the word “resilient” to describe her, a choice confirmed by the kind words and memories that were shared by those around. As we paged through old photo albums at her dining room table each night, I could start to appreciate a life well-lived, who dedicated herself to her children and grandchildren, and who persevered through the sort of struggles and misfortunes that I cannot begin to comprehend. She was younger than I am now when she embarked on a new life in a foreign country with her young family, already having experienced years of upheaval, violence, war, and loss. Hard to comprehend, really.
The funeral took place on Friday morning, followed immediately by the burial at the cemetery, where all these photos are taken and an afternoon lunch to commemorate her life. I don’t generally do well at funerals — seeing the sorrow of others, particularly those I care deeply about, drives me quickly to tears, and this was no exception. But at the same time, there’s something deeply comforting about funerals, at least when they are for people who lived full and long lives. In offering a formalized and public moment of grief, funerals are an important part of the grieving process and bring a little closure, even if the process will continue in the months and years that follow. A funeral also allows people to stop and reflect on lives well-lived, to cherish memories of a person who has contributed much to his or her own family and community. But most of all, funerals bring family and friends together and serve as a reminder of the powerful legacy that has been left behind. Her services were well attended — by family, by fellow parishioners, by neighbors, by friends — a reminder of all the lives that she touched.
And alas, life continues. Maki’s grandmother fortunately lived to see her first great-grandchild, the adorable Dennis, who was also briefly featured at Christmas. Daria, the aunt (Maki’s cousin) who holds him a few pictures above as he drops a flower on the casket, will be getting married this coming October. Sadly, baby Dennis won’t remember his great-grandmother, but he, and the others that will presumably follow, carries with him a powerful legacy of a woman who loved well and was well-loved. Eternal memory, vichnaia pam’iat.