Elephant in the Room

I am an experienced funeral practitioner, and to this day, even though I do not mean to, and I really should not, I still hesitate, when I see a friend or family member, who has recently lost a loved one.  With all of the people I serve on a daily basis, one would think, I would have moved beyond that momentary awkwardness, when coming face to face, with a grieving friend. 

Why do we experience awkwardness, avoid or even ignore our grieving friends?  Is it because we fear inflicting further pain?  Perhaps we fear our inability to console.  Is it that we feel tongue-tied?  Could it be we just do not know what to say?  Maybe we fear making our friend cry.  Whatever the reasons, we need to understand, that our awkward reactions, do not help our grieving friends.  Indeed, these reactions have the opposite effect on them.  Our failure to recognize and respond to our grief stricken friends actually inflicts additional pain on them.  Alas, try as I might, overcoming this brief moment of hesitation, remains difficult for me, almost impossible actually, and I imagine it does for you too. 

I have learned over the years that the most important thing I can do for a friend who mourns the loss of their loved one, is simply act normally.  Understanding that this is impossible, I have moved beyond my weakness to do so, and have chanced upon the best alternative.  “Acknowledge the elephant in the room.” 

Mourners want and need most of all, to talk about their loss.  They need to work through what has happened to them.  Talking with someone who knows them and will not judge them, allows them to accept that death has happened, to realize that there is a new reality in which they must function, and redirects them to work out their road to recovery. 

Do not be alarmed.  This does not mean that every grieving acquaintance you have, will want to carry on a detailed conversation with you, about his or her loss.  A simple acknowledgement is more than sufficient.  “I was sorry to hear about your dad,” offers an acquaintance comfort.  Those same words, spoken to a dear friend, offer an appropriate opportunity for a healing conversation. 

As the year closes, and we look forward to 2014, I would suggest that you add this resolution to your list.
“Recognize the elephant in the room.”

If you will, you and your grief stricken friends will benefit from its practice.  You will also find that your discomfort is greatly lessened around the bereaved.  

Hidden Treasure

When I was a young girl, I loved scavenger hunts.  At a party, I would receive a list of ordinary things to collect from neighbors homes, along with one or two not so ordinary things.  The party host would divide the partygoers into small groups and off we would go on our own little treasure hunt.  Once we had collected all of the items; or, at the appointed time if we had not collected every item, we would return to the party home and compare treasures.  It was a very fun game filled with thrills of treasure seeking.

As an adult, I have a daughter who loves scavenger hunts of a different nature.  She is a teenage Genealogist sleuth.  She combs the internet, lists, books, old letters, documents and any other thing she can put her hands on, seeking information on our ancestral lineage.  When she finds her treasure, she is filled with excitement and happiness.  I have seen her diligently search for one bit of information for years on end, meeting one disappointment after another.  She remains ever conscientious though, knowing that if she remains focused and ever hopeful, her search will find success.  She has much more faith in the process than I.

When I was an intern for my professional license, I worked at a very old funeral home in Dallas, TX.  The building was huge and had those six feet wide columns across the front porch.  One day at work, I set about clearing out an old bookcase upon which sat a large collection of lovely leather bound books.  I would estimate that there were at least 40 of these books on the shelves.  They were very old, and some were showing signs of deterioration.  I asked the Funeral Director in Charge (FDIC) what he would have me do with these old, dusty, musty smelling, leather bound books.  He said, “Just through them away; I don’t know why we have them.”  His remarks startled me, and I have never forgotten them.  These old leather bound books dating back to the 1800’s were hand written ledgers, containing the vital statistics and personal impressions of the FDIC on every person this funeral home had buried for over 100 years.  Can you imagine coming across such a trove of hidden information?

My mother was a genealogist.  Perhaps that is where my daughter inherits such passion for her skill.  I remember my mother taking trips to the Deep South to visit old cathedrals in search for lost information in her family lineage.  Instead of spending our summers as our friends did, on the coast or at amusement parks, my siblings and I were packed into my mother’s station wagon to visit old relatives and catholic priests all summer.  We would return to our home just in time for school to begin.  Each day after school, we would sit and work on our studies.  My mother would sit at the dining room table with us.  She would comb through her newly acquired documents in search for illusive ancestral linkage.  She, like my daughter, would revel when she would find her bits of hidden treasure.

While writing this story this morning, I have placed a phone call to the old funeral home in Dallas where I interned.  The secretary has not yet arrived at work, so I have left a message for her.  I pray those old leather bound books filled with lost treasure have not been destroyed as the FDIC suggested.  I hope to rescue them and digitize them so that if there is a genealogist out there searching for a lost member of their family, they might find their treasure through my efforts.

Before becoming a funeral practitioner, I did not know about these books.  My mother would have jumped for joy if she had ever come across such a hidden treasure.  I hope that if you are searching for lost genealogical records, this information might help you find your lost loved ones. 

When I was a young girl, I loved scavenger hunts.  Gone are the days that I searched for common items.   I am now embarking on a hunt for hidden genealogical treasure, and mortuaries are my oyster.  

The Obit

Occasionally, I work with a family wishing to forgo the printing of the death announcement, a.k.a. obituary,  in the newspaper.  Before becoming a funeral practitioner, I, as these families, thought obituaries unnecessary and a bit obsolete, especially if the decedent’s circles of friends and family were small.  I have a rather small group of immediate and intimate friends and family, and have thought in the past, that when my time comes, the printing of an obituary would be unnecessary.  After becoming a funeral director and working with families for a few years, my opinion of the necessity of an obituary notice, printed in the newspaper, has most definitely changed.  It is a small bit of money, very well spent.

A death notice, a.k.a. obituary is a quick and fairly inexpensive way of notifying the living, that an acquaintance, friend, relative, co-worker, etc. has recently died.  It also informs them of the service dates and times if they wish to attend or send condolences.

The obituary lists the names of family who have preceded the decedent in death, as well as the survivors.  This is a very important part of the obituary.  Listing the preceding kinship and surviving kinship allows readers to recognize those in their community that will be entering bereavement.  It also allows them to link families and verify that they may, or may not know the decedent.  This knowledge also allows the community to understand the unusual melancholy behavior among the survivors with greater understanding and compassion.

The obituary may also be used by HR services, to verify and allow bereavement leave for family members.  It also verifies time off for staff and personnel wishing to attend services.  On occasion, it may be used for certain bereavement allowances and discounts.

The most important role of the obituary, however, is to link genealogy.  The listing of kindred dead and living survivors serves as a printed witness for family historians and genealogists.  Obituaries can be used as evidentiary paperwork to prove lineage when other documents are not available.  The obituary lists personality characteristics of the decedent, as well.  This information is a treasure trove for the generations that follow.  Saving and re-reading obituaries may serve as helpful therapeutic grief recovery tools in the months and years that follow a significant loss.

If you have suffered the loss of a loved one or expect a loss in the future, please consider the importance of a well-written obituary.  I have researched loved ones through obituaries.  If fortune is smiling upon me, there will be a picture included.  These tiny bits of genealogical treasure bring me great joy.