By Margaret Treadwell

Departures takes on the tricky subject of death and won the 2009 Academy Award for best foreign film. Masahiro Motoki plays the protagonist who suffers a startling job loss after which he decides to learn the Japanese trade of being an encoffineer – one who prepares bodies for burial. The various families who gather to watch the beautiful ritual he creates for their departed loved ones are in various stages of acceptance, denial, anger or sadness, reminding viewers that when a person has unfinished business with the deceased he or she will struggle longer and more intensely with grief.

We often think of only one response at the time of death – grief, but it’s much more complicated than that. While director Yojito Takita focuses the eye of the camera on death, Departures paradoxically becomes a movie about the value of life and how we confront our own lives. It made me ask, “How can human beings prepare for the death of a parent, husband, wife, child or beloved friend in ways that add value to our lives as well as to the lives of our family members?” I think the film’s response is:

• Honor your own life and develop your passions

• Create the best possible relationships, especially in your family

• Believe in a Power greater than self

• Seek satisfying work that contributes to the well being of others, and learn to do it well

• Understand that all of the above actions will benefit future generations beyond your own

Four months after my mother’s death at age 99, I know that my years spent developing relationships with extended family have been an invaluable preparation for the loss of both my parents. In 1996, the year my father died, 18 of my first cousins from his family had never met or had only passing acquaintance with each other. Our fathers, seven brothers who lost both their parents way too young, married strong women who preferred their own family of origin. As my mother explained it, “I just liked my family and your father was contented with them too.” Drifting apart is the way many families solve the unresolved emotional attachment to their parents, siblings and larger family.

In our generation, we cousins of cut-off parents were repeating this pattern, joining our spouse’s family like an “appendage.” But now our fathers were dying and when a childless uncle’s bequests made it necessary to locate all of us, we began to bridge those distances out of legal requirement. My cousin Betty and I decided the fun way to fulfill this duty was to create the first McDonnell Family Reunion, a biennial event now since 1996.

For 14 years we have developed our friendships through sharing play, secrets, laughter, and celebration of joyous life events – new marriages, babies, personal successes and yes, death. I believe the lighthearted pleasure we share is what keeps us returning to reunions and staying in touch throughout the year. We’ve mourned the loss of our cousin Barbara through a tragic death and now my extended family has sustained my nuclear family during this tender time of my mother’s death. During these last fragile years, three beloved cousins from her side were consistent companions by telephone, and as my cousins from Dad’s family grew to know and admire “Aunt Flo,” she also developed an interest in them. They reciprocated with calls, notes and visits. Expanding the circle was life giving for both Mother and me.

Only children are especially susceptible to feeling like orphans when both parents have died, but on Mom’s Nov. 14 funeral day, cousins surprised me by coming from Colorado, Georgia, Tennessee and south Alabama and sending notes from Guatemala, Vermont, Illinois, Texas, Kansas and Florida. Their presence meant the world, and their continued involvement has prevented the orphan perception from taking hold.

As intimated in Departures, we can never really prepare for death, but we can prepare our lives to accept death as a further step in making important connections. When the going gets tough, one conversation with an extended family member can work wonders to give perspective, a smile and a sense of calm. How fortunate that this is the year for Reunion 2010 on Mobile Bay.

Margaret M “Peggy” Treadwell, LICSW, is a family, individual and couples therapist and teacher in private practice.

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