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 mbalmergirl@gmail.com 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”

See you in a few weeks!

Chelsea Tolman

D12193814A9549FA97F64D0D0B827AE2This series is meant to highlight beautiful funeral directors. Too many times we see and hear the media focus on the horrible things that happen in the funeral industry. I am here to prove that there is more good in our industry than bad. Every story in this series is written by the directors themselves.

Dennis K. Wesley

Dennis is the business owner of Funeral Directors First Call. He has been in the funeral industry for 26 years serving many independent and corporate firms with support services. He began his career in a small-town funeral home doing 150 calls a year. He owned a seasonal business and always had an interest in the funeral industry. He has been married for 31 years to Bobbie and has a 25-year-old daughter Tori. He is really into older cars, photography and enjoying great bands.

From Dennis:

I think that the service we provide is like what a priest does for his congregation. We are called upon to do a scared task of helping the loved ones get through a horrible time. I have a desire to help people and there is no better way than funeral service. Helping families get through the worst few days possibly of their lives.

I think all funeral professionals probably work way too many hours. I honestly have a problem with knowing when to stop and go home. I am very involved in my church and volunteer in many charities around Baltimore. That helps me relax and get up for the next call.

Years ago I was working for the medical examiner’s office and received a suicide call on Christmas morning 2006. I arrived to find a 9-year-old little girl who had hung herself. She had been abused by her stepdad and had begged her mother to make him stop. I can still remember getting her down and I was determined not to put her in a body bag. I had the mother come down and I let her say goodbye. I then proceeded to carry her lifeless body up the stairs and I turned my head and the stepfather was holding her little sister consoling her. That was a moment in my career that I saw the good and the bad of our industry. People don’t realize what we have to deal with on a daily basis. My Christmas will never be the same.

The funeral profession is not full of rich men and women who drive fancy Cadillac and Lincoln automobiles. We are everyday people who devote their life to serving the dead and their families. We are secretaries, lawn mowers, priest, counselors, police officers, painters, make-up artist, surgeons and everything else. We do all types of jobs in our duties as funeral professionals.

If you know of a funeral director who would fit in this series please send me an email (mbalmergirl@gmail.com) with who the person is and contact information. This series is planned to run each week in December but I may run another series again in the future.

Don’t forget to claim your copy of “Speaking of the dead”. For a limited time the kindle version in $2.99 paperback is $13.99. What a perfect gift for Christmas for you or someone you know. Click here to get your copy.

Bonnie Dalberg Ansley

This series is meant to highlight beautiful funeral directors. Too many times we see and hear the media focus on the horrible things that happen in the funeral industry. I am here to prove that there is more good in our industry than bad. Every story in this series is written by the directors themselves.

Bonnie Dalberg Ansley

Bonnie began working in the funeral industry in 2006. Her titles have included funeral director assistant, office manager, embalmer, funeral director, décor specialist and manager. Currently she holds a funeral director and embalmer license in Georgia.

How did you get into the industry?

At the age of 22, I lived in Augusta, Georgia working multiple jobs while majoring in biochemistry.  My father had suffered from chest pains while mowing the yard.  After resting inside a bit, he was taken to the local VA hospital and was told he was in the middle of a heart attack and needed an emergency triple bypass.  The surgery went well, but infection soon set in – his entire body had lost all it’s natural color, the open incision on his chest had turned green and purple and I naturally thought he was going to die.  I’ve encountered death before with classmates, a SIDS baby from my mother’s daycare and even extended family, but up to this point, never that close to heart.  I was devastated and thought “What do I do?  Who do I turn to?  What will happen when he dies?”  Thankfully, he recovered, but the impact of the trauma was so deep.  When he was strong enough, I made the decision that I wanted to be the one to take care of my dad.  I want to be the one to take care of everyone I loved and make sure they are taken care of the right way.  I moved to Atlanta within weeks to attend Gupton Jones and the rest is history.

This industry is hard, why do you do your job every day?

Because I make a difference in this world.  I work with intense passion and give my full talents and drive to each family I serve.  I see it on their faces, I hear it in their voices and I feel it when they embrace me.

What is your favorite part of the job?

My favorite part are the moments when I can take heartache and refocus it towards something positive.  For example, a family is riddled with anxiety and fear the first time that they enter their visitation room.  In their minds, they are expecting a dimly lit room filled with antique furniture and their loved one without any life in them.  What if, instead, the doors opened to reveal a room filled with that person’s joy?  A vignette against that wall overflowing with Elvis paraphernalia, and over there, a mannequin showcasing a vintage 50’s style dress, her favorite color can be found everywhere from backdrops to artwork to up lighting.  “Love Me Tender” is playing in the background and as they move closer to her, she’s dressed not in her Sunday best, but rather what people were used to seeing – jeans, a sweatshirt and her infamous fire engine red lipstick.  Now this… this is mom and she would’ve loved this.  Every attention to detail has been made for the family.  A framed photo of her family’s business is on display; there are Elvis ornaments to celebrate not only her love of “The King” but also her love of Christmas… this is all done without the family having to haul her personal belongings to the funeral home or any cumbersome work involved.  It was something created from someone who truly listened to the family and was able to capture enough of their loved one’s happiness into aesthetics that affect all their senses – taste (red velvet cupcakes to match her fiery personality and red lipstick), sight (all the visuals tastefully on display), sound (uplifting music), touch (holding the Elvis keepsakes in memory of “her”) and smell (Christmas tree air fresheners were placed inconspicuously around the room to fill the air with that crisp tree smell).

How do you balance work and home life, what do you do for self-care?

Self-care is something that I have struggled with throughout my whole career.  Life is an ever-changing journey and I am currently refocusing on my physical health at the moment.  I am down 32 lbs and counting.

Outside of work what are your hobbies/interests?

General merriment – eating, drinking, dancing or karaoke with good people and an uber driver when the night is over.

Tell us about your family, kids, spouses, pets etc.

My family is not traditional, but then again, whose is anymore?  My immediate family consists of my husband, Kyle, my fat little Chihuahua, Vlad, my german shepherd mix, Greta, and exotic “sea creatures” throughout the house.  I have so many people that are mutually considered family and it continues to grow.  I would trust my life to so many others and for that, I am blessed.

Tell a story about a family you have served, or body prepared that was especially significant to you personally

I remember serving a small family – there was the deceased and his wife.  The gentleman worked for Coca-Cola for decades and lived, breathed and of course, drank, Coca-Cola.  Everything was personalized in that Bonnie fashion where we focused on his love and passions.  I and the staff wore Coca-Cola clothing instead of suits, there was Coca-Cola paraphernalia everywhere that the public was present and at the very end of the service, I passed out cokes and diet cokes so that everyone could toast to this amazing man as I played the original 1971 commercial of “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke.”  The wife was grateful to experience so much love for her husband in an unexpected place, she has since continued to stay in touch with me.

What message would you like to give to the public about our profession?

The public image of a funeral director is terribly misguided.  We do not make six figures, I mean, I do drive a Cadillac…hearse that is and then my Nissan home.  We are not all the vampiric, pale men in a dusty suit hiding in the shadows – hello, I’m a perky, Asian American female in her mid 30’s.  We do not manipulate defenseless widows into overspending for an elaborate service.  I listen to what my family’s wants are.  After all, they are the ones in charge and I am only here to offer solutions.  I don’t care if someone is spending $1,000 or $10,000 – they deserve the same treatment and respect from me and that is what I provide.  Funeral directors wear many hats, but I assure you, con artist is not one of them.

If you know of a beautiful funeral director who would fit in this series please send me an email (mbalmergirl@gmail.com) with who the person is and contact information. This series is planned to run each week in December but I may run another series again in the future.

Don’t forget to claim your copy of “Speaking of the dead”. For a limited time the kindle version in $2.99 paperback is $13.99. What a perfect gift for Christmas for you or someone you know. Click here to get your copy.

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!

Click to buy now

Thank you to all of my supporters and followers, I am so grateful for your encouragement and excitement. I could not have done it with you!

I was informed of a husband and wife who were killed together in a car accident and our mortuary got the call. The couple had gone for a drive. Maybe they were going to the grocery store, maybe to see a movie, I didn’t know the details. What I did know was that somehow, they didn’t or couldn’t stop their car fast enough while driving behind a semi-truck. As a result, they ended up underneath the back end of the rig, ultimately shearing off the top of their car. Neither of them survived.

This would be my first opportunity to see, in real life and on the job, the destruction that motor vehicle accidents can have on a body and on their surviving family members. I remember the words of the director that I was working with. He explained that I was welcome to observe the couple, but I didn’t have to, there would always be others. He warned me that both bodies had been greatly damaged from the accident and this could be just too much for a young funeral assistant in the beginning days on the job. I hesitated for only a second before I assured him that I wanted this experience now. I felt this was like a rite of passage, preparing me for my career ahead. With a small nod he turned and beckoned me to follow.

I followed the funeral director down the long hallway in the back of the mortuary toward the garage where the couple lay waiting. The team that went to receive the husband and wife had only just gotten back and while they had removed them from the transport vehicle, they not yet been taken the pair inside the building. As we walked I couldn’t help but imagine what this would look like. In my young mind, influenced by TV shows and movies, I imagined the worst scenario possible. I had no idea what an accident this bad really did to a body and no real-life experience to compare it to.

The director opened the door to immediately reveal two cots sitting side-by-side, lying on each was an occupant enclosed in a thick black body bag, like the ones you see in crime TV shows. Surrounding the couple against the walls of the space were shelves that accompany any funeral homes garage. Ledges lined with boxes holding signs, water, towels and décor for the seasons. A tool box caught my eye reminding me of the things we were constantly fixing around the funeral home like loose door knobs and loose toilet handles. In the center of the garage stood a body lift (a device designed to assist lifting the deceased from tables into caskets). The room smelled slightly of exhaust fumes from the cars recently driven. The hearse and the flower van were parked on the opposite side of the room, silently witnessing what happens to people when vehicles are not driven carefully.

The image of the cots alone was enough to invoke just how tragic the situation was. Side-by-side they married each other, side-by-side they raised children together and side-by-side they got into their car that day. Now, side-by-side they lay on cots in the garage of a mortuary.

We walked to the cot closest to us and the director carefully unzipped the thick bag while I stood a few steps away. I slowly stepped closer to see the man lying inside, looking for blood and tissue and gruesome accident things. There was no way to identify him through facial features.  The man was wearing dark blue jeans and a shirt of red and blue plaid, all of which were soiled. Scattered about his head and what was visible of his clothing were bits of road debris, glass and shards of broken car pieces. He looked like he had been created out of wax and cosmetics like a movie prop for a horror film, he just didn’t look real. What hit me first though was his wallet, lying on his belly it was encased in a sealed plastic bag that had biohazard printed in red over the top. It probably held his driver’s license, credit cards, and memberships passes, never to be used again. There was a handful of change that I imagined, like most men he kept in his pocket and jingled absently while standing in conversation, a set of keys that at one time resided in a bowl on the counter in their home or hung on a hook next to the door, patiently waiting for the next drive to the grocery store. In that moment my heart sank as I realized that his children had just lost both of their parents, without warning and without getting to say goodbye.

Years after this experience, I bought a house in a small town in the South that reminded me of this couple. The house had been owned by a husband and wife who had also died in a car accident together. The children they left behind did all they could to get through their pain and loss yet ultimately could not bring themselves to clear out the house that they grew up in. It was just too painful. On my first walkthrough, it looked just like someone had left unexpectedly and never came back. Tiny house shoes sat next to the door patiently waiting their owners return. A shelf of cookbooks in the kitchen held instructions for meals and treats for family gatherings. Each room had its own tale of previous use. A sewing machine whispered that there was hemming left undone, closets full of clothes never again to be worn by their intended owner. The house had sat empty of life long enough for the cobwebs and moisture of the South to take up residence. The air was thick and moldy, and it was dim due to lack of electricity, the only light was what came through the windows which were covered in cobwebs and dust. So naturally, my thoughts went to this first couple I had experienced accidental death with. Lying next to each other on cots in black body bags surrounded by garage things, nestled amongst their belongings that they had taken with them that day and their children who were left with a only a house full of memories.

Tragedy is a necessary part of this job. When people ask me questions of how I handle these situations every day, my mind almost always drifts to this couple. The children were never going to see their parents again. They had to trust the doctor that their parents were dead, they had to trust that the funeral director had the right bodies and they had to deal with other family members, friends and a lifetime of remembrances that they were not yet ready to dismantle and sell to a stranger. So, it shouldn’t be how I could handle these things, the question should be how could I not? The families who survive the death of a loved one, always have it worse than I.

I was not involved in making the arrangements for this couple, but I was present when they were laid to rest. It was a chilly fall day and we were surrounded by huge trees half covered in orange and red leaves that dotted the cemetery beyond our blue funeral tent signifying the end of one season and preparing for the next. Surrounded by their children this husband and wife, just like they did in life, will for all eternity be side-by-side.

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.

“Doo Wop”

High school. A place of judgement, cliques, and where the popular mix with the unpopular. All must all interact together though, living and dreaming in the same space. It is the stage set for the best and the worst experiences in life.

He was a jock, a football player and he wanted to be my boyfriend. He was cute, but I was sure that his only reason for wanting to date me was that someone made him a bet. You know the story, jock hits up the geeky girl and gets her in bed only to get kudos from his other jock friends. And he was relentless! Always hanging around, always trying to tell me how pretty I was. And it pissed me off! Why would this guy, who could have any girl in the school, want to have anything to do with me? I blew him off. He kept it up. Then, finally I told him we could be hang out. I was sure that he would get bored and move on, there were too many other girls that were much easier to get than me. And so, we dated, and he stuck around. After some months of dating, I was starting to feel like maybe he was for real, maybe he did like me, maybe this could be a thing.

One night me and a couple of my friends went out cruising the strip. This was the thing every high school kid in Las Vegas did on the weekends. We drove up one side of the road lined with casinos and fast food restaurants, made a U-turn and then drove back down the other side of the road lined with different casinos and fast food restaurants.  We repeated this over and over again, occasionally stopping for food or to say hello to other people in cars in parking lots. The only point of this was to be seen in your car, waving at the people you knew in other cars and then go home.

Suddenly we were flagged down by a truck full of girls. Neither me or my friends knew who they were but decided to pull over anyway. As we pulled into a Wendy’s parking lot and a girl jumped out from the back of the truck before it even stopped and immediately stormed right towards, me looking like she was ready to fight. Her body hunched with purpose, fists balled up and long blonde hair swinging at her back to the momentum of her steps. I had been in fights before, it seemed to be my curse. Some girl doesn’t like me for whatever reason and the ONLY resolution, of course, is to try and beat me up. Well, I did not know this girl and had no idea what she wanted, so I braced myself for whatever crazy she was bringing with her. As she approached she was screaming something unintelligible. She raised her arms from her sides periodically and as she got closer to me in-between her strange rant I did catch her saying something about a fiancé? Which just deepened the mystery of the whole thing. Once she got close to me I asked her what the problem was and that I didn’t know her or her fiancé. Then she said his name. It was him! My boyfriend, this guy that told me I hung the moon, that spent all of his free time with me! The girl was from another high school and as I tried to wrap my head around this news, I could only guess that he thought the two of us would never meet or ever find out about each other. The girl finally calmed down when she realized I really had no idea he had been dating someone else. We talked it out and accepted that we were both being played. She told me that they had been dating for two years and had plans to marry after high school. I told her not to worry, the creep would never hang out with me again. As we talked she visibly went from a raging maniac with flailing arms and chest puffed out to a defeated young teenage girl, shoulders slumped, arms limp, heartbroken and crushed. We each said our peace and then went our separate ways.

That night I was staying at a friend’s house. We got to her house and changed into pajamas. Then sat together on her trundle bed. We had the lights in the room turned off but had candles burning on a dresser which reflected light off of the walls and ceiling giving the room a soft, calming glow. We talked about all that had happened. To show my age this was the era of En Vogue, a girl band that was really popular and always on the radio. They had a hit song called “My lovin’” (You’re never gonna get it). The chorus of that song has a line where they say “Ooooh, bop”, which to us sounded more like “Doo Wop” and was terribly similar to Mr. “I need a girlfriend from every school” ‘s last name. So, we played the song and happily sang it inserting his last name into the chorus laughing and giggling like teen girls do. I had moments of angry rants about being betrayed and I had moments of real sadness at losing my boyfriend.

As we were talking and singing and laughing, the phone rang. It was one of those clear plastic phones where the guts inside were covered in bright neon colors and lit up so when you had the phone on silent you still knew you had a phone call and your parents would never hear it. I think every teen girl had one during the 90’s. My friend answered the phone and low and behold, it was Mr. Doo Wop wanting to talk to me which, of course, I refused at first. After he pleaded a bit with my friend, I finally agreed to get on the phone thinking I knew what would happen. He would give a slick “I am sorry, it’s really only you, she means nothing to me speech followed with “we are good right?”. This is what I imagined. But it was nothing like that. He did say that he was sorry, but he needed me to understand his side, he sounded desperate and anxious. He told me that the other girl was controlling and wouldn’t let him break up with her, serious eye-roll here. Then he said that the girl had actually broken up with him that night and he needed to talk to somebody and he said that talking to me always made him feel better. I was feeling indignant and jaded that he had the gall to ask me to help him through his own sorrow of getting caught despite the fact that internally I wanted to help and talk him through this. My response to him was that he would get no sympathy from me and I promptly hung up the phone. He called a few more times begging to talk to me but refused and didn’t talk to him again.

I am an empath. I feel other people’s feels and he was in real pain. He was so distressed and clearly didn’t know how to handle it. At that moment though, I didn’t care. In that moment I knew that there would never be a relationship between us, I felt that in a few days he would go back to her and they would make-up and life would continue the same way it had before as if all of this had never happened. I was so very wrong.

It was the weekend, so my friend and I stayed up late that night going over all of things that had occurred. We did finally doze off planning to sleep all of the next day as teens do on the weekend. Instead, we awoke to the ringing of the brightly colored phone. My friend answered, and I stayed right where I was, pulling the covers tighter to my chin, nothing good could come from a phone call this early in the morning. I listened to the one side of the conversation that I could hear and before my friend hung up the phone I was already sitting up and knew that “Doo Wop” was dead. Not that I “knew knew” because no one had told me yet, but I knew because I heard the desperation in his voice the night before. The pleading, not that I would take him back, but that by talking to him I could somehow give him comfort. He had been found by his younger brother who was a toddler at the time. The child had gone to wake him up for breakfast and found him lifeless lying on his bed, he had shot himself in the head with a shotgun, an image no one should see, especially a toddler.

The day of the funeral my friends and I found our seats. “Doo Wop” had been cremated and his urn was tastefully displayed at the front of the chapel. I saw his mother and his other girlfriend “fiancé” sitting in the front row. As we waited for the funeral to start we heard gasps coming from behind us. I turned around and to mine and everyone else’s surprise, there he was! Walking down the aisle, whole and unharmed. In complete shock, me and most of the crowd watched this man walk to where his mother was sitting, he bent down, gave her a hug and then sat next to her on the pew. What was happening? Was this a joke? I turned my head in all directions to get a look at the crowd around me. Some were talking to each other in whispers, some looking around confused like me and some sitting quietly with no reaction at all. If this was a joke, it wasn’t funny. After talking with some of the people near us, my friends and I learned that the man who had just walked down the aisle was actually Doo Wop’s older brother. I was still stunned. That moment of thinking he wasn’t dead and that this whole thing was just a joke gave me a hell of an adrenaline rush. The crowd finally settled down and it was time to start the service. Several people got up to the pulpit and said such wonderful things about him. And he was wonderful and so young. He had a kind heart and loved his family. His death was a real tragedy and affected many students at the school. I can only imagine what his family was going through.

I don’t remember the funeral, I don’t remember what happened after the funeral. I will always remember the phone call. The plea for help. Not because he was upset over a girlfriend matter but that there was clearly something else going on. And I had ignored it. I don’t blame myself for not talking to him that night, there was no way I could have known what was going to happen. I do however hope that if I ever recognize that same desperation for help, that I will take a moment, follow my gut and listen.

Her hands were clutched in front of her making small nervous motions as she walked. She was slightly bent from age like something heavy weighed upon her shoulders and her feet shuffled along the carpet. Her head was down, her eyes focused on the floor and she never looked up as she walked seeming to be nervous of what was to come and why she was here. She was surrounded by her children who, whether on purpose or not, ringed her protectively as they all entered the funeral home. As I walked towards them I adjusted my suit and checked that my buttons on my jacket were closed, always wanting to look professional and capable. I observed the group for signs of defensiveness, fear, sadness, or any of the other “feels” that are typical of people who have just experienced a death. She came across as nervous and in need of comfort and support, her family around her were shielding and wary.

I greeted her first, extending my sympathies that the death of her husband was the reason we were meeting. I stretched out my hand with the intent of holding hers for just a moment and hopefully create some sense of ease that is needed in these instances, but she quickly recoiled both hands to her chest and sank into her crowd of defenders, still never looking up but in a mighty voice she demanded, “Who are you?!” I took a small respectful step back and answered, “I am your funeral director.” In response she looked up into my eyes and with a glare belying her previously nervous stature said, “Well, I … don’t … like … you.” Proving that sometimes I am wrong in my assessment of people.

In hindsight, moments such as these can be comical. But the distress experienced while they are occurring is real and painful. Some people fear the mortuary and the funeral director, choosing to believe that we are out to get their money and steal their loved one’s body parts.  They choose to be cocooned in a world where death doesn’t exist for them. I admit, this is the easier way – until someone dies. Then, it becomes a trauma that no one should have to experience. It is hard to watch someone internally wrestling with what they perceived wasn’t even possible to the reality that it has happened and now they are living a nightmare.

In an attempt to take the hostility out of her comment and show her that I did not take her remark personally, I answered with a friendly smile and said “Of course, I understand.” I made my introductions to the rest of the family who were silently mouthing to me “I’m sorry.” I waved them off, assuring them that it was fine and then spoke to them all as a whole as to what they should expect while they were there with me. I then asked them all to follow me and turned around to lead them to the room where we would be spending the next hour or so together. As I walked away I heard the widow say “I don’t trust her, let’s get someone else.”

Comments like these usually come from being in pain and in shock and not knowing what to do with these emotions. It can’t be taken personally. I knew at this moment that it wouldn’t matter who her funeral director is, she would feel the same about any of us. So, understanding this, I continued walking away, acting as if I didn’t hear her.

During the time we spent together making arrangements, most of the questions I asked the widow were ignored by her and had to be repeated by a family member. I would ask a question, a family member would echo my question to her, and only then would the widow give an answer. She was determined to show me who was boss, and I was obliged to let her think she was in control. This went on during the entire arrangement. The family would give each other side glances, roll their eyes and sometimes even giggle at the absurdity of how their mother was behaving. At one point the daughter asked her mother “Why don’t you just answer the lady?” and again she said, “I don’t like her.” And so, we continued the ask twice, answer once regime. Which made me also giggle internally at the widow’s resolve to be difficult.

When it was time for them to leave I walked them to the door and said goodbye, addressing the widow by name. I heard her grunt and mumble something I couldn’t make out as she ignored me and walked out the front door. Her daughter stayed behind to apologize for her mother’s behavior which I could only respond with that she was in grief and scared and sad and her behavior was nothing for them to worry about. The daughter was truly embarrassed. I assured her that I was not offended and with a smile I told her that her mother has great personality. She gave me a big smile, thanked me again and left to join her family in the parking lot.

As a funeral director, I am subject to see all kinds of emotions. Sad, angry, numb, these are all things I expect from families during the time I interact with them. I didn’t feel threatened by the widow’s behavior, I felt sad for her pain. And to be honest it does make me giggle a little when sweet little old ladies are rude, as it belies the behavior we expect from our elders.

The next time I saw the widow was when the family came in for a private family viewing. I had the man dressed and in his casket. I made sure his shirt was pressed and tie was straight. As the family walked into the lobby, I addressed the widow again, making sure that this time I stayed at a distance and didn’t reach for her hand. She looked at me but said nothing. I greeted the rest of the family with hugs and walked them to the door where I had their father’s body ready and waiting for their arrival. I talked them through what they would see once I opened the door, where the casket was located, what flowers had arrived and that they should take as much time as they needed, and that the room was theirs for however long they stayed.

I opened the door and allowed the family to walk in first. I stepped in behind them watching how the widow reacted to seeing her husband for the first time since his death. She walked up to the casket and placed a hand on his chest, her head was bowed forward and she was quickly surrounded by her children with their arms around her shoulders. I walked out of the room and quietly closed the door behind me.

The widow never fully warmed up to me, but she at least stopped being rude. She allowed me to direct her husband’s funeral and burial. Her children were no longer apologetic but grateful that I handled the situation so well and accomplished creating a memorable funeral for their father.

My hope for the widow is that she found a way to calm her inner turmoil and grasp the joy that her children and grandchildren will bring her as she learns to survive without her husband. I will continue to love the families I serve no matter how they act towards me.