Monday, December 16, 2013

Many Memorials and Few Moments to Grieve

It wasn’t my idea to take over as minister-in-charge of the temple in June of this year but someone had to take the job as our long-time head minister was retiring. Some years back the temple tried out two young ministers Japan – the first didn’t last long as he and the temple realized he lacked the maturity for the job and the second had to be nudged out long after he failed to meet the standards of his annual evaluation (that had items such as, “take classes to improve English ability” and “learn to get around Chicago.”) And with both there was the problem of the differences of culture and job duties – Buddhist ministers in the Americas work in a similar way as Christian pastors, while most priests in Japan are not expected to do much beyond chanting at funerals and memorials. So for the sake of the temple, I felt I had to take over until we find some new prospects.

But now I’m experiencing one big difference in my life now as opposed to last year. As the part-time associate minister, I wasn’t tied to being at the temple all the time and conducting the Sunday services. So I was able to spend the weeks taking care of my terminally ill sister in Texas and after she passed away, I spent a couple weeks in Minnesota with my mother who was in the hospital at that time. As my mother recovered enough to be sent to a rehabilitation nursing home, I had the time away from hecticness in Chicago to grieve for my sister.

[Gravestones at Ft. Snelling where my father’s ashes are buried]

After I became the full-time minister, I was able to take about three days a month to go visit my mother living in an assisted-living facility. I thought it would be a routine that would continue for a long time as she seemed fairly stable in her condition. But last month she started experiencing difficulty breathing and the doctor gave her the choice of going to the hospital for aggressive intervention or signing up for hospice care. It was my mother’s decision to stay in her place – she had had enough of the hospital for the past couple years. My husband and I visited her at Thanksgiving and I planned to take my usual 3-day visit this week, but early last week my brother reported things had taken a turn for the worse. When I arrived in Minnesota on Wednesday evening it was just a couple hours before she stopped breathing.

On Thursday my brother and I met with the funeral home to plan for a memorial in January and we had a final viewing on Friday. And on Saturday I was back in Chicago to conduct a 25th year memorial service for a temple member family. There was a Mr. Y whose cremation service I conducted the week before and the family had not set a memorial service date yet – I just sent them an e-mail that on the first weekend in January I won’t be available. I have a one-year memorial service this Friday and on the last weekend in December is a 100th day service (because families these days are scheduling their main memorial services so close to the 49th day, we are doing 100th day services as marking the end of the formal mourning period).

I don’t want to sound like a complainer – I have a feeling this is what many other Buddhist ministers have to go through. Because of all the series of memorial services to do for the deceased, it doesn’t leave much time to attend to your own grief. Ministers don’t have the luxury of bereavement leave because people keep dying and families are in need of the series of services to mark the memorial dates. I imagine some time in the future there won’t be such a flurry of memorial services because the non-ethnic Japanese members aren’t concerned with such rituals. But right now our temple has quite a lot of elderly Japanese American members whose families will want the whole nine-yards of ceremonies when time comes to say farewell.