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Twenty-One Doves

Twenty-One Doves

Editor’s note: Friends, I cracked open If I Don’t Laugh, I’ll Cry and did not quit until the last line. It’s Molly Stillman’s story (and it’s a great one) because she’s been through so much and found Jesus at just the right time. I pray you’re encouraged and strengthened by her humor and her zeal for Jesus through this book. Pick up your copy today! In this excerpt, Molly shares about the upending week of her mother’s death, something we likely all can empathize with because we’ve experienced the loss of a dearly loved one.


NOVEMBER 20, 2002

[Funerals.] Amazing tradition. They throw a great party for you on the one day they know you can’t come. ~ Jeff Goldblum in The Big Chill

Death is the most unavoidable part of life. You’re born. You live. You die. Guaranteed. And yet it’s a part of life that so many of us do nothing but fear. For years I heard that public speaking is the only thing people fear more than death, but I was curious about the current statistics. Then I discovered a 2021 survey done by Chapman University on the top ten self-reported fears for Americans. To my surprise, public speaking was not even on the list. What was in the top ten?

10) 49.3 percent of respondents feared biological warfare. This is reasonable, as it would more than likely kill you or someone you love.

9) 50.8 percent feared the pollution of oceans, rivers, and lakes. Pollution kills animals and stuff, and I guess it can kill us too. It should be noted that this fear ranked #2 in 2019.

8) 51 percent feared cyber-terrorism. I think, somehow, this could kill us?

7) 54.8 percent feared economic collapse. Not directly related to death, but . . .

6) 55.8 percent feared a pandemic or major epidemic. Yet another thing that would likely kill us or the people we love. Gee, I wonder where this fear came from?

5) 56.5 percent feared widespread civil unrest. This list gets better and better.

4) 57.3 percent feared the people they loved would become seriously ill. From a pandemic? Or water pollution? Or biological warfare? Or just in general? Or civil unrest?

3) 58 percent feared a loved one would contract the coronavirus (COVID-19). Well, we didn’t have coronavirus on our 2019 bingo card when this survey was previously done, did we?

2) 58.5 percent feared the death of loved ones. Wait, didn’t we just admit to this in at least six of the previous fears?

And the number one fear that Americans had in 2021?

1) 79.6 percent feared corrupt government officials.1

It could be easily argued that eight out of the top ten fears Americans have are related to death and dying — especially concerning our loved ones. I cannot get over the fact that the only thing we fear more than that is the corruption of our government officials. We are unwell. Jesus, come get us.

So now that we’ve cleared all that up... why do we fear death so much? Haven’t we, since birth, been surrounded by people we knew would die? And why do we tend to handle death and grief so poorly in our culture? I don’t have the stats, theories, or hypotheses to back any of these thoughts up, as I am not a psychologist, and this isn’t a book about the fear of death. I ask these rhetorical questions because even after all of the death I’ve experienced in my life, I don’t really have a great answer.

My parents had been mentally, emotionally, and spiritually preparing for my mother’s death for eight years. Her original prognosis had been “two years, at best.” She got eight. In many ways, my dad had slowly grieved the death of his beloved over the course of time. However, while I’d known she was sick and that the disease would “take her eventually,” I was completely unaware that her death was imminent and each day she woke up with breath in her lungs was a gift. So while Dad was prepared, I was not. For me, Mom’s death was sudden and unexpected, and at the age of seventeen, I was in no way equipped with any sort of emotional or spiritual tools to cope with it.

Everything between the night Mom died and the day of her funeral was a blur. The days all blended together. I slept erratically; I ate sparingly. I didn’t cry. I was numb. Our house had historically been full of people, and this moment was certainly no exception. Our home was a revolving door of my friends, kids from school, teachers, my parents’ friends, AA people, town council members, veterans, and neighbors. Everyone brought a country ham (so many country hams). Casseroles and lasagnas. Flower arrangements and plants. We sifted through thousands of emails and letters of condolence. Hundreds of care packages were sent to the house. Random women would walk in and start vacuuming. Somehow my laundry was done and folded and placed on my dresser. My sheets were changed, and my bed was made. I remember going into the bathroom one day, and someone had taken the time to fold the top layer of toilet paper into a little triangle... you know, like they do in hotel rooms. I remember thinking, How on earth is a folded piece of toilet paper that I’m going to wipe my butt with supposed to make me feel better about my mother’s death?

While Dad had made every attempt to get in touch with Bridgid, he was finally able to reach her friend Jen who was going to pick Bridgid up at the airport. When Jen picked her up, she told Bridgid the horrible news, took her home to unpack and repack her suitcase, and got her on the road to Herndon. When she got to our house, my friend Becca was in my room with me, and Bridgid said nothing but just crawled into bed with me and we cried.

My brand-spankin’-new boyfriend James brought me flowers or a Wendy’s Frosty nearly every day. He’d sit with me and try to make me laugh while we channel surfed or listened to music. There was a flurry of activity around me, but all I could do was sit and watch it go by.

My mom’s friend Jennie, who happened to be her ex-husband Bill’s sister (I know — odd, right?), came to town to help us with the funeral logistics. There was so much to think about:

The date of the service
The location of the service
The time of the service
The order of the service
Would there be a viewing or not?
Would we have multiple viewings?
What songs would be sung?
Who would speak?
Where would she be buried?
We need to write an obituary...
Oh, we need to get a casket too...
Someone needs to contact the VA so we can get her full military honors...
How on earth are we going to pull off releasing twenty-one doves?
Can we eat all the country hams at the reception after the service?
How can we politely tell people to stop bringing country hams?

The list went on.

Mom was not one for fanfare or notoriety, and she likely would have cringed at the notion of her obit being published in a major newspaper. But Jennie wasn’t having it. “Lynda impacted people,” she said, “and people need to know she’s passed.” Jennie was able to get the obituary written and featured in the New York Times, Time, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and of course, the Herndon Observer.

My dad, Bridgid, and I went down to Adams-Green, the tiny funeral home in downtown Herndon, to meet with the funeral director. We sat there, none of us crying... we were all going through the motions in a clinical way. Step by step. One thing at a time.

Something we determined early on was that the funeral home was not nearly large enough for the service, so we opted for two visitation time slots at Adams-Green, a funeral the next day at Saint Timothy’s Episcopal Church down the road, and another graveside service to follow.

After we made that decision, the funeral director looked at us and said, “Okay, the next step is to pick out the casket. Follow me.”

Wait a second... We have to pick out a casket? This isn’t like a standard thing that is chosen for you? It’s a box that goes into the ground; why does it matter? Why is this something we have to decide on, like a new set of drapes? I was flummoxed, but I was also woefully unprepared for what would come next.

The funeral director ushered us down the hallway in this old home that was the funeral parlor. Then he opened up a door that led to a small room... full of caskets.

I immediately screamed. I wailed.

Until this moment, I hadn’t cried since shortly after the paramedics left the previous Friday. I’d held in all of my emotions through every country ham delivery and folded toilet paper roll. The room of caskets was just too much for me. I couldn’t even step inside.

To this day, I still don’t know why that sight was so jarring, but I couldn’t function. It was, by far, the hardest part of the funeral planning process for me. I became undone. My dad lost it, my sister lost it, and I was a complete wreck. The funeral director tried to speak words of reassurance, but I was having absolutely none of it.

“You’re paid to say that! You don’t mean any of that! You deal with this all the time!”

I was destroyed.

I have no idea how long it took me to get myself together. It could have been eight minutes; it could have been three hours. I have no clue. I eventually calmed myself down enough to be able to walk into the room.

The room was only about twenty feet by twenty feet, and I walked around the open caskets like a maze. Each had different features, colors, hardware, and linings. I still couldn’t believe this was something we had to decide on. This was a box we would put the body of my mother in! It wasn’t fair.

We left the funeral home and walked across the street to my favorite Mexican restaurant, The Tortilla Factory.2 I ordered up a massive, sizzling plate of fajitas3 and put back about four baskets of chips and salsa.

Back at home, Dad, Bridgid, Jennie, and I sat down at the computer to draft the program for the service. We knew we wanted it to be a true celebration and tribute to her life, so we just hoped (and prayed) we could do her even a little bit of justice.

We’d contacted the VA, and they were arranging for the full military honors.

“I see here on Mrs. Buckley’s file that she doesn’t want the twenty-one-gun salute?”

“That’s correct,” Dad replied.
“Are you sure?”
“No guns. Only doves,” Dad insisted.
“We can’t provide doves, Mr. Buckley.”
“I know; we will find a way,” he said.

After calling around, we were able to locate a dove guy. That was his whole thing: he had doves he would bring to weddings to release. We lined up her pallbearers — friends in AA, her cousin, her brother-in-law, women she served with in Vietnam, and Dr. Reynolds, her respiratory pulmonologist. (Doesn’t everyone have their pulmonologist serving as their pallbearer?) We also got an honor guard that consisted of six men who were part of a Vietnam veteran PTSD therapy group in DC. Mom was the only woman allowed to “call in,” and they treated her like one of their own. Lastly, I asked two of my band friends from school, Drew and Andrew, if they would play taps on their trumpets at the conclusion of the graveside service, and they generously accepted.

Watch the Video

1.For more on this survey, visit babbie-center/_files/Babbie%20center%20fear2021/blogpost-americas-top-fears-2020_- 21-final.pdf.

2.Fun fact, The Tortilla Factory was, and still is to this very day, my favorite restaurant of all time. We ate there every week growing up since it was walking distance from our house. One summer, I proudly ate there seventy-six days in a row. The Tortilla Factory closed in 2012 and I still haven’t recovered. May it rest in peace.

3.For the Gen Z folks reading this, ordering fajitas was a way to garner attention in the days before social media.

Excerpted with permission from If I Don’t Laugh, I’ll Cry by Molly Stillman, copyright Molly Stillman.

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Your Turn

What do you do with profound grief? First, there’s the shock, of course. But, as we carry on, which we must do, grief sets in. One of the most endearing qualities of Jesus is His empathy. He weeps with us when we grieve. He sees our pain and He’s with us in it. How does that change grief for you? ~ Laurie McClure, Faith.Full