Monday Mitzvahs: What My Sister Taught Me About Care-giving

Care-giving.  What comes to your mind with those words?  For some it means changing diapers and holding babies.  Others might think of caring for the sick or elderly. We can also be care providers for our pets and other animals.  Recently, my sister taught me about a different kind of care-giving.  Caring for our dead.

I have always felt uncomfortable at funerals and viewings.  I have never dealt with death well.  (What is dealing well anyway?  What I mean is funerals completely unhinge me.)  When my mother-in-law passed away, I decided that I did not want to attend the viewing.  I wanted my last memory of her to be when she was alive.  And so it is.

It’s a lovely memory as far as good-byes go.  I mean, good-byes are never easy, but with my mother-in-law, we knew the end was near and all the family gathered around and had a chance to say good-bye.  I remember her lying in her hospital bed taking a moment to talk to each child, and grandchild individually.

So I didn’t attend my mother-in-law’s viewing.  I decided this was a much better way, for me at least, to deal with death.  I would have avoided my own mother’s viewing also–if it weren’t for my sister, Ginger.

Because of my discomfort with death, I was surprised when Ginger told me that she planned to help prepare my Mom for the viewing.  She wanted to help with Mom’s hair, make-up and nails.  In spite of my discomfort with the idea, I couldn’t help but think that would be a beautiful act of service on Ginger’s part.  If I am honest, I guess I felt a little jealous.  Still I didn’t think it was something I could ever do.

When the day of the viewing arrived, my feelings had not changed.  But I couldn’t bear to let my sister go to the mortuary alone.  To be fair, she would not have been alone, her husband, Chuck, a wonderful guy, was going with her.  Still somehow I felt that it was my job as her sister to help.  I would not have felt any better if one of my brothers had gone.  This was a “sister thing”.  (This is a Leslie rule, so don’t feel bad if you never heard of it.)

So with deep reservations, I accompanied them to the mortuary.  When the mortician met us at the door with a friendly smile, I have to confess, I was a bit suspicious at first.  How dare he smile, and who would choose a profession like this, anyway?  (My own fears were speaking here, of course.  Since I am uncomfortable with death, anyone who isn’t is suspect.)

Ginger had brought some of my mother’s things to decorate the room where the viewing would be held.  Since I was initially reluctant to go to “the room in the back”.  I was assigned the job of decorating.  Having some quiet time alone with my mother’s cherished things, presenting them lovingly for others to view brought some torn pieces of my heart back into place.  I finished before they were done in “the back room”. so I enjoyed a little more  time of quiet contemplation and healing.

I cherish the time I spent alone with my mom’s things, listening to a Marty Robbins CD on the overhead speakers (the mortuary staff had inquired earlier about music and this was agreed upon.)  Perhaps it was my sister’s example, or setting out my mother’s things, but something in me shifted.  When Ginger came out for a moment,  I decided that I wanted to go with her to “the back room”.

When I first entered, seeing my mother lying on a table, with her open coffin near-by was a bit of a shock and I took a seat in the farthest chair, for a moment, questioning my decision.  But as the mortician, Tim, and Ginger worked, and carried on a light banter with Chuck; I found the courage to venture closer.

My mom had always said she wanted to be buried in her boots.  Ginger chose for her some beautiful moccasin-type boots that my mom had adored.  Slowly, I worked up from her boots, to her black pants, her shirt with geometric diamonds in a dark burgundy to her face.  She looked so peaceful that I smiled through my tears.

Ginger was standing at her head curling her hair.  Tim was putting make-up on her hands.  Perhaps it was the peaceful expression on my mother’s face that helped me to see what loving gestures these were.  Not only on the part of my sister, but Tim as well.  In that moment, I understood that care-giving does not end with death.  Hesitantly, I reached out and put my hand on my mom’s arm.

That evening during the viewing, the same Marty Robbins CD played. My mom would have loved it. I told someone teasingly that Marty Robbins was ruined for me because in the future whenever I hear “El Paso” or his other songs, I will be taken back to that mortuary.  I realize now though that ‘ruined’ is the wrong word because whenever I hear Marty Robbins, I will remember–not only my mother’s peaceful expression, but Ginger’s loving act of care-giving.

And I will smile at the beauty and wonder of it.

This is my Mom's casket piece.  She loved crosses.
This is my Mom’s casket piece. She loved crosses.

*Monday Mitzvahs (acts of kindness) were inspired by Linda Cohen’s book, 1,000 Mitzvahs


  1. Leslie, what a great gift, one, that you received by having the courage to help your sister, and two, that you could share it with us so clearly that we could learn more. Thank you.

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