Losing a loved one can be hard for anyone, but there are ways to turn that loss into a positive experience for everyone. Thankfully, my mother had the foresight to realize this before she passed, so we were able to bond as a family through a celebration of her life. Naturally, I want to share a bit about that experience.
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What Is a Celebration of Life?
There’s perhaps no clear definition of what a celebration of life is given that culturally, at least in America, they’re not all that common. That said, I would say that a celebration of life is an alternative (or potentially a supplement) to a traditional funeral. Rather than coming together for a somber ceremony, you put together a joy-filled event for friends and family.
Given that my wife and I had a tiny wedding and even merged our names after marriage, it’s perhaps no surprise that our family decided to go the nontraditional route by having a party celebrating the life of my mother. To be completely fair, the party itself was at the request of my mother before she passed. She absolutely wanted a send off that matched how she lived her life with a smile.
While my mom passed on March 27th, we didn’t have the party until this past weekend, June 25th. My mom specifically asked us to hold off on the party so folks would have time to grieve. It also takes quite a bit of time and energy to actually plan the party, so the extra time was helpful. In this article, I sort of just want to share that process, so other folks can see what it takes to throw a celebration of life.
What It Takes
Generally, events have two main problems you have to tackle: planning and day of. Leading up to the event, there’s a planning phase that involves making sure that everything that is needed for the event, such as tents, food, etc., is ordered. Then, when the day finally rolls around, there are responsibilities that need to be delegated out to ensure the event actually occurs as planned. To start, I’ll share some of the details of our planning.
To start, I knew my sister and I would be the ones doing the bulk of the planning. I partially knew that because my dad was going through it. I definitely didn’t want him to have to worry about planning in addition to grieving. I also knew that I didn’t really want to involve too many other folks, at least early on, so we wouldn’t have too many moving pieces.
At the very start, we didn’t really know where we wanted to host the party, but I was leaning heavily on my parent’s backyard. Part of the reason for that was that I had just been digitizing all of my family’s VHS tapes, and one of the tapes had a party in the yard from around the time my parents first moved in. Since then, I couldn’t recall having a party there, so I thought it would be cool to callback to about 25 years ago.
Despite interest in having the party in the backyard, I was getting some pressure to hold the event at an actual venue. Fortunately, the place we had in mind was already booked two months out. When the venue fell through, I turned around and booked a tent, tables, and chairs from a local company. I also booked a porta potty, so folks wouldn’t have to go in the house.
In addition to making sure you have everything you need for the backyard, you still have to do a bit of work yourself to make sure everything looks nice. Over the last couple years with all of the cancer treatments and missed work, my parents had a hard time taking care of their house. As a result, I spent the last few months trying to help them out, so at least my dad could relax. One of those big projects was the deck, which I think ended up looking really nice for the party.
While spending a few months on the deck, I found catering to be a bit harder to figure out. Unlike our wedding party, we decided not to host a potluck for my mom. However, figuring out catering is a bit of a nightmare, and it can also be pretty expensive. How do you decide what food to get and how much? Eventually, I ended up leaning on one of my friends who’s a chef to cater the event with barbecue. It’s not the kind of food I think my mom would have loved, but I knew it would blow the crowd away.
With the three major purchases out of the way, the event was “planned.” I then leaned on delegation a bit to take care the rest of the logistics. For instance, my mom wanted cookies at the event, so I had my mother-in-law take care of getting us cookies. Meanwhile, my grandma took care of sending out invites to folks and bought all the plates and utensils. From there, I had my wife put together a card box, which could be used for sympathy cards. Finally, my sister and her husband took care of everything else, which included decorations, party favors, snacks, drinks, and more.
As the event got closer, say about a week out, a lot of communication had to happen to make sure everything came together. For instance, I needed to let my dad know when the tent folks would be delivering the tent. Likewise, if we realized we were missing anything, that last week could be used to secure things last minute.
Ultimately, my dad, my wife, and I got up really early the day of the party and started laying out tables and chairs. When we ran out of space, we popped up a second small tent to house the sentimental items like photo albums and memory boards as well as the cookies. As items arrived, however, we realized we needed even more tables to hold food as well as coolers for drinks. Luckily, we were up nice and early to realized what we needed.
As with most parties, we had a nice purple and white theme. We selected purple because it was my mom’s favorite color. Meanwhile, we selected white because it’s the color of lung cancer awareness. To keep with the theme, my sister decorated the tables with purple table cloths. Later, my sister’s mother-in-law brought purple balloons to keep with the theme.
From there, my sister and her husband handled decorating the entire tent area with photos, confetti, and party favors. My sister also had this idea for a memory board with cards that folks could fill out with their favorite memory of my mom. As a result, every seat had a pen and a card, which folks could complete and hang on the board.
With about 15 minutes to spare, my friend showed up with all the food. Folks also started showing up very early. After that, the party officially kicked off.
In all, we had the party scheduled for about four hours, which could probably have been shortened about an hour. That said, I had a great time, and I think my mother would have loved it. Here’s a tweet sharing a few photos from it:
As you can probably imagine, life has been pretty challenging since March. I’ve obviously been overwhelmed with grad school and other adult responsibilities, but losing a parent really shakes up your life. For instance, I’ve been spending a lot of time with my dad to provide him some comfort, which involves a pretty regular 3.5 hour commute once a week. Meanwhile, other things have changed, like I’ve spent a lot more time talking to my sister as she navigates her life. Overall, even I think I’ve changed. I haven’t quite pinned down how yet, but I think I’m changing for the better.
With that said, I’m getting ready for a big move this weekend, so I’m going to cut this one short. As always, thanks for all the kind words and support over the last couple of years. I appreciate anyone who’s shown some kindness since then. I wish y’all the best.
Happy 30th to me! In honor of the big day, I figured I'd drop a list of some of my favorite video games of all time. As usual, don't expect any sort of objectivity. This is my list after all.
Looking back at some of my fondest memories of my mom.