Sunday, November 9, 2008

What Is the Hardest Part of Your Job? Part I

Anytime my occupation comes up in conversation, that question is always asked.

By implication, everything about my job is. Most people tell me "they couldn't do what I do," which is a constant reminder of the unique situation I'm in. So often I have to defend the reason, as if I was castigated and made to do this.

It's a very interesting dynamic.

It's unnatural for anyone to think of death. We're not built that way, and if you are a person of faith, you have some understanding that this life is not all there is. As much as anyone tells you death is as sure as taxes, we don't want to think of it. Even friends of mine, who do not believe and are sure death is the end of the road, don't like to think about it. Their desire to live as long as possible is just as strong.

Some people also think that, because of my tenure in the field -- and my choice to be in it for that matter --, my feelings towards death are somewhat neutralized or non-existent. I've been told to my face I must have no feelings, or any I did have (always past tense) must be very cold (implying evil in some way).

In either case, I thought I'd post a multi-part defense of why I do what I do for any sake. After all, caring for our dead has been a practice since the beginning of time. Whatever you think of the Bible, the last verse of Genesis talks about Joseph's embalming and subsequent burial.

The Hardest Part

For me, after 13 years of doing this work, the hardest part is to see a mother cry for a lost child.

Nothing compares to that.

I cannot speak authoritatively about how it feels. I'm a father. At the sight of my child's pain, it instantly becomes mine. You want to endure any pain for you child. It's practically unbearable.

I cannot fathom the feeling of losing a child in death.

I said mother -- specifically -- because the face of a mother losing a child is something so strong, so intense, at times I wish I could ask the Lord, "Why?".

It's not to say father's don't feel -- or worse -- feel less. I've seen fathers grieve intensely. But, when talking about what is the hardest thing for me, that is it. Seeing a mother's face, especially at a grave site, where it is understood she has to leave her child behind, is practically unbearable for me. I have no qualms telling people mothers may be the closest thing to an angel.

For one mother, her devastation came on my first call to duty, on October 15, 1995. I had made my decision to join the ranks of practicing morticians in America, and though my journey to become a licensed practitioner would be three years from that date -- at the very least --, I officially took part in this case, which remains very fresh in my mind.

Her husband had decided he no longer wanted to be part of the family about a month before our story took place. This couple had come to the U.S. a few years before, and with an all-out effort became naturalized citizens, ready to enjoy the American way of life.

Mrs. Mother did not know that the change in lifestyle from her world in Mexico would eventually carry her husband off to other adventures. She and her husband had worked in her parents' farm in southern Mexico before their immigration, with sights on "the other side" (the U.S.).

It was a very small town in Mexico. It was quiet. It was inviting and scenic. It had one school, one grocery store, and a "plaza" (common term for town square) in the center of the town, where folks would gather after mass for fellowship and exchanging of news. If you needed to talk to anyone in the town, you had to call the grocery store and have one of the boys go get the person you needed. It was that kind of lifestyle, and though dreams of living in the U.S. appealed to Mrs. Mother in those days, she often thought this life would suit her just fine, too. But, it was all past tense now for her. The town continues to exist in its simplicity.

Because she had not worked outside the home in the U.S., she would have to move in with her parents, who had since moved here as well. Single motherhood was not in her plans. Nevertheless, a fighter she was, and now she had a daughter to rear, one who was born in Fort Worth. Thoughts of the simple farm life in Mexico were looming. Little did she know that it could get worse.

Mrs. Mother's daughter was only two. She loved to play in the front yard of her grandparents' home. Grandad was having a terrible time adjusting to life in the U.S. , but like his recently separated daughter, he was a fighter and felt an obligation to keep trying for the girls.

On a cool Sunday morning, grandad was having a particularly hard time with his daughter's recent separation. Anger flared up when he felt his daughter and granddaughter were not cared for by a husband who promised he would. Distracted and evasive, grandad decided a drive to his friend's house would help.

He got in his truck and began to back it up.

It's such a routine thing. Who has to think too much when backing up? Sure, you check the mirrors and hear for cars, but other than that, you don't expect any trouble.

Except, his granddaughter was outside. Playing. Behind the truck. Out of sight.

When Mrs. Mom was telling me this, she began sobbing intensely. I was sitting across her in the arrangement conference room. I began to sob with her and her parents. At the precise moment, I felt an emptiness I wasn't prepared for. I asked myself, "What have I gotten myself into? What can I possibly do to help this poor woman, who until an hour before, was a total stranger to me?"

I was not in charge of the arrangements. I was sitting in the conference with the director who was. That man and that moment was defining for me. I told myself, "If I am able to effectively deal with this situation in the manner of professionally serving this family, I will be a funeral director one day."

The director in charge of that funeral, that day, was my initial inspiration to become and continue the journey in funeral service.

When the sobbing eased, the director continued with the conference, always mindful and careful of his questions. His patience and sensitivity were key in directing them to the eventual goal of planning a funeral for a two-year-old.

I was asked by the director a favor. The selection of a casket is one of the hardest things a family has to do for their loved ones. Because children are extraordinary cases, it's not always clear which caskets are suitable, and care is taken in knowing the size of a casket for a child.

At that time, mom and grandparents were not sure how tall she was. The director said, " Will you please go to the preparation room (embalming suite where people are treated and cared for) and measure her for height?"

I had been in the preparation room before. I had seen other people in there -- never a child.

I slowly opened the main door. I immediately saw a small head, full of dark brown hair.

**I'm writing this as a multi-part series. I really feel strongly about what I do, and giving a detailed narrative of my first official case may express that to you. I have worked very hard to control my emotions with families I meet and have met since that dreadful day in October. I do that because when a family calls on me to help, my priority is guiding them respectfully, honorably and effectively through the worst day of their lives.

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