Facilitating Farewell with Rites of Remembrance for a Home by Rev. Michael Bell
Mary had arrived in our community in grief from the recent losses of both her husband and an adult child. What I didn’t know is how deeply she was also grieving separation from her home of many years, a hasty separation that hadn’t allowed her opportunity to intentionally honor the meaning and memories there…to say ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye’ in her own way. Noticing that Mary appeared particularly sad one morning, I asked, “How’s it going?”
Not surprisingly, she responded, “Not so well. I’m really feeling it today.”
Assuming I knew what she was referring to, I continued, “You’re really feeling the grief today?”
“Yes” she answered. But, as she continued to talk, I soon learned that what was most upsetting her right now was not the grief following the recent deaths of her husband and adult child, but the way she had been moved from her homestead.
“I went with my kids to a movie one afternoon and instead of them taking me home afterwards, they brought me here. I know they meant well and thought that way would be easier. And, I guess I played along with it for a while also, pretending it was for the best…but now I can’t stop thinking that was a mistake.”*
As we continued to explore her feelings, it became clear that she didn’t so much believe she needed to be back in her house, but that she was haunted by having been ‘taken’ from it without a chance to say goodbye to all that it had meant and represented.
“What if we could go back to your house together to say goodbye on your own terms, honoring all the memories there, giving thanks for what it provided, and blessing it for the next family?”
Mary’s eyes brightened and after a pause she smiled and said simply, but with clear conviction, “I’d like that.”
With Mary’s permission, I contacted her family to make the arrangements. They were concerned that she might be shocked upon seeing its current condition – empty. After relocating Mary, they had quickly cleared out the house and staged it for sale (in fact, we also needed to coordinate our visit with the realtor so that there wouldn’t be a showing while we were there).
I assured them that I would prepare her for seeing things physically rearranged and the house mostly empty, while also suggesting to them that Mary would likely see past all that and be more attentive to what wasn’t as visible to the rest of us as we walked from room to room remembering stories, offering thanks, and bidding the spaces farewell with her blessings. For safety, a colleague from our resident care team would accompany Mary and me the afternoon of our trip. I prepped my colleague by reminding her about the intention of this ritual and reinforcing our aim of facilitating Mary’s memories and actions of farewell – listening with compassion while non-anxiously accompanying her from room to room without rushing to reassure her or diffuse the power of her feelings in this process. We would walk with her on this emotional journey, providing companionship as she asserted control to say goodbye in her own way.
On our drive to Mary’s house, I began the journey by asking her to tell us the story of how she and her husband had decided on this particular house in this location. As we pulled into her drive, I reaffirmed the purpose of trip and asked Mary how she hoped to feel after this farewell visit.
“I don’t know. But, I know this is important” she answered. As we entered her home, I reminded Mary that we were there for support, would walk with her as she went through the house at her own pace, and that we’d join her in giving thanks and offering blessings to each room and space that she wanted to visit. Mary led us first to the master bedroom, where she initially noted how much of her stuff was missing and even how the bed linens weren’t hers. Within seconds, however, she was sitting on that bed, looking fondly out through a sliding glass door into a garden patio and telling us stories about her husband as she let tears flow freely. Within each room, once she seemed to have concluded her stream of memories, I would ask if there was anything else she wanted us to know before we offered thanks and blessed the room. When the stories in each room were done, I invited her to say out loud what she was most thankful for from those memories. My colleague and I would affirm her thanksgivings in a brief prayer form.
To close our time in each room, I invited Mary to offer an affirming word of blessing for the next family to live there while she or I symbolically sprinkled holy water from a small aspergillum. Our journey concluded in her garden, where we collected some fruit and even a trimming from one of her favorite plants to take back to our community for symbolic continuity. Before getting back into the car, we all took one last look at the property from the curb and restated some of the thanksgivings and blessings that had been offered. I asked Mary, “Though we’ll never want to forget all that this home has been for you, are we now ready to say farewell to the structure and offer it in love to the next family who will build their own memories here?”
Mary smiled and softly said, “I believe so… yes.”
*NOTE: Some believe that this process of relocating someone with use of a seemingly pleasant distraction might work well for someone with advanced dementia. Mary, however, did not have dementia at the time.
The Rev. Michael S. Bell is Chaplain for Episcopal Communities & Services.