Other People’s Grief

I’m always fine in the presence of other people’s grieving processes or struggles as they pertain to mortality, but I am always caught off guard when I experience those feelings for myself. And to be honest, it sometimes makes me feel like a fraud. The first example of this hit me after the Pulse tragedy and I had to drive by the memorials every day on the way to work. I tried taking different routes but it seemed like every time I tried another road there was another group of memorial signs on the corner, and I would sit at the stoplights purposely looking away from them in order to keep my emotions stable before work. But I was reminded again this week of how fragile I can be when dealing with my own feelings toward death. 

I’m in a transitional place right now and Shawn and I are not sure how much longer we’ll be in the Orlando area. I am also attempting to leave my job of 14 plus years for one that actually aligns with my values. So there’s a lot going on and I feel a need to tie up loose ends in my life in order to move forward with as little regret or fear as possible.  

I had a doctor’s appointment this week and arrived to that side of town early, because if you’re driving to Altamonte in the middle of the day you have to leave at least an hour early because of the obscene traffic on I-4. So when I arrived with time to spare I decided to go scout out a cemetery nearby, if there was one. 

4 miles away I found Highland Memory Gardens and realized that it was where my former father in law had been buried years ago, so long ago that it made me feel like another girl in another world when I thought of it. I had never gone back to see his grave site after the funeral, even though I lived 3 miles from it for 8 years. For the last 3 years I’d been driving over to Altamonte for appointments with my allergist and had still avoided going.  For some reason- maybe it was the gloom of the rain or the need for completion somewhere in my life, I decided to go visit him. Because 11 years is a long time to avoid something or someone. 

I didn’t like being a part of that family, which may have been the reason for the avoidance issues. I still wake up every day and am so incredibly grateful to have been set free from that marriage that I sometimes don’t know what to do with that overwhelming feeling. I still cry because I’m so happy and relieved. There were a lot of reasons for me not to visit and running into the rest of the family was a big one. Dealing with whatever I might feel if I went to visit was the other, stronger reason. 

I had liked my father in law a great deal despite how I felt about everyone else. Wendell was a good man and he was kind-hearted toward man and beast. He was tall and rangy, tanned from spending years of his life outdoors, and had silver hair. He loved his wife, his grandchild, gardening, and beer. I was never really sure about anything else, but on those points I was very clear. 

I went through the rain to the cemetery office without my umbrella and asked where I might find his grave. The family counselor was right there when I walked in, standing with a pleasant look on his face and his hands clasped before him. He was happy to help me and pulled out a complicated map of the cemetery, then drew on the map as he gave me even more complicated directions. He then notified me that the four plots behind Wendell were for sale, in case that was important to me. I said nothing, but took the map and thanked him before stepping back out into the gloom.

I parked in what I thought was the right area, got out of the Durango and started walking. I literally walked right to his grave. I stopped short when I saw his name and then I just stood there staring down at it. Thunder rumbled overhead in a melodious way, not threatening, and I looked around me before saying, “This is a beautiful place.” I said it out loud.

Then I said. “I was so angry at you for dying.”

Tears came.

I wiped them away with my fingertips and tried to act like it wasn’t happening but my nose started to run, and I sniffed as I told him in choppy sentences that everything fell apart when he died, and that at that point in time he was the one that held everyone together. And then I just stood there and felt tears run down my face and thought about a time when he had rescued a snake from our back porch, and how it had been injured. He placed it on the ground and then I saw him reach down and pet it gently.

And after that I remembered that he had always said that he did not want to be embalmed, and that he wanted a green burial- as green as we could get it, and instead he’d been embalmed and made up and stuffed into a suit and put into a bronze deluxe casket. Here. Under my feet. I still remembered looking into that casket for the last time. But I think his family had been through so much and they really didn’t know what else to do and I certainly can’t find fault with that.

I thought about Payne’s Prairie near Gainesville and how much he would have loved being buried in a place like that. People would hike past him and he would literally be at one with the environment. I felt like we had done him a disservice when he died and I regretted not speaking up.

But I had been different, and it was way before I started writing or caring so much about all of these things. I finally told him that I would have brought him flowers but he didn’t have a vase to put them in, and that I thought that really sucked. I thought it was pretty much the rule that you got a vase in Memory Garden type cemeteries.

A big hawk flew low across the graves and landed in the oak tree across the road from where I stood. I looked at it for a moment and felt better. Then I walked to my car, reached in for a box of tissues, and blew my nose. Loudly.

Osteen Cemetery in Osteen, Florida

Osteen is a small town in Volusia county near Enterprise. Well, it feels small, but apparently has undergone a lot of growth in the last 2 years. It has a small town feel to it though, like you’d expect Andy Griffith to walk out at any moment wearing his sheriff’s uniform and saying “Howdy!”. (I would love that. It’s still one of my goals to visit his grave and I was really sad when he died.)

Don’t judge me…much.

This cemetery is really private, which is a good thing because you can wander freely without cars passing by or people walking through with you. It’s a bad thing because in terms of Florida history, this place is a treasure trove and needs all the protection it can get. Speaking of protection, the sand parking area in front of the gate (a cattle gate, by the way) was littered with condom wrappers. I seem to see more and more of that lately and it always baffles me. I bet if your grandma was buried here you’d think twice about bringing a date here for ‘romance’.

This is considered an active cemetery and it appears to have a lot of space on the right, but I didn’t really notice and new burials the day we were there. The left side was drawing so much of my attention anyway with it’s beautiful old headstones. Lots of Sauls and Osteens here, and they had good taste in funerary art because some of the headstones are just beautiful. The Saul family built a home near here and raised their family with the Osteens. They started a whole community called Saulsville, but as these things always go in Florida, this happened and that happened, and people died, and the house burned to the ground. This is the part of history that I don’t like, hearing about all of the amazing places that have burned down, usually while they were stuffed full of old papers that some genealogist or writer needs in 2017.

I read that this cemetery is near an African American burial ground, but I wasn’t able to find it, or I wasn’t able to tell if it was actually incorporated into this cemetery. We walked the perimeter which is heavily wooded and in one corner I looked down and saw a number on a round piece of concrete. The numbers were in rows, and took up a considerable part of that corner of the cemetery. I saw nothing that would indicate who was buried here, but I always feel sad when I just see numbers instead of names. There are also a lot of children buried here, and their stones were, to me, the prettiest I’d seen. The lambs were beautifully carved on many of them and retained a lot of detail.

Toward the back of the cemetery on the left you’ll see a small section that is fenced off and has the weirdest headstones inside. They’re all damaged and aren’t readable in the slightest, and the stone has turned almost black with age and is pitted. I’ve never seen any like them. It looks almost like they’ve started to melt. This section is also home to a sizable gopher tortoise, which has built a mansion near one of these headstones.

The cemetery was established in 1884 and is certainly one that I will visit again. And since we were talking about illicit cemetery visits at the beginning of this post, in 2012 a mother of 2 stabbed a man with an ice pick, strangled him to death with a cord, and then mutilated his body… in self-defense, she said. Where did she do this? In the parking area of this cemetery.

You can view the news story here.

Page Jackson Cemetery Part 2

There will be many parts because I love this cemetery so much, but more than that… I love the story of this cemetery. And so I went back to take another look, and this time I saw different things that I had not noticed before.

When Heather and I pulled up to the dirt road that winds through the cemetery we saw an older man with a rake working away by himself in the central part of the cemetery. We both smiled and waved, but he just stared at us. We parked a little ways away to give him some privacy and started to wander. It was cloudy and grey, rain was threatening- and the night before we’d had a huge rainstorm that made the ground spongy. I’d worn my old horse boots just in case there was mud. There was also a lot of wind, which was awesome to hear in the trees. We’d walked down the road to Shiloh cemetery and then turned to come back when he decided to approach us. I walked up and introduced myself and found out that his name was Tom, and he’d been coming to work at this property since the mid 80’s. He was protective of the space and rightfully so, because somebody needs to stand up for this cemetery and it just so happens that recently, somebody did.

Part of the cemetery actually has an owner now, one that cares, according to what Tom told us. I’m thrilled about it and about witnessing the changes that will take place under new ownership. At least that’s my dream, that this place will start to look loved again instead of completely abandoned. There is a pile of clothes, an empty wine bottle, and an old bag of food on top of one of the graves. People are living in here. They’re having sex here. There are condoms at the back of the cemetery; they’re all over the place. Someone actually left her ID there, half buried in the mud next to the trash pile. If there was ever a cemetery that needed a locked gate, this is it. The three of us made a few jokes about what we would do if someone we dated suggested sex in a cemetery. We were cracking ourselves up coming up with pick-up lines. All of us said we’d never had anyone ever mention that to us and we couldn’t figure out why it was such a popular thing to do. I feel like if there were gates and people couldn’t drive into the back of the cemetery then a lot of this behavior would probably stop. It’s one thing to get frisky in your car, and another thing entirely to get naked on the cold ground which is potentially loaded with ticks, burrs, and thorny vines. And frankly, Shiloh and Page Jackson both look like something from Michael Jackson’s Thriller video. Whoever is going in there for that purpose is crazy.

We walked around for almost 2 hours, and my favorite thing that Tom showed us was the Hurston plot, supposedly belonging to the family of Zora Neale Hurston, the Florida writer that wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God. (Hurston is buried in Ft. Pierce.) Tom had to use his rake to pull back the vegetation to expose the graves, but there they were. I’ve been to this cemetery at least 3 times and never saw them. Who else might be there, waiting to be uncovered?

We marched back into the woods while Tom used his rake to bat vines and branches out of the way. We passed a broken crypt that looked like someone had taken a sledgehammer to it. We passed multiple gopher tortoise homes- they like to dig under the ledger stones and kick up huge piles of sand, potentially causing problems with the grave site. We walked past one ledger stone that had a giant pile of poop on top of it from some type of large animal, God knows what it was. The woods are filled with funeral home markers and in every section you can see graves from multiple decades. There’s no logical progression when it comes to dates. I asked Tom about it.

“This was the Wild West,” he said, telling us that William Page Jackson had allowed burials by anyone at any place in the cemetery. I haven’t been able to verify too many facts about this place and the records are scant, but it seems likely that something like that happened.

I’m planning to do some research on many of the graves I photographed that day- but here’s my question…where is William Page Jackson buried? Is he here too? I can’t find him. And I’d really like to have a word with him.

Before we left I asked Heather to pose by my favorite family plot, way, WAY back in the woods. It’s completely overgrown but in the spring it’s filled with blazing pink azaleas and it’s so beautiful.

“Look like you own the place,” I told her.

She did. I think anyone that loves this place owns it. We are planning our own little clean up group soon- if you’re interested in joining us please let me know by leaving a comment or emailing me at marnie.bench@gmail.com. The main goal is just to go pick up trash. That’s it. That’s a start.

Camp Captain Mooney Cemetery in Duval County

Sounds like something from a storybook, right? When I was a kid I loved a book called The Magical Drawings of Mooney B. Finch, and I read it until it fell apart. That was the first thing I thought of when my mom drove me up to the gates of this historic cemetery. She loves cemeteries too and will scout out new locations for me to see when I go visit her, and she almost always goes with me. One time last year I did sneak off to see one that she told me probably wasn’t safe to go to by myself, and I told her about it afterwards.

“Well, how was it? ” she asked.

“I think it was fine. I never saw anyone.”

She just smiled and said she wanted to go with me next time.

The Camp Captain Mooney Cemetery is a surprise. It’s set way back in what’s part neighborhood, part business/warehouse area- which is how Jacksonville is designed anyway. There’s wasn’t a lot of reason applied to the layout. This is a small cemetery and the only hazard I can think to warn you about ahead of time is that the ground can be quite spongy. My mom walks with a cane and was basically doing ground testing while she was walking around because her cane kept sinking.

The cemetery was established on March 1st, 1864 after a short battle (the Battle of Cedar Creek), and the creek is nearby and is actually quite sizeable. There is also a historical marker there and you can get out and take pictures because even though it’s on a busy road, there is a place to pull over and a sidewalk. The death toll for the day included 7 Confederates, 2 Union, with others wounded and some captured. Writing about battles is not my strong suit, so I’m including the Wikipedia article. The cemetery was started on the day of the battle; the dead were buried there, and it was used for some time though it is very small, with only about 114 interments. Captain Mooney is there also- and his veteran’s headstone doesn’t have a birth date or death date on it.

There are some wonderful headstones here and quite a few handmade ones. I’ve been to this cemetery twice, and the first time I noticed four graves, looked at the stones, and must have blanked out because I didn’t notice that all four graves had the same death date. Shawn and my mom called me over to look on this visit, and I took photos to do some research. Emma, Dora, and Mary Silcox all died on June 26, 1927, along with their friend Frances Norton. Mary was 15, Dora was 12, and Emma was 9 years old. Frances was a friend of the family and was only 19. They drowned during a boating accident at Clearwater Lake in Jacksonville, which is now a place to hike and fish. I can’t imagine what that family went through losing three of their children and a close friend in one day.

Private James S. Turknett is also buried here even though the  Turknett Cemetery is right down the road- it’s connected to the Smith Cemetery. The Turknett’s are buried in the back and the gate to that part of the cemetery has a bright blue sign that reads Turknett Cemetery, while on the other side it says Smith Cemetery on a very formal plaque. There is also a third set of gates that are probably for hearse access that are large, fancy wrought iron and do not have any name on them. These two cemeteries are in the back of a neighborhood and there was yet another sign posted on a light pole warning about fees associated with disturbing graves or remains, and that the fine is up to 5,000 dollars, 5 years in jail, or both. It’s a 3rd degree felony and I wish more people would think it through before they decide to do something that stupid.

If you do find yourself in Jacksonville and want to see something a little more unusual before you head off to the Victorian glory of Evergreen or the Old City Cemetery downtown (best to keep your wits about you down there, that one is a little weird), then these three cemeteries are worth a look.

Camp Captain Mooney is now owned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and it is always impeccable every time I go. Just be careful with your cane. Also, Shawn and I have a knack for finding bones in cemeteries (animals, thankfully) and this trip had a small surprise as well.

Grieving for Pets

Last week I lost my beautiful little Cricket, who I’ve shared my life with for 14 years. She made my house a home, and I am still getting used to life without her. For me, the hardest part besides watching her decline was coming home from work each day and not seeing her calico face in my bedroom window, waiting for me. She has always treated my bedroom as her personal apartment at every place I’ve lived and I always accommodated this since like me, she was shy and preferred to have her own space. I truly miss her presence in my room and the house feels emptier without her, even though we have two other cats.

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What I’ve struggled with besides just feeling the lack of her presence has been all of the empty space in my head that was previously filled with worrying about her. Did I give her her fluids Monday or Tuesday? Why isn’t she eating? Do I need to take her back to the vet again? Am I hurting her when I give her fluids? Who can I trust to watch her when we go out of town? (Thank you, Owen!) It was a lot of worry and anxiety over a period of one and a half years from when she was diagnosed with advanced kidney disease. I lost a lot of sleep and had mounting expenses for her health care, but it didn’t matter to me because I loved her.

So now I find all of this space, and I still find myself locked into routines that revolved around her care and making her happy. I open the blinds every morning, still expecting her to jump up on the couch to look out. I close them but leave space at the bottom at night, still thinking she’ll look out during the night. I leave my robe on my bed for her, still used to the fact that she LOVED sleeping on it. I still come home from work thinking it’s time to feed her.

After a week I started wondering if I should stop any of these behaviors, but my answer was no, that I shouldn’t, because for now it makes me feel better. I have sympathy cards in my room from friends and from our outstanding vet, who sat next to me in the room the day she died and put her arm around me, crying with me. I have flowers from a friend who lives in another state who went with me to learn how to give her fluids because I was terrified of fainting. I did clean my room and removed her food dishes, corralled all of her toys into a basket in the corner of the room for now, and tried to make everything look clean and peaceful. For a few days there was a lot of chaos as we took care of her and waited to see if she would take a turn for the better.

I grew a lot in the last year and a half and I realized that I’m a lot more capable than I ever thought I was. I’m pretty good with a needle now. I can manage multiple medications, and I can see warning signs that I couldn’t see before. I was financially capable too, more so than I thought I was.

I have a few suggestions for anyone who loses a pet, because whether it’s a horse or a hamster or anything in between, it’s still painful. But here is what I’ve learned that has helped me cope.

  1. Don’t give yourself a time limit for when you’re supposed to be done grieving, and ignore anyone who tells you to get over it. It takes as long as it takes, and some people have a harder time with grief than others. I remember when I lost my first cat, Sam, I was in a restaurant with my mom 3 months later and when she mentioned him I started crying. I’d had him for 16 years! If an animal spends a significant part of your life with you, you’ll probably spend a significant amount of time missing them. Be gentle with yourself and cry when you need to, you’ll feel so much better if you don’t hold it in.
  2. The flip side is also knowing when to get help. If you feel like you can’t function in your normal life, are losing sleep, or are feeling so sad that you don’t want to get up, please see a counselor. Also you might try supporting yourself with homeopathic remedies for grief or stress (these helped me, especially Rescue Remedy), using aromatherapy, and just generally taking really good care of yourself. If you’re not sleeping and having trouble eating you’re going to be more emotional, whether you realize it or not.
  3. Say thank you to the people that helped you with your pet, whether it was your vet, friends, or family members that were there for you. Writing thank you notes to those special people that made a difference for me in the last few days helped me to have closure.
  4. You can have your pet’s ashes returned to you, which is something I chose to do. No it’s not weird and no it’s not scary. She’s in a beautiful cedar box with her name on it, and it’s smaller than a box of Kleenex. I’m glad I did this, it made me feel better somehow. You can also purchase custom urns on Etsy and they also have memorial jewelry for your pet’s ashes or fur, and most are reasonably priced.
  5. You can also create a ritual for your pet or do something meaningful to create a sort of memorial. My mom had a friend that passed away and she decided to knit a scarf in her friend’s favorite colors to wear when she was missing her. I light a candle at home every night next to all of the cards that I got for Cricket, which makes me feel better. You can say a prayer for your pet or even talk to your pet, whatever helps you process. Frame your favorite picture of them, or if you feel like you need to, take their pictures down for awhile. It doesn’t have to be forever. Finally, if like me you’re still embedded in the daily rituals of having your pet, like opening blinds or leaving their favorite blanket out, keep doing it if it helps you cope. For the time being keeping those routines is helping me and I know that one day I won’t need them anymore.

 

Special thanks to the East Orlando Animal Hospital staff and Dr. Yaicha Peters, Shawn, Keila, Owen, Terri, and Robert, and Greenbrier Memory Gardens and Crematory, who specialize in afterlife care for animals.

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