Celebrating a Life, No Matter What

My wife and I drove to Charlottesville, VA last Saturday to attend a memorial service for the 37-year-old son of two old friends.  I wasn’t looking forward to the 3-hour drive there, and then back home to Maryland.  But my deeper resistance had to do with knowing that Gabe had taken his own life.

I felt terrible for his grieving family and friends.  We had experienced the suicide of another 37-year-old man six years ago and remembered all too well the emotional devastation that his parents suffered.  In addition, I felt my own sadness and discouragement at the thought of someone that age so hopeless about life that he would commit suicide.

Saturday turned out to be a spectacular spring day, clear and cool, with the Virginia countryside blooming at every turn.  We enjoyed the drive down, arriving early enough to walk through the splendid pedestrian mall area in downtown Charlottesville, close to the The Haven – the nondenominational church where the service was held.

As we entered the church we greeted Gabe’s father, expressing our condolences to him with heartfelt hugs.  The church pews soon filled with upwards of 200 people, most of them around Gabe’s age, including many couples with children.  The printed program featured a big smiling photo of Gabe with flowers in hand and a goofy handmade rooster on his shoulder.  It included an outline for a “Celebration of Life” inside the church, a “Second Line” New Orleans style funeral march to the nearby IX Art Park, and an outdoor “Wake” of live music, food and drink.

The memorial was almost two hours long and included very moving “Remembrances” of Gabe by his father, his brother, and half a dozen close friends.  A middle-aged woman minister served as a kind of MC, beautifully holding an atmosphere that was deeply spiritual without being overly solemn.  Gabe’s father spoke first, holding back tears to read a moving tribute that he had composed and sent out a few days after the death.  My wife and I didn’t know Gabe himself well, but we had spent a lot of time sharing with his parents some of our mutual parenting challenges.  Gabe’s father described the many talents and accomplishments of his son, including his world travels and knowledge of languages, his deep Buddhist spirituality, his creativity as a sculptor and musician, and his love of being a big-hearted prankster.  But he also described Gabe’s lifelong struggles with his bipolar disorder, including a number of hospitalizations and periods of deep depression, the last of which led to his decision to take his own life.  I admired my friend’s ability to speak so deeply and honestly about both the light and dark sides of his son’s life, affirming his love throughout.

There were a number of musical interludes between the ensuing remembrances.  These were songs performed by Gabe’s musician friends and including touching renditions of Gabe’s favorite tunes.  The spoken remembrances by his closest friends, young men and women who knew Gabe in many different contexts, were all deeply moving.  We learned a lot about Gabe’s larger-than-life personality, which often disguised his darker, more brooding side.

At the end of the church service, the minister invited us congregants to speak out one word that described our feeling in that moment.  The word “gratitude” arose immediately in me – gratitude for Gabe’s life, for all the people he had touched with his creativity and love, but mostly for the opportunity to share in this remarkable remembrance with his family and friends.  All my earlier resistance had dissipated.  As we marched out together into the gorgeous spring afternoon singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, I felt deeply gratified that we had come.

As our “Second Line” pedestrian funeral march continued for 4-5 blocks to the Art Park, people were talking and sharing about what we had just witnessed.  As we arrived, we were invited to gather around a large bronze sculpture that Gabe had created.  It’s called “The Messenger” and its photo had appeared on the cover of his father’s published memoir.  It’s a magnificent creation of an angelic form and it was enclosed within a four-pillared wooden structure.  We were all invited to visit this site during the wake, where we could write out our deepest heart’s desire and then offer it to the spirit of the Messenger.

The ensuing outdoor buffet supper had the feeling of a wedding reception rather than a funeral.  Everyone seemed to be in a highly sociable mood.  We met a Charlottesville couple at our table with whom we shared mutual friends and interests and happily exchanged our contact information.

As we drove home that evening, the feeling of gratitude continued to grow in me.  Celebrating a life in all its manifestations of joy and grief was indeed possible!

[Below is the front cover of my friend’s memoir, Sacred Source, with a photo of his deceased son’s magnificent scultpure, “The Messenger”]


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