Dealing with the Ashes

Yesterday I talked about the many tasks of grief, and mentioned that although I got rid of most of my life mate/soul mate’s “effects,” there are many things I cannot get rid of. It’s still unthinkable for me to throw away his wallet, eyeglasses, car keys. And I can’t bring myself to get rid of his baseball bat and glove or the games we used to play.

Most of all, I can’t get rid of him. Well, not him. His ashes. His “cremains” as the funeral industry so cutely calls them.

Although I was never sure what I’d do with his ashes, I’d never planned on keeping them until a minister friend suggested that I save some. He said that people who get rid of all of the ashes tend to regret it. Since I couldn’t bear to think of separating “him,” keeping some of his ashes and throwing the rest to the winds, I’ve kept them all.

I have an “urn,” which is not an urn but a square brass box with a permanent closure. I didn’t want to do anything “permanent,” so I kept his ashes in the temporary box, and since that plastic box seemed unfeeling and . . . well, dead . . . I wrapped the box in his robe when I brought the ashes home, and it’s still wrapped in his robe.

If I ever take a trip, I might leave a few bits of him wherever I stop. Or not. I’m not sure I can ever throw him away, and it wasn’t until this very moment that I understand why.

He was an historian, and he told me that the Inuit and other nomadic people would “throw themselves away” when they got too sick or too old and weak to continue traveling with the tribes. They would just stay behind when the tribe moved on.

When he got sick, he often told me that if he went into a coma or got too ill to take care of himself, I was to throw him away, forget about him, and get on with my life. “Throw him away,” was a euphemism for leaving him in some sort of nursing home.

And there did come such a time.

Five days before he died, the hospice nurse suggested that he go to the hospice care center for a few days to give me a chance to sleep. (His terminal restlessness kept us both up all night, and neither of us was getting any sleep. Although it was supposed to be a five-day respite, we knew he was never coming back.) He was sitting on the couch, so small, momentarily comfortable, momentarily alert. He gave me a pitiful smile and said, with a crack in his voice, “I don’t want to go. We have a good life here. We’re doing okay, aren’t we? I’m not ready for you to throw me away.” About broke my heart.

I didn’t want to throw him away, of course, but I couldn’t keep him at home. He hated the nasal cannula, and that last morning, I found him frantically rummaging in a kitchen drawer for a knife to cut it off. What if . . . ? No, I’m not even going to think about that.

And so his ashes are still with me, still wrapped in his robe because I simply cannot bear to throw him away again.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

9 Responses to “Dealing with the Ashes”

  1. Paula Kaye Says:

    With tears running down my face and swallowing continusouly so that I won’t cry out, I feel the pain of this post. I am living with and taking care of my dying husband right now. It is so hard. I contemplate the nursing home but he begs me and tells me he will ‘try harder’ It is so pitiful and makes my heart break into a million pieces. Thank you for writing about your pain!

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Now I am crying too. So much pain. It seems impossible that so many women have to deal with this terrible decisions. Our hearts break and continue to break even when we think there is nothing left but sharp shards of pain. I am so sorry for what you and your husband are going through. I am here if ever you need to talk.

    • CJ Says:

      So sorry that you must endure this painful time caring for your husband. You obviously love him so much.

  2. Juliet Waldron Says:

    Modern medicine provides us with some good things, but it’s a mixed bag. It also provides us with some incredible lengthy bouts of watching and/or enduring suffering, ours or that of a loved one.

    Perhaps you should leave, with ceremony, a bit of your lost Jeff in different mutually loved places, but keep a little with you forever. Perhaps these incremental “burials” would help you climb out of the well of pain, altho, I wouldn’t presume to be any kind of expert.

    My d-I-law and her sister and mother took “Daddy” to the Okeefenoke swamp, which was where he, a geologist, wanted to go when his suffering ended. They have a video of placing him in the dark, mysterious water.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      During his long illness, he often talked about what I was supposed to do at the end, but he never told me what he wanted me to do with his body besides burn it. (Well, cremate it. He used the word “burn.”) Someday I’ll figure it out.

  3. Carol Wuenschell Says:

    Oh, Pat. Is there no one else to contribute to the decision? To help decide? It’s a symbol, really. the ashes are not him, the person. It’s only a symbol, and I believe we have to make our own meaning for things. But what do you do when you can’t decide how to best make that meaning? Regardless, I feel some whisper of your pain and I hope you find your answer.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Carol, thank you. There’s no one, but it doesn’t matter. It’s not a decision to be made. I’ll just keep them (as a symbol) until I no longer need the symbol or just can see them for what they are — nothing of his anymore.

  4. CJ Says:

    Perhaps keeping the ashes, just as you have them, for now, or forever, even, will be your answer to the dilemma you feel about what to “do” with them. You will know, when, where, or how to handle them in time. Never feel under pressure that something must be “done” with them. That is your own personal decision, and no one else’s. As a former funeral service professional, there have been many people with this dilemma, that I had the privilege to serve, and listen to. Some have asked what can be done with the cremated remains they have in an urn at home. I was able to offer many possible ideas, but it always came down to this: I would tell them they would simply ‘know’ when the time was right. Give yourself some peace and patience. Eventually, you will know.
    Peace to you. Thank you for sharing such a personal experience here.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I appreciate your comment. I think you’re right. I will know what to do with them when I’m ready. For now, his final days are still so fresh in my mind even after three years, that it would feel as if I were throwing him away. One day, I will see that they are nothng of him, and then the decision will be easy.

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