THE BLOG
11/13/2014 03:00 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Tale of Two Daughters and One Cemetery

I am a professor of death. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I love a good cemetery.

I went to the Arneytown Cemetery because of a birthday. And a death day. Shena Richardson, a former student of mine, took my Death in Perspective class at Kean University as an act of courage when it became clear that her father was losing his battle with cancer. The Death Class has a three-year waiting list. To get into the class, she stalked me for days and finally thrust her father's grim medical reports into my hands. I overloaded her into the course.

Shena is fiercely independent, stubborn, funny, smart and compassionate. She is also tenacious and quite feisty. She doesn't tolerate nonsense. She inherited her father's eyes and contagious smile. One of the assignments in class is to write a goodbye letter to someone or something you have lost. Shena wrote the letter to her father and then read it out loud, her classmates around her and "Daddy" listening on speakerphone. She followed the reading with "I love you Daddy," while her dad and the rest of the class were in tears. I later learned by being with the two of them that most of Shena's sentences ended with "Oh Daddy!" in exasperation. It was their special inside joke. As the semester progressed and he got worse she told him that she needed him to make it long enough to see her graduate from college. He did.

Right before he could no longer do things without great difficulty, Shena took him on one last trip to see his family in North Carolina. After that he was admitted to an inpatient hospice. Shena asked her dad for one last gift. This time it was a birthday gift. She wanted him to stay alive for her birthday coming up in a week. James Richardson started actively dying and fell into a semi coma two days before her birthday. And because it didn't look like he would make it to the big day, students from her Death in Perspective class gathered at the hospice to sing happy birthday and cut some cake so that he could let go. Tenacity must run in the family. He did not die until the very morning of her birthday. He gave her the one last birthday gift she wanted.

Mr. Richardson was a Vietnam army veteran. He worked as a mechanic for the City of Newark. He raised an amazing daughter who is now serving in the United States Navy in San Diego. And because Shena is stationed on another coast, I found myself making the trip to Arneytown for the second year in a row to lay flowers at her father's grave and to tell him that she loved and missed him.

Arneytown is a sprawling cemetery located in South Jersey next to the town of New Egypt. It is a veterans cemetery and all of the grave plots are lined up like soldiers. There are no headstones, just in-ground plaques with the deceased name, dates of birth and death, division of the military and war served, if applicable. The entrance had been moved to the front from the side so when I drove in I was immediately a little lost. I finally figured out that Mr. Richardson's grave was on the other side to the left so I parked and got out of my car. I saw the older woman almost immediately because her red hair was in deep contrast to the gray sky. She was out there among the graves bent over with what looked to be like jugs. She saw me pull in and started walking towards me. The rest of the cemetery was pretty empty. I knew she wasn't a caretaker and my internal general alarm button wondered what was in the jugs.

"My name is Christine. Who are you here to see?" For a second I was a little confused. A cemetery welcome wagon? This was a new one. Christine gave me a hug. "I am visiting James Richardson, Army. He died in 2012." "Oh 2012. He will be right over here," she said. Wait a minute, did this woman know the exact location of every grave in this entire cemetery? She brought me directly over to Mr. Richardson's grave and practically stood at attention while I laid the flowers, white lilies, as per Shena's instructions, on his grave marker. Christine had a look of concern on her face and started looking among the graves for something. I tried to FaceTime Shena so that she could see the flowers and her dad on her birthday and his death day. It didn't work, so I turned and started back to the car before I saw Christine again, this time running to Mr. Richardson's grave. She took the beautifully wrapped flowers out of the paper and put some sort of styrofoam cone in the ground. "She has funeral supplies in her car?" I silently wondered. Christine bent over the flowers almost like she was praying. After she completely rearranged the flowers, watered them with one of the jugs and was satisfied I took a picture of her work with my cell phone. She vowed to take care of the arrangement every day.

"Christine, who are you out here to see?" Her eyes filled with tears, and she silently led me to a grave marker not far from Shena's father. The grave was covered in flowers and read, "Michaele. Born on December 14, 1965. Death date July 29, 2013." Christine's husband was in a nearby grave too. He had died after a bout of illness. He had been a pilot in the U.S. Air Force.

Christine told me that Michaele was her only child, a daughter born with spina bifida. "She was never supposed to live very long," she told me as she took piles of pictures of her daughter out of the trunk of her minivan. In the trunk were more jugs of water, "I took care of her every day of her life. We were always together. She got the best care." She went on to tell me that Michaele was having some intestinal issues in July, 2013. These kinds of problems are very common with folks who have spina bifida. She was admitted to a Princeton-area hospital and someone put a nasal gastric tube in the wrong way and perforated her esophagus. Then she developed an infection. And then the unthinkable happened. Her heart stopped beating. She was only 47 years old. "I can't leave the cemetery," Christine told me. "I am here when they open the gates and I am the last one to leave when the gates close. I can't leave my daughter here. We were together all the time. She was my best friend." Then she explained that she spends every day, all day, washing the grave markers with jugs of water that she brings from home. She also arranges and rearranges flowers, wipes away leaves and other debris and often talks to the deceased as she goes about her work. "Your sister was here to see you the other day." "Your wife misses you."

We walked among the graves for a while. The sun came out. It was then that I realized that I was crying too.

"My friends all think I am crazy. No one wants to talk to me. One person even said that I needed to check myself into a psychiatric hospital. A neighbor called me loony. No one understands why I am not over this." I quietly told her about my Death Class. I told her that I know a lot about grief. I told her that she would never "get over" the death of her daughter. She wouldn't "get over" the death of her husband either. I did tell her that as time marched on she would find a way to live with loss. And then I gently told her that the day might come when she might find herself at the cemetery at 11 a.m. instead of 9 a.m. and leave by 4 p.m. instead of 6. Her eyes widened.

Grief can be complicated, and there are several things we need to remember when we are going through it or helping someone in the throes of it.

1. No one grieves the same way. We like to put time frames on things. Most of us enjoy structure. We want to know that there is a process so we can plan. Grief is not like that.

2. There is no way to predict how we will grieve. Even with the best preparation grief can lay us flat.

3. Grief is unavoidable. If we are alive, we will grieve. Typically more than once.

4. Calling someone crazy is not helpful. If there was ever a time for compassion this would be it. If the person grieving develops intrusive thoughts, or is in denial of the death or develops strong suicidal urges then of course we should encourage seeking professional help immediately. Often though, the best we can do is to develop some understanding for this very difficult and complicated process.

5. Other people's grief makes us uncomfortable. Take some time to figure out why. And after you do, be there for the person grieving. Don't even feel that you have to talk about it. Just be there.

6. When enough time passes things shift. (Usually not before the first anniversary of a loved one's death, often longer.) Sometimes it is a slow, quiet process and the gentleness of it can take your breath away.

Christine started putting her pictures away. We stood at her daughter's grave for a little longer in silence with our arms around each other. I told her what an extraordinary mother she is and that I would never forget her. I told her that this "professor of death" had learned a lot out in the cemetery that day. I thought about the tale of two daughters. Shena and Michaele. "Michaele is such a beautiful name," I said, "for such a beautiful girl." We parted ways. From the car I could see Christine pouring water as she washed her daughter's grave. Water. Life-sustaining water. Falling over everything almost like tears.