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What is a living wake?

Or even a “pre-wake wake” as I’ve heard such a celebration called lately. This recent front page article in the Arizona Daily Star defines a living wake simply as:

“A party. A big, giant, messy affair where laughter filled in for tears and deep long hugs replaced casual hellos.”

Yes, this begins to describe it. The community minded gentleman highlighted in the article, Pat Connors who owned Pastiche, chose to hold his “pre-wake wake” in his restaurant. It was billed the “Wake me up; A Party for Pat.” And wake folks up, I am certain it did. Friends stood in line for hours to offer Pat their heartfelt goodbyes. What a beautiful, albeit heart wrenching story. One that affirms life midstream hearing the words, “Thank you. I love you. Goodbye.”

After sitting with this story the past week, and ironically eating at Pastiche the night after this wake, posting ideas for anybody considering this kind of celebration felt like a worthy action to take in response. I have experienced the indescribable joy and healing sorrow of helping a few families lead living wakes in Tucson. It is an event that takes a heap of work and can be life changing. In a word, I would call it courageous. It takes courage in our culture to face dying and death squarely. It takes drawing from a deep well of community support to hold a living wake from a place of love, rather than fear. Here are some questions worth looking at if the idea of a living wake resonates with you, either for yourself or somebody you love:

  • What kind of timing makes sense? Living wakes are celebrations of life held while a person with a terminal illness is still alive, alert and oriented to the world. Ideally, the honoree will still be able to hold conversations, albeit brief, and may be able to sit up or ambulate on occasion. It is important to consider whether or not the honoree can withstand the wide range of emotions that present themselves in this kind of gathering, too.
  • Where will we hold the celebration? A place that is familiar and holds meaning may make the most sense, where it won’t be too crowded; and a large comfortable chair can be placed for the honoree to be safe, at ease, to enjoy the guests’ company. One living wake I assisted with involved the honoree’s sons transporting his heavy wood recliner to the venue and placing it in the center of the space.
  • Who is invited? Whoever the honoree feels close to and wants to see before passing onto whatever he or she feels comes next. Being in person to say good bye can be a peaceful and reciprocally healing experience. I’ve witnessed this being a long list of email addresses upwards of a couple to a few hundred people and sometimes it involves a more intimate invitation list with 40-60 folks. This article from the Huffington Post gives another example of a living wake where the honoree said:

“At the party, we all just had this incredible feeling of, ‘we’re all in this together.’ I wanted them to know what a privilege it was to know them and how much they meant to me. The celebration brought me peace.’’

  • How long should a living wake last? This consideration relates directly to the condition of the honoree and how she or he is feeling physically, mentally and emotionally. (The longer the better is not true here!) And yet a range of one hour to three hours maximum, with a planned or scripted ceremony portion being a piece of the longer version as a possibility. Reflect on the time of the day where the person being celebrated has the most energy and work from there with planning.

This kind of celebration is not for everybody, it is true. But for those to whom it appeals, a living wake can truly be a magically uplifting and life-affirming way to look dying and death squarely in the eye and let it bring you to a new appreciation for living.

new moon yuccas

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