Sunday, 21 May 2017

He Was Dad To The Core

Three years ago, I officiated a service for a woman who had died and I watched her heartbroken husband, who was suffering with dementia, trying to make any sense of what was going on.  He saw his family in sadness, he knew we were at a funeral home.  It was apparent that his mind was in disarray, like a jigsaw puzzle, and he struggled to make those pieces fit.  The look in his saddened, lost eyes broke my heart.  I hugged him at the end and he looked at me as if to say “who the hell are you”.  I loved him instantly. 

I received a call recently that “Peter” had died and was asked once again to join his family in remembering their Dad and Grandpa.  One night we sat around the kitchen table planning his service and the subject of his visitation and open casket came up.  His family shared with me that his “Sally” would be in his casket with him and would be laid to rest with him.  I inquired as to who Sally was and they shared this story with me:

2 years ago, they arrived at the care facility to find a doll cuddled in with Dad.  He had his arm around her and was sleeping in his chair.  They inquired of the staff if they had given the doll to their Dad; the staff had assumed it was his family that had done so.  He named her Sally and from the moment she arrived in his life she became his “baby”.  She went everywhere with him.  She was beside him for meals.  She’d accompany him on his many strolls around the care facility.  She slept with him; his arm around her.  He was most concerned for her well-being.  He would ask her if she was hungry.  He would ask her if she was thirsty.  Sally became his purpose and in his rapidly shrinking world, she became his comfort and security.  I was so moved by the story because within that story, it told a story of a man’s instinctive ability to love and protect his children; even when his mind had been plagued with illness, or in other words, no matter what!  He somehow knew it was his job to protect and nurture his baby.  When I paid my respects to “Peter", my heart filled with joy when I saw Sally safely tucked in his arms.  “Peter” keeping her safe; and she keeping him safe. With his family’s permission I shared “Peter's” and Sally’s story.  He was lover and protector of his family and we celebrated that.  To this day, we still don't know where Sally came from.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

A Hero Out Of Nowhere

I remember getting the call from the funeral home that there was a family in need of my help with their father's funeral.  An elderly gentleman had died and his son, who I'll call "Wayne", was my contact.  I had no idea this next life experience was about to have the profound impact on me that it ended up having.  Let's just say Wayne turned out to be MY hero.

I called Wayne and we set up a time to meet.  We agreed to meet at a Second Cup restaurant in South Edmonton Common the next day.  I explained the purpose of our meeting was to plan his Dad's service which would include conversations about music, poetry, readings, life stories etc.  I learned he had a brother and a sister but neither had been too involved in their Dad's life.  During that same phone conversation I also learned that Wayne had been his Dad's caregiver for the last several years and was the guy who drove him to all of his appointments, drove him to get groceries, run errands and whatever else he could do to help his Dad. His brother hadn't seen his Dad in some time as he lived in a different city and was too busy with his career to get away.  His sister lived nearby but Dad only heard from her when she needed some financial help.  As we ended the phone call, he said "I'm doing this for my Dad and no one else.  It's the last thing I'll get to do for him".  I thought to myself, what a great guy.  I can't wait to meet him.

The next day I arrived at the coffee shop and awaited Wayne's arrival.  It was about five minutes after we planned to meet and I went out into the parking lot to see if he was there.  There were a couple vehicles moving about but I couldn't see him.  I glanced across the parking lot and saw a red pick-up pull in and the driver got out and looked like he couldn't walk very well.  He as much as pulled himself along the side of his truck and opened the back door and pulled a wheelchair out and unfolded it, pulled himself up into it and started wheeling toward the restaurant.  I turned away, a bit embarrassed that I had stared at this man but I was in such awe of what he was doing.  The next thing I hear, "Are you Todd?".  I was suddenly the most humble man in the world.  It was Wayne, and he was the man in the wheelchair.  The man who was his Dad's caregiver and chauffeur and the man who was planning his Dad's life celebration; all on his own.  We had a great conversation that day and I learned he had been in a car accident when he was younger (he was about 50 now) and was paralyzed from the waste down.  Rehab had helped him to get where he was but he hadn't improved in years. He said "these are the cards I was dealt, I'm doing my best.".

The Life Celebration was awesome, his brother read a eulogy, his sister wept uncontrollably and Wayne sat in his wheelchair in what seemed to be in total peace and contentment.  He had a smile on his face and eyes closed for most of the service.  As we ended our time that day, I stepped down from the podium to shake hands with the family (which is what I normally do) and when I approached Wayne, I leaned down, put my arms around him and whispered in his ear "buddy, you are my hero".  He looked up at me, winked and said "I could say the same.  Dad's service was perfect".  A tear rolled down his cheek.

Always grateful for these beautiful life moments and experiences and the amazing people I have the privilege of meeting.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Remembering Your Loved Ones This Holiday Season

For most, the holiday season will be a time filled with joy, fun, gifts, great food and spending time with special people and loved ones.  For others, it may be a time of sadness and broken hearts especially if they have lost a loved one during the past year.  Losing a loved one is never easy and first occasions following their passing such as birthdays, anniversaries and special holidays like Christmas can be especially difficult as there will be an emptiness felt with their absence.  Nothing anyone can say or do will seem to make it easier.  It is simply a journey that everyone will have to take at some point in their lifetime.  And, depending on the circumstances surrounding their departure (i.e. expected or not, young or old) this may have some bearing on the intensity of ones grief; however, grief is grief and it is real.  Embrace it.

I encourage families that I work with to embrace their loved one's memory during the holiday season.  As difficult as it will be, try to talk about them and times shared together.  Try not to allow the 'elephant in the room' to exist.  Just because their physical being is no longer present does not mean conversations about them should not occur.  Perhaps there was a special holiday tradition they were responsible for or participated in.  Continue these traditions in their honour.  Perhaps raise a glass of wine and toast them, giving gratitude for the many holidays you shared together.  Is there a special candle you can light in their memory?  Let the light from it warm your heart and environment; let it bring peace for they truly never leave; they are always present in your heart.  It is okay to cry; you miss them.  Try not to worry that you will upset others.  Your pain is your pain.  Speak freely of them; laugh at funny memories, roll your eyes at their quirks, share stories with others of the things you used to do with them.  All of these things will keep them alive in your heart forever.  No one can take this away from you.  It won't be an easy time however it shouldn't be a time where they are not mentioned and remembered for they were a big part of your life.  You can get through it; it just takes a bit of courage, strength and the belief that they would want you to remember them during the holidays as though they were sitting next to you.  The great news is that they are in your heart continuing to love you.

Have a joyous and peace filled holiday season.

Love, Todd

Friday, 2 November 2012

The Prostitute and the Funeral Director

Have you ever considered working in funeral service?  Funeral service is something most people typically do not aspire to as a career.  This was certainly the case with me (even though I had curiousities about the profession which I am sure we all do).  Trust me, had you asked me 8 years ago if I would consider a career in funeral service, I would have likely told you I could see myself being a prostitute before I would become a funeral director.  It was 2007 and I was 43 years old when I enrolled in the Funeral Director/Embalmer program through Mount Royal University in Calgary.  This blog describes the journey leading up to that decision. 

I had attended funerals since I was a child and in retrospect, there was something about funeral service that I was curious about but left it at that curiosity.  I remember the first funeral I attended for some distant relative; I must have been about 7 or 8 years old.  It was a bizarre experience and although I had a million questions, my parents were not the type to talk about taboo subjects like death and funerals.  I remember firing off a few questions before leaving for the funeral that day and hearing that I would not be allowed to attend if I kept asking questions.  Hence, I shut up and observed.  I remember being frightened by the big black hearse out front of the church; the casket, the flowers, people crying who I never saw cry before; and the fact there was a dead body in our midst. 

A few funerals later, I still had many questions but never had the nerve to ask; for whom does one ask a question about funerals?  I had no clue.  It seemed to be a topic not to be discussed and in those days, there was no internet to Google 'dead bodies' or 'caskets' or 'embalming' so I left it alone for years, assuming that whatever goes on behind the doors of a funeral home was secretive and only to be known by the people who worked there. 

It was 1992 when my world was rocked by the sudden death of my Mom who was 48 at the time.  She had apparently had a massive heart attack in her sleep one night and that was the end.   I was numb, distraught and angry…every emotion possible swirled through me as we prepared to plan her funeral and try to come to grips with her sudden death.  Amid all this emotion, I seemed to have a sense of calm about me (the neurotic one of three boys) and took it upon myself to assist my grieving dad in contacting the Medical Examiner, contacting the funeral home, contacting clergy and beginning the task of planning a funeral during what was the worst experience of my then young life (I was 28).  Remember, I had no experience with this; I was a health care administrator!  Some days later we entered the small town funeral home that would be entrusted with her care and to this day (20 years later) I remember walking into the office of the funeral director and having a seat with my Dad and two brothers.  He made small conversation with us, all I could hear was an old radiator heater hissing and clunking; otherwise the building seemed exceptionally quiet except for his occasional business-like chatter.  He made some comment about his trip to Red Deer to retrieve her body from the hospital and quipped "trying to get her body out of that hospital was like trying to get gold out of Fort Knox!"  I will never forget that.  He then went on to show us caskets and we chose one (even though we were cremating her) and planned to view her body that Friday evening.  He said to my Dad, "Fred, you remember the colour on her face and chest, black like barbeque briquettes?  I can get rid of that when I massage her skin when the fluid is being pumped into her".  I thought I was going to faint.  It went from bad to worse when discussing her hair, the fact that we did not bring undergarments with us…"well, I suppose I can go buy a bra" said the funeral director, "I'll just add it to your invoice".  I remember seeing her body for the first time and pulling a chair close to her casket and not leaving her side that evening.  It was surreal.  I held her hand; I smelled her hair and face and kissed her cheek.  She smelled of vinegar.  I was not scared at all.  I just wanted my "Mommy" to warm up and wake up!  In the back of my mind, I could not help but feel that this awful experience was made worse by this man who seemed to be talking to us like we were redecorating our house rather than saying good bye to our Mom.    The actual funeral service is a blur to me and yet clarity strikes again for when we came out of the church and her casket was placed in the hearse I remember seeing booster cables and the hood of the hearse being opened.  Apparently it had stalled during the service and he needed a boost.  She was cremated shortly after and her cremated remains were kept at the funeral home until we buried her next to her parents the following spring.   I had helped my Dad in getting the plots and the day before we buried her, I went out to that cemetery in the small farming district where she grew up and started to dig her grave, in the pouring rain surrounded by the huge pine trees that grow there.  I remember vividly how I was shaking and crying and digging in the pouring rain; the pine trees seemed to whisper in the wind.  I was cold, scared and sad.  I covered the small hole with a piece of plywood and the next day my Dad and the rest of the family joined me and we buried her in a simple ceremony with just the small group of us.  Oddly, it was me who lead us in the Lord's Prayer; never to think I would be doing ceremonies for families some 25 years down the road.  That was the end of that experience but the beginning of something stirring in me.  Something deep inside told me I would be very good to people if this is what I did for a career.  Of course, with three small children, it would have been financially impossible to do at that time, but it was something that never left me.

Some years later, I was living in Vancouver and was the Director of Human Resources for a private business club and I also had a small consulting company where I assisted clients with human resources issues, customer service and business improvement strategies.  Life seemed ok albeit I missed being closer to my kids.  Unfortunately, I was working 7 days a week; sometimes 14 hours a day.  I had a few health issues going on and eventually got to the point where I could no longer work at that job.  My diabetes was completely out of control, I had been diagnosed with osteoporosis, I was completely depressed and anxious…the list is long.  I left my job at the private business club and had applied for long term disability and was approved under that employer's plan. 

Two months following my departure from that organization, my step son was killed in a car accident back in Alberta.  My ex wife had called me at 1:30 one morning and relayed the news to me and I was on the next flight back to Calgary.  We met with the investigating police officer who told us to contact the funeral home as they had picked up his body.  We did so and learned he was being taken to Calgary.  I wanted to see him but the receptionist did not know the whereabouts of the funeral director who had his body.  She gave us his cell number which we called and he didn't answer.  We called her back but she had left for the day (this was at noon on a Friday) and had the phones forwarded to an answering service that could not provide us with any information.  I was stunned at the actions of that small town funeral home and we decided to contact a funeral home in Calgary to assist us and to find out if I could see him that day.  The funeral director we were put in contact with was an angel sent to us from God that day.  He explained that unfortunately the Medical Examiner's office was closed for the weekend by this time but that he would have the body transferred to the funeral home on Monday morning and we could come in and see him that day.  In the meantime, we started to plan his funeral with the assistance of a friend who was a funeral director in our small town and she guided us through what needed to happen.  Mostly, we did everything ourselves.  Everything that a funeral home could have helped us with such as creating our own service folders, a video tribute, planning what would be said, who would say what, the catering etc.  We contacted a clergy in our town and he agreed to officiate at the service.  It was ironic that we had a religious ceremony for Caleb however we did not think there were other options.  Unbenounced to us, the pastor made some decisions to remove certain music from the service that he did not feel was appropriate for the service.  Really?  It was our kid's service not the pastor's!  I composed and read Caleb's eulogy that day; trying to express messages of hope to those in attendance.  When I flew back to Vancouver after his funeral, I knew that I wanted to enrol in the program and become a funeral director.  I discussed it with my disability manager and the counsellor I was seeing at the time and we all agreed this would be a good rehabilitative move on to new employment.  I enrolled in the program and started the course in January of 2007, taking most of it through correspondence and on line studies as I was still living in Vancouver. 

The next two years were filled with a lot of study but it was a program I was fascinated with and I thoroughly enjoyed.  And finally, some of these questions I had all these years were being answered.