We (MovieMe) received a lead from our friends at http://www.NostalgicMedia.com about a husband, Bob Harrison, who wanted to put together a Celebration of Life party to honor the recent passing of his wife, Diane. Below you will read what this journey was like for Bob and his sons, Scot and Randy. And how we came together to create a legacy product of an incredible woman, who touched so many people with her love and commitment, especially with her husband, sons and granddaughters.
Many thanks to Bob, Scot and Randy for trusting MovieMe with this delicate process.
by Bob Harrison (husband to Diane Harrison, father to Scot and Randy)
It has now been over five months since my wife of 46 years tragically and quickly passed away. We were hiking in the Austrian Alps when she first noticed a slight abdominal pain which appeared to initially fade as we returned from Europe. Then, over the course of a couple of weeks, the pain intensified. Her doctor thought it was a deep muscle strain associated with my wife pulling against the airplane seat belt during our long transatlantic flight home.
Finally during a quick trip to Washington DC in mid-October, the pain became much worse as she awakened in the hotel room before returning home to Atlanta. I called her doctor and we arranged an appointment immediately after our plane landed. The doctor quickly told her to go to the Hospital Emergency Room and obtain a lower abdomen CT Scan. After multiple additional tests the following week, Diane was diagnosed with Stage 4 Pancreatic Cancer on October 26th. On December 10th, she died in her sleep at home while holding my hand. I provided all of her palliative care at home while being assisted by our two sons and the occasional critical visits by Hospice Nurses.
I am sure there is no good or best way to die. This must be especially the case when ones goes from appearing to be in perfect health one day to leaving life two months later. However, when compared to sudden, immediate death or a prolonging slow loss of coherency and physical strength over many months and years; in retrospect, I realize that we were spared more intense suffering and grief. I do not think Diane was ever in physical pain. We all suffered emotionally as we realized and ultimately talked intimately about her pending death and what a wonderful life we had lived together in love.
During the six weeks between Diane’s diagnosis and her death, my life was solely reactively focused on providing for her comfort and well-being. Since she physically deteriorated so quickly, she quickly decided she only wanted to physically see my two sons and me beyond her professional healthcare providers. My sons, both living remotely, rotated through several times with my youngest son sleeping upstairs in our home when Diane died at 438am on Saturday morning. In order to attempt to react to all of Diane’s friends and family members who were shocked in hearing about her diagnosis, I was fortunate to find and fully utilize the CaringBridge website. I posted periodic updates of her condition and she received thousands of postings in response.
We were overwhelmed with these postings, emails, cards, letters, flowers, food, gifts and ultimately, charitable donations. Hundreds of people voiced their frustration in not being able to provide more support and actual help in Diane’s fight for life.
As Diane’s death became eminent, I found myself praying for her peace and comfort. She was such an extraordinary woman that I was fully comforted in her life continuing in a life hereafter. I often thought how my later years were always characterized in being convinced that I would pre-decease Diane. I was older and one always hears about the longer life expectancy of healthy women compared to men.
Many years ago, Diane had begun voicing her desires to not have a conventional funeral or burial service. I accepted this request without really questioning her motives. However, I believe her request was grounded in the many very sorrowful family funerals she had attended over the years. She had merely requested that her remains be cremated and ultimately mixed with my ashes with our sons disposing of them in a “special location”.
As Diane approached the end of her life, we had several extraordinary intimate and special talks. Right until she started to sleep continuously, about four days before she died, she continued to attempt to “plan and organize”. She was very worried about not being able to adequately respond to all the support we had received from so many friends and family members. I shared her worries since I viewed it being my job to express our sincere appreciation. I was also worried about many other things that I am sure burden any surviving spouses. Diane was a fantastic mother and both of her grown sons worshiped her. Their lives had been so influenced by her dedication, mentoring and hard work as she left a professional career to be a full-time, stay-at-home mother for both of them.
In addition, I must admit that I did not feel right about not having some form of memorial or ceremony to attempt to recognize Diane…a truly wonderful woman, wife, mother and friend to so many.
Ultimately, in one of our last short conversations together, Diane said…..”OK, if you feel that we should do something, why don’t you have a party”? In the emotion of the minute, I just casually said “OK, I think we should do that”. This was further reinforced with my final posting on CaringBridge when I emotionally confirmed to all her followers that I was going to have a Celebration of Life Party for Diane……sometime in the coming months.
It is now five months since Diane passed away. The grief and sorrow are slowly fading with time, but the memories of Diane and the great life we spent together will always remain. In addition, it is now one month since we had the Celebration of Diane’s Life Party. Herein lies the purpose of this narrative. I want to share with you what an extraordinary event this party was and how intensely it affected me, my two sons and everyone who attended it.
In the days immediately following Diane’s death, my two sons and I were together in our house focused on individually and collectively trying to rationalize her death and try to deal with our personal and collective grief and sorrow. It was then that we began to discover the various forms of documentation that Diane, the family historian, had developed over the years. There were twenty-one photo albums. There was an album that her mother had given her that contained all the postcards and letters Diane had sent her for the first four years of our marriage. Diane had a twenty-seven page document, called “Reflections” that contained her intimate thoughts and narrations about her life. It was written over a twenty year period. Diane also kept travel journals wherein she chronicled our various domestic and international travels over the last ten years of our marriage. We shared the postcards at the event.
As we discovered all of this, my two sons became enlightened in how we could put this party together. It would be a simple case of digitizing a cross-section of the photographs depicting Diane’s life and then providing some narrative based on our memories and all the written words Diane had left behind. It sounded so simple.
We then selected 290 photographs that we thought properly depicted Diane from infancy to our last trip together. I then personally began the job of developing a written narrative of her life and all of the appropriate personal quotations she had made. All three of us envisioned just scrolling the photographs while narrating appropriately.
When delivering the 290 photographs to Nostalgic Media for their digitizing, I was asked what I was ultimately going to do with the resulting DVD. I described our objective and was quickly told that what we had in mind would be very difficult…..not only technically, but emotionally. By some miracle Danielle West and her company MovieMe was suggested to me.
I called Danielle to see if she might be available to provide assistance. The rest is history and ultimately ended up in the Celebration of Diane’s Life being a transforming event for, not only me and my sons, but for all the 150 other attendees. Danielle singular provided the core competence to bring everything we had together into a program and four different “movies” to be used during the party.
My narrative of Diane’s life ended up consuming 61 typewritten papers. It took me several weeks to transcribe and the final product was a very lengthy, intimate tale. My sons both read it were concerned about the intimacy of the detail and how long the narrative was. The other striking conclusion from our reviewing this narrative was that none of us would be capable of reading it. It just was too emotional for us.
The digitized photographs came out well and were put into chronological order easily. I then met for the first time with Danielle. Her sensitivity, principles and character came blasting through when she became quite emotional about Diane and how much she wished she had known her.
In a very sensitive manner, Danielle led me to the process by which we would develop the process for the program. The program would be composed of a continuously scrolling rotation of approximately 25 photographs of Diane from infancy to our final hiking trip to the Alps 3 months before she died. This continuously playing movie would be played in the gathering/cocktail bar area where party guests would first arrive and meet.
The second and most consequential “movie” would be approximately 30 minutes of life-story photographs of Diane that would be narrated. Danielle quickly understood the challenges of my participating in the narration and ultimately decided that she would personally voice Diane’s direct quotations and a local actor, Tom Clark, would provide the 3rd party narration. I was tremendously relieved.
Diane had written a letter in her deathbed to her 7 year old granddaughter. This letter was given to her parents who were told to give it to Elisabeth in the future “when they feel she is old enough”. Elisabeth’s father, our oldest son Scot, would read the letter at the party and there would be a scrolling picture movie depicting Diane at various times with her granddaughters, Elisabeth and her 3-year old sister, Isabella.
I then provided Danielle with a list of approximately 10 songs that were Diane’s favorites. Danielle then did the amazing job of coordinating the scrolling photographs with the music and with the narrative. The final product was an extraordinary representation of the life of a woman who was uniquely capable of loving and being loved.
On April 14, 2012, one hundred and fifty close friends and family members attended The Celebration of Diane’s Life. Many of the people attending did not know each other since they came from various periods of her life. They came from four different companies and fourteen different states. No one really knew what to expect. No one had ever been to a “Party” of this type.
The party unfolded perfectly. The pictures, narrative and music surged from being very sad and emotional to being invigorating and, at times, humorous. When the final movie clipped closed and I closed the party with my hands pointing up and said “Diane, I am Coming, Thank you”, all the attendees immediately stood up and came forth with a standing ovation. I cried to myself.
As Diane’s close friends and family left, they all sought out me and my sons. I have never heard so many emotional comments about the experience at the party. Several women hugged me and were crying.
Over the next weeks, I received huge written thank you notes expressing emotions that are rarely put in writing. Three of my male friends took me out to lunch and jokingly indicated they were very mad with me. Apparently, their wives had taken them aside after the party and declared that they did not want a funeral. Rather, they wanted to have a party just like Diane’s.
I am now reflecting up the unique accomplishments of this party. It accomplished everything that I could have dreamed of…….and more.
The preparation of the party and culminating with the party provided a turning point for our recovery from the tragedy of Diane’s death. We no longer feel sorry for ourselves and are wallowing around in grief and sorrow. Diane’s party provided a pivot for our focusing on the blessings of her life and the huge positive impact she would always have on our lives.
The party provided a perfect mechanism for me to thank everyone for all the many gifts and messages of support that were sent to Diane as she was dying. Everyone was frustrated with their inability to help Diane as she approached the end of her life. However, this party reconfirmed their ongoing love for Diane and her love for them.
The party also honored a remarkable woman. It was a “love story and a war story”. It depicted in pictures and words how a beautiful woman affected so many people in what she did, how she did it and who she was.
If you are faced with the personal tragedy of the death of a loved one….if you and need help in managing your grief, voicing your appreciation and/or honoring your loved one; Danielle West/MovieMe has a magic wand of creativity with deeply seeded emotion.
- Celebration of Life Event (moviemecodotcom.wordpress.com)