Make a hard time easier

Philip Gottsacker

September 15, 1956 - December 24, 2016

Donor, Minnesota

I checked the log on my iPhone. The call came at 7:24p.m. on Christmas Eve, 2016. “This is the Emergency Room at Fairview Southdale Hospital. We have Philip Gottsacker here. He’s in critical condition.” I promptly left the dinner party my wife and I were hosting and made the 20-minute drive to Fairview, with the radio cranked a bit louder than usual in what proved a lame attempt to distract myself from considering what might have transpired. As it turned out, the nurse who called had calculated I’d be a safer driver if she postponed the truth: The details weren’t clear, but an hour earlier, my 60-year-old younger brother had died of a heart attack on the side of Crosstown Highway, about two miles west of Fairview.

Consider pre-planning your "final arrangements". Letting your loved ones know your wishes is a great gift you can leave for them.

I’m the type who takes a while to process bad news, so I foggily listened to the nice highway patrolman tell me he’d done everything he could “at the scene” and sat with the doctor as he told me he, too, had done all he could. I passed on an invitation to see Phil’s body.

Thankfully, it seemed like a slow night at Fairview, which I construed to mean most folks were home, enjoying their usual holiday activities and traditions, far removed from any incident that would forever separate this Christmas Eve from all the others. My thoughts went to my 92-year-old mother and how she was going to take the news, but my first move was to call my wife, who immediately left the party, leaving our good friends behind to do the cleanup.

Then came the call to my sister in Oshkosh, Wis., who took the news badly. She’d leave for Minneapolis in the morning. Next was the call to my unflappable brother Mark, who immediately went into “what’s our next move?” mode. Phil never married and had no kids, so I knew we’d be front and center for whatever needed to happen. But Christmas Day – and my mother – were looming.

When the time came – early afternoon – I entered Mom’s apartment first and found her asleep on the couch. My four surviving siblings waited in the hallway, nervously standing by to execute the plan we’d tinkered together a few minutes earlier at a confab at the nearby McDonald’s. After I had awakened her and awkwardly mumbled God knows what to give her time to get her bearings, I summoned the group. Mark then directly and capably broke the news. We knew losing a son would hit her hard – and it did. As we all cried about the loss of our family’s most gregarious member, we worked to calm her down. In the end, she took it better than we’d expected, but seeing my Mom in so distraught a state was heartbreaking.

Later that day, while I wrote Phil’s obituary, Mark, who’d retrieved the keys to Phil’s house, ventured over to start the onerous process of notifying people, stopping this, cancelling that and determining what obligations Phil had that would now fall to us. Wading through documents, Mark was able to quickly conclude Phil had no will, which, because we knew our brother, was merely a corroboration of what we all suspected already. We had no more luck finding anything about his wishes for “final arrangements.” So, the onus was on us, and, as we’d soon learn, a non-negotiable clock was ticking.

My sister had heard my parents’ church had a relationship with Washburn-McReavy, a funeral home with an Edina location a stone’s throw from the site of the long-gone Mr. Steak restaurant at which I – and Phil – had worked as high schoolers. With no reference, experience or clue to go on, we numbly accepted the notion that favorable proximity constituted adequate reason to hire them.

The folks at Washburn-McReavy were professional, helpful and polite, and, of course, sorry for our loss. But mourning and making arrangements would need to run concurrently, because, frankly, dead bodies don’t “keep” forever, and the longer the process, the more complicated and expensive it gets. So, it was decision after decision, and, unlike almost all other decisions I’ve ever had to make, there was no option not to decide. Cremation or conventional burial? Any religious or other restrictions that complicate the decision? How about the service? Where? Mass or memorial? Celebrant? Flowers? Readings? Songs? Singer(s)? Organist? Program contents? Lunch menu? How about the burial? Which cemetery? Where in that cemetery? In a crypt, mausoleum, niche, columbarium or in the ground? What are all those things? Which headstone? What color of granite, marble, limestone, sandstone or slate? Any symbols on it (flower, star, cross)? Will it be flat? Raised? Slanted? What will it say? And one question persistently and acutely present throughout the entire process: Is this what Phil would have wanted?

Meanwhile, back at Washburn-McReavy, it was time to write the check: Just south of $5,000 for pretty much everything up to and including the service. But again, somehow “Can we shop around?” didn’t seem appropriate or viable.

Needless to say, I harbor no ill-will toward my brother, but all of this could have been much easier, less costly and perhaps even less emotional had Philip left us instructions about what to do in the event of his death. Many of the myriad decisions would have been made. And had Philip had the wherewithal, he even could have pre-purchased everything – the funeral, the burial and a cemetery plot where he wanted it. Perhaps most important, though, we would have been confident we were honoring Phil in the way he would want to be honored.

Now that I have the benefit of this experience, my wife and I have contacted Washburn-McReavy to make our “final arrangements” – well before we’ll need them, I hope. We have a will, but it’s now apparent that’s only half the job. After all, it’s been said death is harder on the people left behind. Having tough decisions already made and perhaps all or a portion of the expenses already paid is a great way to make a difficult process just a bit easier. Consider it a “parting gift” with a purpose far higher than a consolation prize on a game show. And it’s one we can all give our loved ones.

By the way, that night at the hospital, I reconsidered and asked to view Phil’s body. As I reflect on it now, I think it would have disrespected him not to, and, while it offered little consolation, I’m grateful I had the chance to say goodbye and perhaps even show support as he embarked on a new journey.

We miss you, Phil! from your brother Mike and the rest of the family.