As you may or may not know, this blog, Psychopomp Kaleidoscope, is dedicated to the memory of my cousin Tish, who died in a car accident 10 years ago last June. Her father, my uncle, Norm, was and is the pastor for our family church. When she died, he did the memorial service. He led the funeral for his own daughter. It was utterly devastating and astonishing to see. You can read about my perspective on those events in a previous post here and you can also read an Oregonian article that my uncle wrote about it a few weeks after her death.
Ten years later, that experience still haunted me, still clung to my ribs. So I wrote up uncle Norm and asked him a million questions. Here’s what he wrote back.
- Although I was concerned about whether I could maintain my composure, Susie, Paul [Tish’s mother and her brother] and I agreed that I would speak because we knew a huge number of Tish’s peers would come to the service, and we felt they would listen to her “dad” in a more profound way than to another minister who didn’t have the personal connection. I also was concerned about having Laura Carlson sing in public for the first time at the service, but I went along with Susie and Paul on that and Laura did great!
- In some ways, speaking on other difficult occasions prepared me for speaking at Tish’s service. I spoke at my dad’s service in 1987. You probably don’t know that Susie’s only sibling, Rod, died suddenly at the age of 45 of a pulmonary embolism. I spoke at his service on Jan. 11, 1991. On Nov. 25, 1992, Rod’s only child, Heather, and her boyfriend were killed in a head-on collision on their way home from college for Thanksgiving break. She was the flower girl at our wedding, and I spoke at her funeral. And I spoke at Voni Martin Smith’s service after she was killed in an accident on her way home from the Peach Bowl. Nothing can prepare a parent for the death of a child, but speaking at these other services undoubtedly impacted my ability to speak at Tish’s service.
- The first time Susie and I went to the funeral home to view Tish’s body (a couple of days before the service) I was completely overwhelmed with emotion. Her corpse didn’t look like her at all–they had swept her hair down over her forehead in an unnatural way to cover up a gash–and I was upset and offended. I expected Susie to be upset, but she took one look and said, “That’s not my daughter!” Then she went with the funeral director while I lingered. When I went back to complain that they needed to do something to make Tish look more like herself–you know, change her makeup or something–Susie began laughing at me. She chided: “Norm, she doesn’t look like herself because that’s not Tish; she’s not there any more.” Susie’s laughter and words in that moment were a great gift.
- I was a complete mess about an hour before the service. I came over to the worship center to practice the “Questions from Tish” power point, but I kept making mistakes because I was so emotional and distracted. I finally decided to go home and work some more on my message, but, when I got there, the house was full of people–well-wishers and all the pallbearers, etc. Susie saw that I wasn’t doing well and asked if I would like to have everyone leave and go on to the church building. I said “yes” and went into work on the computer in the den. Tish’s boyfriend, Clay, and his mom came in behind me and asked if it would be okay to lay hands on me and to pray for me. Again, I simply said “yes.” They did, and, as they departed, a deep sense of peace flowed over me. Up until that time, I was skeptical that I could get through the service successfully, but from then on I wasn’t even nervous. I have never felt closer to God than during that service, and many people who attended reported that God’s presence was almost palpable to them during that time.