The pandemic stole many things from us, including the ability to gather to mourn the dead. I attended three Zoom memorial services in 2020 and 2021, helping to organize two of them. While I’m grateful for the technology that allowed far-flung people to visit virtually, I’m acutely aware of what we all missed: The hugs, the ritual, the side conversations, the food, the hugs. We missed the arm squeezes and pats, the ruffling of our hair, the footsteps and laughter of small children, the cries of babies and the rumbling of our elders. We missed being together in space and time with people who we normally would have seen with our loved one, and feeling their presence in the company of others who loved them.
My mother’s memorial service took place online, and it was beautiful. So many people attended from all over the country, and I’m grateful for all of the memories shared. We put together a slide show of her life, we had music that she loved playing in the background. One of her former colleagues from the University of Washington spoke, and my sister and I both spoke as well.
But when UC Davis Hospice invited me to an in-person Night of Remembrance for all of the people who died on their hospice service in the last year, I decided to attend.
This is out of character for me. Attend an event with a bunch of strangers I don’t know? Wow, no thank you. As an introvert, I’d rather just stay home and read a book. Yet I felt compelled by the idea of communal mourning, of the ritual of saying goodbye. I thought there might be people from the bereavement support group or from the hospice service there who I might know. So I went.
Upon arrival, I immediately wanted to run away. However, some nice young women greeted me, offering up a basket where I could choose a smooth stone labeled “Love” or “Hope” and a packet of seeds. They gave me a program. People slowly arrived, grabbing food arranged on a long table and talking quietly. I spotted the facilitator of my bereavement support group talking in a corner. We had only met on Zoom, and I was wearing a mask at the memorial service. When I said her name she looked puzzled, so I dropped my mask and framed my face with my hands and she said “Melissa!” and we both laughed. We talked for a few minutes. She squeezed my arm and we hugged before parting.
An usher told me that I would find the names of all of the people on a table at the front of the room, in order of the month of their death and in alphabetical order. She invited me to “light” a battery-operated votive candle in my loved one’s memory.
I made my way to the front of the room. The table had page after page of names, propped up in frames. Some pages had candles placed in front of them, and a few had photos of loved ones with family. A couple stood in front of one page. I moved carefully around them, looking for the month of May. I scrolled down past many names and found my mother’s name. My tears began to flow, and I lit her candle.
I started to look for a seat, and then I saw Sarah, who had been our hospice nurse for the six months leading up to my mom’s death. I wove my way over to her and we shared a huge hug. She talked about my mom, she asked after the rest of my family We laughed a little about how much everyone loves Shadow, my sweet dog. I thanked her again for all of her support. She gave my hand a squeeze.
The chaplain called us to our seats to begin the program. She read some comforting words, and an a cappella women’s choir sang beautiful melodies. Then the reading of the names began.
Three different people read the names. They read them slowly, carefully, solemnly, pausing in between each name. So many names of people who had died, just on this one hospice, just in this last year. The readers cited names of every ethnic background, every gender possibility. I held my breath at the enormous number of people who had died. I looked around the room. Everyone there had experienced the death of a loved one in the last year. Although most of us did not know one another, we had gathered to honor our dead. And while nothing can take away the sharp pain of loss when a loved one dies, being there in community helped me to feel less alone.