Dear Miriam

My only sister is not well. We recently received bad news that she does not have long left. She has no family of her own, so I am her next of kin. I am heartbroken, but I am trying to remain strong for her.

Last week, she confided in me that she wants to be cremated after she passes and told me where she wants her ashes to be scattered. It’s not the type of conversation that anybody ever wants to have with someone that they love. But I was and still am quite taken aback by her wish to be cremated.

I imagined that she would like to be buried with Mammy and Daddy in the family plot. I visit there every week and get great solace from it. I would like to have somewhere to go physically after my sister passes away. I think it would be so much nicer for her to be laid to rest with Mammy and Daddy. Scattering her ashes… to me, it feels like throwing her away. I find this wish very hard to accept.

Mary, Munster

Dear Mary

First of all, I would like to say that I am so sorry that your sister has received such bad news. As her next of kin, this is very hard on you too. In these situations, where facing an impending loss due to a terminal diagnosis or chronic condition, you may experience what is called “anticipatory grief”. Just like the grief that follows after the loss of a loved one, this too can take a great toll.

So my first piece of advice is to be gentle with yourself as you walk this road with your sister and don’t be afraid to reach out for support for yourself either.

I can understand in the face of such grief why you might find the idea of cremation - or more so, the scattering of ashes - so challenging at the moment. I suppose it feels like another level of loss, in a sense. The idea of having a burial plot feels more physical for you, more tangible. You obviously derive comfort and connection from having somewhere to visit your parents and it feels to you like your sister belongs with them. These feelings are understandable and it’s a good thing to recognise and name them for yourself.

However, what we need to consider ultimately are your sister’s wishes. I don’t think that anybody comes to the decision about their resting place lightly; especially when they have been given a terminal diagnosis. When so much is out of her control at the moment, this is most likely one of the few things that she has been able to really consider and decide what feels right for herself. I imagine that the place she has picked to scatter her ashes has a special significance for her. This will hopefully bring her a bit of comfort in the days ahead. I do think that it is important to accept and to honour your sister’s wishes in this regard.

When the time comes, if you do feel like you need something more tangible, you could perhaps do something like plant a special tree or shrub in her honour or place a bench in a place that feels special to you both. You could also perhaps place a small memorial stone or planter at your parents’ grave so that you have a physical remembrance of her there also.

I know that probably sounds like cold comfort right now. And that’s understandable. But I feel that ultimately, we find connection with our loved ones after they have gone through our cherished memories and in honouring their lives; and their wishes. It might be helpful, though, to talk with a bereavement professional about what you are going through right now. If your sister is in palliative care, there might be a bereavement support worker or a chaplain who you might like to speak to in confidence or alternatively, you could contact a group like the Irish Hospice Foundation, which runs a bereavement support helpline from 10am to 1pm, Monday to Friday, on Freephone 1800 80 70 77. Everything you are feeling is natural and there are people who can support you through it.

Wishing you strength and love on the journey ahead.

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