Sister. Mentor. Traveler. Best friend. Aunt. Listener. Teacher.
Eileen Willemstyn was a lot of things, but her family will tell you that above all else, she was an unshakable rock of support, empathy and unconditional love.
"She was always there," her nephew Jeremy Haverhals shared before Eileen's funeral service on Friday at Sunset Park Church of God. "She was just a phone call away if I ever needed anything."
Dozens of family and friends gathered at the church to remember and celebrate Eileen, a longtime special education teacher for Grand Rapids Public Schools, a world traveler, a teddy bear collector (she had at least one or a dozen bears in every room of her house) and an avid reader (she read all the way through her library's selection of books up through the letter "M").
Clutching Eileen's "You're My Hero" and "Be Brave" teddy bears, her niece Linda Potter told the room full of people that Eileen was the one who introduced her to art, travel and theater simply by inviting her to join her in the classroom and on her travels. Even as Eileen battled numerous physical ailments, Potter said Eileen continued to reach out and check on her family.
"She was the one calling me to check in," Potter said.
During the service, Senior Pastor Paul Myers shared what he called "Eileen's final lesson plan," a plan the 80-year-old Eileen wrote more than 30 years ago and has been tweaking ever since, even up until last weekend.
"These are lessons that were laid on her heart many years ago," Myers said. "These 'lessons' are what got her through life and sustained her."
He spoke of Eileen's unwavering belief in God's faithfulness, God's promises, God's care for his people and his amazing grace.
"What an amazing life," Myers said. "Through the good years and the difficult years, she kept at it. She taught through her actions."
Those gathered sang some of Eileen's favorite hymns, ones that she selected for the occasion, "Does Jesus Care," "Great is Thy Faithfulness," and "God Will Take Care of You." She even helped pick out some of the luncheon decor: chalkboard signs and Hershey Kisses (her favorite) on every table.
Thinking ahead about your funeral, like Eileen did, can help you make informed and thoughtful decisions about what you want your funeral service to be like. It also spares your loved ones the stress of making these decisions during the difficult time of their initial grief.
Following the service, friends and family gathered for lunch, complete with a homemade teddy bear cake, to continue celebrating and remembering Eileen's life. Later, the immediate family gathered for a graveside service where they read a poem together and wrote their farewell messages in marker on Eileen's casket:
"You are a great inspiration to always do my best."
"See you at the dinner table in heaven."
"We love you more than words can say."
You can read more about Eileen's life and even share a memory of your own on her personal memory page.