Drawing the line

Any person who works in customer service has the same challenge of balancing a healthy work and home life. When you deal with other people’s emotions it will eventually get to you, even the best of us. My mother is a social worker and she and I have very similar experiences of broken people with heart wrenching stories and we have talked through how best to deal with it. Mostly I deal with this sorrow by realizing that this is not my grief, the death didn’t happen to me, I never knew this person, so I cannot feel their loss. … Wrong!  While sitting in a room full of people that are in the full swing of grief and they are all handling it differently, it becomes my grief. Not the loss of course but the empathy attached to it. One person is angry, another quiet and stoic, while two more are actively sobbing through the motions and then the caretaker pushing back the emotions tries to make some kind of progress in planning the funeral. It is a precarious and constant balancing act because I must pay attention to every person and direct the explosion that may happen at any minute, from getting the deeply grieving person to stay calm and make a decision to stopping someone angry from storming out throwing up their hands in frustration. How I acknowledge their way of grieving changes from one person to the next. From using a soft demeanor to adding humor to the conversation to being pointed and getting down to business, sometimes even taking a hard stance with a person who aggressively (and inappropriately) runs the show for everyone else by making all the choices without considering that these decisions will be experienced by everyone else and their voices should also be heard.

I get a rush from balancing and moving and delegating tasks for all of those involved. I thrive on the details, yet, even I can only take so much of it. The funeral industry is demanding. Often, when I get home I will receive a call from a family member in a panic because she forgot to include someone in an obituary (way past the deadline), or mom found the pants her husband was supposed to be buried in tomorrow and asks, “Is it too late?” even though he is already dressed in something else. It has been a while since I have been “on call” at night on a regular basis but I do remember the dinners I had to walk out of or family events I had to leave early from to go receive a body from a home or a hospital or care facility. We, as an industry put home on hold to make sure the grieving families are taken care of and the deceased bodies are cared for. It takes a strong person indeed who stands beside a mortician as a spouse or partner. There are directors who have never been to their child’s baseball games, missed important events like weddings, anniversaries and yes, even funerals to care for someone else’s dearly departed. Our hearts bleed for you and we jump to take care of you, sometimes at the expense of our own families.

So, leave the work at work and the home at home, that is the rule and that works most of the time. Unfortunately, we forget and life travels in its own way to push or pull your heart and mind in directions you are actively trying to avoid. This can be said for other professions too but we are all human and our sense of sensibility gets distorted after a while and exhaustion kicks in. So, where do you draw the line?

The answer is different for everybody, funeral directors need vacations and time off. I remember when I decided to not be on call at night anymore, I felt a bit liberated that I didn’t have to have my phone in my hand at all times but I would wake up after a full night’s sleep in a panic thinking that I had missed a call. I also felt a little shameful that I was letting someone down. After 13 years of this constant on call, on the ball, 2:00 a.m. wake ups to drive to whatever home in the backwoods of Georgia, or the nursing home in the middle of the city was a little hard to let go of. Taking care of yourself in this industry is hard and it can feel like there is no room to slow down. So for those of you out there who are wearing yourself thin, in this or any other job and need to take a break, draw the line and take a freaking break!

mountain_road_182772

Mountain road with slow painted in the center

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About Chelsea Tolman