I mentally prepared myself for the worst. I'd heard the reports, and even seen some photos, but I had to see for myself, even though I knew it would be horrific, shocking, and painful. The closer I got, the more anxious I became, wanting the moment to come so I could get it over with. I had to view the remains.
No one came with me. There was no funeral director, supportive family member, or pastor to guide my grief. I was alone, driving in my car, up Highway 4 from San Ysidro, through Jemez Springs and on toward the Valles Caldera National Preserve, my favorite place on the planet (of those I've seen so far). My trip would take me past Bandelier National Monument, and to the outskirts of Los Alamos.
The Los Conchas Fire had been burning for almost four weeks, and was burning still even despite the steady rain falling as I drove through the mountains. Well contained by now, and on its way out, it had at one point threatened many of my family members and the sacred places I had spent with them. But the danger was over for most of the places relevant to my life, and it was time for me to go and assess the damage for myself. It wasn't enough to hear from my cousin which places were burned, or how extensively, or how close it had come to the Los Alamos National Laboratory site where he worked. Even the thousands of photographs and videos I saw online and on television weren't enough. I had to see it for myself.
Most psychologists and professionals in the funeral industry will tell you that it's important upon the death of a loved one, that you actually view the body of the deceased. Donald W. Steele, Ph.D., explains that viewing the body is more important now because of societal changes where people die more often in hospitals than in homes, attended to by medical personnel rather than by family members. Even after death, he explains, "when a person died it was left to the family to minister to the dead, or at least to spend time with the body, which was kept at home until the funeral. In
contrast today, the professional funeral director takes charge of the deceased's body and helps the family in planning for the funeral."
Some experts cite that it can be comforting to view the body after it has been prepared by a funeral professional, especially if the last view of that living person had been one after a ravaging illness or traumatic bodily injury. I'm not sure I can wrap my mind around the comfort aspect. In the only instances of bodies I've seen prepared for viewing, they didn't look beautiful, or "so lifelike," or "like they were sleeping." They looked dead. I still see Megan Bell, the 16-year-old cheerleader who'd been decapitated in the car accident that took her life, while hearing the people around me comment on how she looked so beautiful and natural. All I could focus on was the very obvious, makeup-caked scar across her neck.
Comfort aside, however, the main reason cited for the importance of viewing the body of the deceased is for reality testing. Most people are in some level of denial that a person has died, even if the person can intellectually acknowledge that the deceased is gone. While a viewing doesn't automatically fix emotional denial, it helps it resolve a little faster. In the desperation of crushing grief, the mind can manufacture almost any alternate reality to comfort itself that maybe that person isn't really dead.
I remember thinking once in a while that maybe my father wasn't really gone, but that the 13-year-old foster child with him at the time of his death, had manufactured the whole thing as a hoax to perpetrate a money-grab scam or to get attention. And, maybe my whole family was in on pretending that my mother had died, to punish me for arguing with her days before. During the months that my mother's ashes were in a box stored in my closet, waiting for a suitable time to scatter them, I can clearly recall several instances when I sort of expected her to walk out of my closet. Many times I've been grateful that I never had to see either of my parents after their deaths, but I acknowledge it probably would have helped me progress in my grief.
It was eerie driving through the forest on a warm summer Saturday, seeing the picnic grounds, camping areas, monuments, and hiking trails, normally crawling with tourists, now as abandoned as a ghost town. My hands gripped the wheel a little tighter as I got closer to the edge of the fire's wake of destruction, seeing more and more trees browned from dryness, then blackened from the flames, then felled and destroyed.
But most of it was in patches, not the complete, miles-wide sea of black I had been expecting to see. The Los Conchas picnic area, a favorite of mine for family memories, was mostly untouched, as was the area around Battleship Rock, and most of the Valle Grande. Spots of the valley's grasslands were blackened, but mostly I noticed how small a portion of it was destroyed, when it could have very easily shot across the entire prairie in a matter of seconds. Hundreds of elk were even grazing along the outer perimeter of the scorched patches of grass. While many parts of Bandelier were burned, the most sacred places, the ruins, the places I remember, were still healthy and alive.
What touched my emotions the most was seeing what was still left, what was still alive. How the fire got close, but didn't destroy what was really important. I didn't enjoy seeing the pain the land had endured, and I cried for how long it will take to recover. I know that 18 families lost their homes, thousands of animals lost their lives, and a lot of beauty is gone forever.
But the life behind the forest and the force that made it is still alive. What made it sacred to me is still there. Like the memories of my mother, and the lessons of my father, they are still alive. I understand what is gone, but I grasp what I still have and what will never die.