Here in Iceland, when someone dies, certain rituals take place [as I’ve explained before]. One of those is the open casket ceremony, usually held a couple of days before the funeral. This is a small and intimate event, reserved for the immediate family and close friends of the deceased. The mourners gather in a small chapel, the minister says a few words, then invites people to come up, one by one, to say goodbye.
I am very partial to the open casket ceremony. It can be very harsh to see your loved one lying there in the casket [they look so very different when only the shell is left], and yet it allows you to release the most intense grief in a setting that feels enclosed and safe. It takes the edge off. You are then able to take part in the larger funeral ceremony, which is open to anyone, with more composure.
Several years ago, my grandparents, who I was very close to as a child, died within five weeks of each other. My grandfather died first. At the time I was living abroad, a single mother with an 18-month old child, very little money, and no support system. For that reason, I decided not to travel to Iceland for the funeral. Five weeks later, however, when my grandmother died, I knew I had to go. Scraping together the few resources that I had, I made the journey. Hers was the first open casket ceremony I had been to.
Ever since then, whenever I dream about my grandparents [occasionally now, more frequently at first], my grandfather is always alive, while my grandmother is dead. She may be in the dream, but she is either very vague, or I know that she’s really dead. In my dreams I sometimes speak to my grandfather, but never to my grandmother, even though in reality, when they were alive, I was much closer to her. I know that this is because I was there for her open casket ceremony and funeral, and not his. Consequently my subconscious has fully grasped that she is gone, while it is still not sure about him.
Last night, I had a dream about my mother. I was at the house where my grandparents lived and I walked over to the next apartment. There was my mother, alive, more alive than I had seen her in years. She was wearing an apron and cooking, and she was happy. She welcomed me in and continued with her tasks, energetically, like I often remember her. I was confused. The dream was so real, so vibrant, that I really believed that she was still alive. Yet I knew she was dead. I went into the living room and found my aunt and my half-sister sitting on the sofa. Quietly, because I didn’t want my mother to hear, I asked them if she was still alive. But they shook their heads, said ‘No, she’s dead.’ Then my half-sister turned to my aunt and said, ‘She’s got a lot of grief still to go through,’ – meaning me, speaking as though I were not present in the room.
I left, and went back into my grandparents’ flat. There, sitting at a table in the living room, were my grandfather and a woman – he was vibrantly alive, she was vague, like a ghost. I sat down at the table and wept. My grandfather was initially surprised – but then he understood.
When my mother died, her remains were cremated two days after her death. Three days after that, a memorial took place. Nobody thought to contact me to see if I wanted to attend, or to ask if they should hold off for a couple of days so I could get there. As though I wasn’t my mother’s daughter. As though I wasn’t present in the room.
I would have liked to have said goodbye, would have liked to have seen her one last time. It would have made it easier. I would have liked it had my half-sister called me to tell me that our mother had been taken ill. Had she called me from the hospital that last afternoon, I might have been able to say goodbye, even by phone. But she didn’t.
Today, all things considered, I’m relieved I didn’t travel to Canada for the memorial. Had I done so, I would have learned of my dismissal surrounded by people who were steeped in dysfunction. Whereas this way, I was surrounded by people who loved me. And that’s a million times better.
Very miserable today. Extremely windy – cold at first, then turning to sleet and rain, with severe gusts. Roads out in the country were closed off, rescue squads had their work cut out for them. No serious accidents, though, thankfully. By dinnertime it had all blown over and right now it’s calm and 3°C. Sunrise was at 7.30 and sunset at 19.42.