21: A Compassionate Guide

21: A Compassionate Guide

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grieving and Recovery

A Compassionate Guide

A word spoken in due season, how good is it!

~Proverbs 15:23

I met Gene when our son was three; we’d always known he would die young due to his complex medical condition associated with Noonan syndrome. That day four years ago, as I watched Gene, a funeral director, shed tears in response to Evan’s story, I knew he would be a source of comfort—for Evan, predictably, had crept into his heart.

I met Gene again last week on the second floor of a beautiful painted brick building with bright wood trim. The carport at the entrance was grand, with ornate pillars holding up the roof. My wife Penni and I sat down with him around a mahogany conference table. We had set up a meeting to plan the homecoming for seven-year-old Evan.

Evan died on a Friday morning. Later that day, Gene’s crew came to our house and watched as 11-year-old Noah and I carried Evan to the funeral vehicle. “Hey Dad,” Noah whispered. “It doesn’t look safe.”

Paddy, a funeral director himself, looked in from the other side of the car and told Noah, “You can follow us if you like. You know... to make sure Evan arrives safely.” Paddy was just awesome as he scrunched his large linebacker frame into the back.

Talking through the details of your child’s funeral is a crushing experience. But as we talked with Gene, he lightened our burden a little. He shared his memories about the day he’d first met Evan. And Penni asked about his children, especially his daughter who has Down syndrome. I don’t know if what Gene did next was typical for his profession, but he showed us some pictures and short videos of his daughter. Penni just insisted, and Gene smiled with us as we saw his daughter in a cheerleading competition. In that moment, I knew that Gene smiled for Evan too.

Thursday, six days after Evan died, was the viewing for close friends and immediate family. Somehow, I survived the intense sense of loss. I occasionally saw Gene glance in the door. I started to walk over to him and before I could say anything, he said, “I got your back.” I went back to my friends.

Friday was a totally different event as hundreds of people showed up. I was exhausted after the first hour and a half and asked Gene if it would get busier. He looked at me and said, “Scott, it’s going to get very busy—especially between five and seven.” It was only half past three.

Saturday, the day of the funeral, we pulled up to the church. The Royal Oak firefighters were going to be pallbearers and the big red engine was already in place for the processional to the cemetery. One of Gene’s crew waved to us and gently held out his hand to indicate where the car should stop.

We made our way through the large church foyer and there was Evan in front of three large Christmas trees with towering windows behind him. The crisp December morning was bright, the sky was blue, and the sun shone brilliantly. There were picture boards of Evan’s life and flowers of all colors. White balloons floated high in the air and the strings gently moved as people passed by to see Evan.

“May I have your attention,” a strong voice commanded. I turned and saw Gene. He stood tall at that moment in his long black jacket. “It’s time to enter the auditorium and make your way to your seats.”

Gene then asked the family to come together around Evan and pay their last respects. The pastor asked us all to hold hands and we prayed. Gene gently asked everyone to leave except for Penni, Noah, sister Chelsea, and me. He then asked Penni and me to put our hands on the lid and close it. Man, that is a heavy thing to do. Gene locked the casket and we filed into the sanctuary. Gene led the way, followed by an immaculately dressed firefighter, and then us.

After a perfect celebration of Evan’s life, Gene asked us again to stand up and follow Evan out. The firefighters did a formal salute as they loaded the coffin, which was draped with a University of Michigan flag, a fitting tribute to the medical team that served Evan so well for seven years.

With lights flashing and the fire engine leading the way, we couldn’t help but notice all the cars that had pulled to the side of the road out of respect for our son. The hearse, just ahead of us, had a white balloon tied to the back door, signaling that a child had died.

Noah kept looking back and said, “Mom, look at all those people following us.”

As we entered the cemetery we could see a large green tent off in the distance. We knew it was for us. Winding through the maze of burial spots and evergreen floral arrangements, we finally saw Gene. He never wavered. He marked the exact spot for our car to stop with his large flat hand. I couldn’t believe the precision of it all.

He told us to stay in the car as his large crew waved in vehicle after vehicle, showing them where to park. When it was time, Gene opened Penni’s door and led her to a seat by Evan. We watched as the firefighters placed Evan above his final resting place and they stood directly across from us, behind Evan, as though they were going to protect him until the end.

Gene asked everyone to get as close as possible around us inside the tent. The last service was peaceful and at the end we all sang hymns, starting with “Amazing Grace.”

With the last note still in the air, Gene motioned us to the side and the grave attendants came in to lower the casket. I don’t know if you have ever seen that but it is a very powerful sight as those long straps eerily sway and unwind oh so slowly.

Penni said we should sing, so someone started singing “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” We all joined in, even Gene and his staff. Gene handed each of us—Penni, Noah, Chelsea, and myself—a white rose. We dropped them on top of the coffin.

It was now time to place the first bit of dirt on Evan. I grasped the wooden handle of the shovel and I plunged it into the large mountain of clay.

As I threw the first dirt on the casket engraved “Evan Harrison Newport,” words I had never planned broke from my lips: “This is for my son.”

Penni was next. Then Chelsea. Then Noah. Others followed. Gene was last.

Gene guided us again, asking us to look up into the fresh winter sky. He passed out the white balloons that had surrounded Evan over the last three days. He gave Noah the one that had been on the back of the hearse. “Noah,” he said, “this is a special one just for you.”

We let the balloons go.

As they floated off to a faraway place, family and friends started to interpret what they saw in the sky. Gene said, “It looks like a giant flashlight.” That was Evan’s favorite toy.

~Scott Newport

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