It is midnight. Most people are tucked in bed sleeping soundly. Your funeral director is up working dressed in a smock and gloves, preparing the dead. Their phone is always nearby just in case of the inevitable phone call notifying them of another death. Your funeral director is always ready, always prepared, day or night.
During the last few months I have posted very little. I started a business and have been working on some other ventures. Today I wanted to share with you other funeral directors who have been using social media to convey their messages. I have compiled a list of links and descriptions and created another tab on my website called “Others in the industry”. It is important to celebrate the brave souls who are willing to speak out and teach others about the mystery surrounding the inevitable, our death. I have a great respect for those who talk about death in a respectful way. There are no gimmicky, romanticizing, dark lords here, just real people who handle real death and understand your fear of it. https://chelseatolman.com/those-in-our-industry/
To arrange an interview, or request a signed copy of my book “Speaking of the Dead”, please contact me directly at 801-702-9202, email to: email@example.com, and follow me on social media at twitter.com/chelsea_tolman, instagram.com/thembalmergirl, or facebook.com/mbalmergirl
You’ve lost someone to death. A person that you knew, loved
and talked to is no longer there. The grief is crippling, food turns to ash in
your mouth, you are unable to move, function, smile. Will you ever laugh again?
I have been there for hundreds of families and talked them
through the emotions they are feeling just trying to find a way to convey to
them that it is normal to be angry, sad, numb, even happy. I myself have
experienced that total grief that comes with a devastating loss.
Grief is real for everybody, it is normal, it is tangible. You
can feel it, taste it and hate it. So how do you embrace it? A question I get quite
frequently from families is, “When will this pain end?” The only true answer to
that question is that it won’t. But, you will learn to survive with it. The
more you embrace the ache and hurt the more you learn to live despite it.
It is currently Springtime and I awoke this morning realizing that this time of year is the perfect analogy to living with grief. Where I live, during the winter months, we get lots of snow. This creates many challenges. It can be a challenge to get up in the morning and have to scrape the ice off your car in the freezing cold. It can be a challenge to then drive on slush laden roads where the simple turn of a wheel or fast brake, whether by you or someone else, can send your car into a seemingly uncontrollable skid. Grief is like that. There are times when just getting out of bed is a task too difficult to achieve and driving on slushy roads is similar to the unpredictability of interacting with the world, you almost never know what might trigger an attack of horrible grief rendering you almost incapable of functioning. In those moments, remember that spring is coming. Even when you feel so heavy that simply putting one foot in front of the other does not seem possible, you will again feel the sunshine after a long winter. It’s like when the snow has melted and flowers with their bursts of color are just starting to peek through the dead grass and weeds. You will start to have days where you feel whole and complete and find joy in being. Of course, reality will come back just like the snow and the rain during springtime but again the sun will shine and more and more color will start to burst forth and your heart will lighten.
Just like in nature there is a natural ebb and flow to grief.
The clouds will part briefly allowing for a few deep breaths and then the gloom
settles in again. When this happens remember that the sun will find its way
through the clouds and give you moments of respite. The long winters and springtime
seasons will always present themselves, you cannot escape it. However, even in
the darkest hours, in the worst moments of trying to get through a day, an hour
or a minute, your best defense of cloudy, snowy days is try to remember the Spring.
The pillows have been fluffed, fresh water is ready in a drinking
glass nearby. There are rows of bottles neatly arranged on the bedside table
and someone you love is tucked under the sheets, sleeping soundly, finally. How
long will they be asleep this time? An hour? Eight? There is no telling when the
illness is terminal, and you are the caretaker. Has it been days? weeks? Years?
Doctors visits, therapy, medications, little sleep and sponge baths. It is an
honor to care for the people we love and help them when they cannot help
themselves, it is also a full-time job and exhausting. So, what happens when
this part of the job is over? Your person has died, and the hospital takes away
the bed that you have placed fresh sheets on a thousand times, cleaned up
messes with soap and bleach and lovingly snuggled with someone you love who was
sick and dying. The bottles of pills are no longer needed, some full, some half
empty. That drinking glass with the flower print sits on the night stand
silently reminding you that this person loved purple irises. So many things you
are now going to go through, the next set of tasks are listed somewhere in your
brain. Your journey through grief starts here.
Many experts have published the stages of grief that we are
supposed to go through. Like there is a pre-prescribed way to come to terms with
why your mother is no longer there for your planned Sunday brunch date, or why your
brother was found hanging in the closet when he seemed so happy, or why your
unborn child never made it through the birth canal alive. There is no formula
for getting through these events. There is no end to how people leave the world
as we know it. And there are thousands of ways that we as humans handle these
losses. It is time to put away our assumptions of how people grieve and let go of
the way a funeral is done just because that is how it has been done. People don’t
live and die in the same manner, lets celebrate who they were on our own terms,
with our own kind of celebration.
Watch out 2019, Chelsea Tolman is on the loose! I am gearing up for some exciting new content and a new look. That being said mbalmergirl will be dark for a few weeks in preparation of these new things to come. In the meantime all previous blog posts will still be available for your reading pleasure. You can also find me on instagram @thembalmergirl, facebook @mbalmergirl and twitter @chelsea_tolman, browse my website for previous interviews on podcasts, blogs, radio and TV and contact me with any questions or suggestions of things you would like to see, hear or read about at firstname.lastname@example.org or use the contact page on my website.
Thanks to everyone for following and reading my blog and to those who have/are/will read and review “Speaking of the dead”
Gillian Rodriguez is a licensed funeral director and embalmer in the state of
Texas. She has been fully licensed since 2013 and has been in the funeral
industry since 2011. She is now the aftercare director for Parting Pro, a
rapidly growing software company for funeral professionals.
How did you get into the
Funny story. I set off after high school and
earned my bachelor’s degree in Psychology in 2007- about the same time the
recession was really gearing up. Realizing one million (plus or minus) students
were graduating with my same degree every year, I decided I need to
differentiate myself. I’d previously completed internships in forensics, where
I loved the science but missed the connection with people. I’d also completed
an internship in grief counseling, where I loved working with people but missed
the hard sciences. I took time off to soul-search and really determine what I
wanted to do, and then it hit me. Funeral Directing. The challenge of it
appealed to me in a way I still can’t explain- I wanted to step into the lives
of people who needed it the most, and be their helper. Fearing my parents’
total disapproval (they were envisioning law school or another post-grad
program, I think), I sheepishly mentioned my interest. My mom grinned ear
to ear, and said it made perfect since, given my heritage. How could I have
escaped this connection? Of course, she was right. I would be the fourth-generation
funeral director/embalmer in my family, and the first woman in the succession.
So, was it family? Was it passion? Without hesitation, both.
This industry is hard. Why
do you do your job every day?
I have an inexplicable desire to approach the
hardest, worst situations in the world and act. The challenge of not only
directing, but really helping the families who needed it most, traversing this
universe of shock, grief, terror, anger, sadness, relief, happiness and joy in
their memories…and everything in-between? Yes, please. The families that are
the “hard” families, with the most complicated situations and loss?
Those are my people. The ability to reach the un-reachable is something that
drives me every day, even now.
What is your favorite part
of the job?
My job has taken me into a new challenge of
our profession- communicating with colleagues across the country about death
care technology. As the Aftercare Director for Parting Pro-the most innovative
software in the funeral profession- my job is tasked with bridging the gap
between the nostalgia and familiarity of yester-year (typewriters? carbon paper
contracts?) and the technology of the future (digital ID verification, online
arrangement experiences and digital case management). It’s no longer
sufficient to have a website that tells families to call your business. Your
website must now offer an interactive, online experience. Families can buy a
diamond ring, a car, a house and more online- why is our profession lagging in
meeting families where they need us, in their new-found online communities? You
can still be the neighborhood funeral home, while recognizing that a virtual
“neighborhood” exists, too. So my favorite part? Intellectualizing
how to take our profession into the future, with compassion, values, and
service at the forefront.
How do you balance work and
home life? What do you do for self-care?
Wait, there’s a balance? Just kidding! First,
I want to acknowledge that I didn’t pop out of mortuary school knowing about
this balance, the need for it, or how to achieve it. That was a rather painful
learning experience that took years to master. I realized I was working myself
to death for a lifestyle I could never participate in, because I was working
myself to death. Which brings me to my self-care: Saying “no.”
Sounds simple, but it’s not. Learning how to say no was, and still is how I practice
self-care. Does this mean I don’t work hard? No. It means I’m selective in the
work that I do, and relish the peace found in the quiet moments that are mine
to own. I think, as women in this profession, we often believe that we have to
work harder, smarter, better, stronger, and “more” in order to prove
our place. But it wasn’t until I realized that mentality was total bullshit and
self-destructive, that I was able to pour myself into my total life
Outside of work, what are
I’m consumed by learning. My hobbies/interests
at the moment are graduate school, where I’m earning a Master’s degree in
clinical mental health counseling. Immersing myself in intellectual stimulation
may sound like torture to some, but for me, it’s my time. It’s my mental space
to re-claim and grow my own understanding of people, their lived-in
experiences, their meanings. My focus is on applications of emotional contagion
and indirect trauma, as well as combining artificial intelligence with bereavement
counseling services online to one day, broaden accessibility to these resources
If you choose, tell us
about your family, kids, spouses, pets etc.
My family, without a doubt, is the only reason
I can do this. Any of this. When I was considering graduate school, my husband
simply looked at me and said, “I want you to have your dream.” My
son, who’s three, well…while I think the hours away from each other are hard
on us both, the hours spent together are that much more savored and treasured.
He’s my absolute sunshine (and knows it). My dogs are my other children, and
there have been many, many times I’ve cried into their soft fur at night in
total grief for the family I served. My
village deserves every ounce of credit for my professional, personal and
Tell a story about a family
you have served.
While working at an internship, I remember
serving a family of a fallen serviceman who was killed overseas. I’d never been
exposed to this level of service, had no idea what “high profile”
meant or anything to do with the ceremony and honor of that type of service. I
was completely naive, not prepared, and shadowed the entire process in my own
shock and awe. The day of the arrangements, my brother told my family he would
be deployed, and all I could envision was this family at the funeral home.
About the time I broke down, and decided that I couldn’t be a funeral
professional, I realized that if something like that were to happen to my
brother, I would want someone to take care of me, in the way I desired to care
for that family. It was more than a desire. It was a compelling need. A
determination to perfect it. My brother was deployed to South Korea and we were
blessed with his safe return. Naturally, the military perfected 99% of the
service, but the small time I had with his widow inspired me to contact The
American Widow Project, and promote their materials throughout as many funeral
homes as time would allow.
What message would you like
to give to the public about our profession?
I am human. I am not Lurch Adams. I am not a
morbidly-consumed evil-wisher, waiting to prey upon a family when tragedy
strikes and my pockets are empty. Nay, I’m a rather normal person. If you see
me in the grocery store, I’ll probably have my son, shopping for the same food
you eat. If you call me at 3 a.m., I’ll probably sound foggy for the first
three seconds because…I actually sleep. When you feel pain, I feel pain. I’ve
just learned little tricks to sustain myself long enough to get to my car and
cry the entire way home. I know how to care for you when your over-sized
sunglasses aren’t quite big enough to conceal your dissolution into grief.
Simply, I’m a person too, and I want to help.
This is the last in the Who We Are Speaking of Series for December 2018. Please submit details and contact information for your favorite funeral director to be placed in the spotlight for future series to email@example.com. Thanks!
Learn more about what your funeral professional does everyday by reading “Speaking of the dead” order your copy today!
Have you ever been so tied up in an emotion you can’t explain that you are close to tears, want to run as fast as you can all while feeling like a nap is a good idea? Well that is me today! The time has come for me to introduce my finished book “Speaking of the dead”. Can you believe it?!
One year ago I started this journey. So many of you have been reading my blog and giving me incredible feedback which I have enjoyed reading. You have waited for it, asked for it and now… your patience has paid off! “Speaking of the dead” Is now available on kindle! It will be available on Barnes and Noble and Nook Ereader in the next 72 hours and the print version should be ready for purchasing in the next couple of days! This is real folks, this is happening!
Before I tell this story, I want you all to know that the majority of people I meet take way too much stock in Hollywood’s versions of dead bodies and what they do, or do not do, in the days before they are buried or cremated. I have had people tell me about the bodies that sit straight up, “ I saw it with my own eyes!” Or watched a woman in a casket breathe, or blink, or twitch a finger, or whatever their eyes told them happened. It’s true that our minds decide what we see, that the dead are not dead, there was a mistake and they are still breathing just really slowly, “Just like in that show I saw” people have told me. I have been brought back into a room where the family frantically asks me to call a doctor because so and so opened their eyes for split second, or their mouth twitched “I swear I saw it”. I don’t mean to make light of these situations because it’s traumatic and sad. The truth, is unless you are around the dead all day, our minds are trained to see a person sleeping. Sleeping people twitch and breath and move, combine that normalcy with the yearning for the person to still be alive and hope to not have to handle the loss in the coming days and years can assuredly create false impressions of movement. It is heart wrenching and I have to calmly explain to the family that they are seeing things that are not there and assure them that their deepest wish is not going to come true.
The hardest of these moments for me was a young girl who lost her mother unexpectedly. She was probably early thirties and an only child. She had not been close to her mother in recent years and there was a ton of unresolved anger and sadness that turned to guilt when she died. The daughter was unmarried, and her father estranged, there was no other family to support her.
When she came in to see her mother’s body, she brought with her four of her friends for support, one of them a hospice nurse. I walked them into the large viewing room, the lights were slightly dimmed, and the woman lay on a table covered to her shoulders with a sheet. The daughter was rightly upset, and emotion overtook her as the girls stepped up to the body. I felt the daughter had all the support she needed so I stepped out into the hallway to give them time alone, letting one of her friends know that I was right outside the door if they needed anything.
It took less than a minute for one of the girls to burst through the door into the hallway practically yelling, “Call 911, she is still alive!” and “Call a doctor quick!” I have to say that I was only surprised because one of these girls was a hospice nurse. She should know that dead bodies don’t come back to life funeral homes. Yet, this is what happened, and the girls were most assuredly feeding off of each other’s frantic energy.
I calmly walked her back into the room and listened as they all told me the same story of an eye twitch. I thought it best to look the woman over again myself in an effort to look like I was investigating the situation, but she was just as still as before, not at all twitchy. I turned around and addressed the girls while standing next to the dead woman explaining to them what they were or, more accurately, were not seeing. To give context, the woman had not been embalmed, there would not be a service and she was to be cremated later that day.
I remember the daughter as if it happened yesterday. She turned to me with clear, bright blue tear filled and hopeful eyes as she argued that maybe the doctors got it wrong “Can you please just call?” she pleaded. My heart ached for her. Her pain was real and tangible. She argued where had seen a show where a dead person was only in a coma that made them appear dead and then later came back to life. So, after more explanation of the trickery of our eyes and helping them understand the real, hard truth, the girls finally calmed down. The daughter slumped her shoulders and hung her head in resignation and I asked her friends to come into the hallway with me and leave the daughter to have a final conversation with her mom and hopefully resolve some of the guilt that she will undoubtedly struggle with for the rest of her life.