Monday, November 10, 2008

What Is the Hardest Part of Your Job? Part II

(continued from previous post)

At that time, I was not a father. Nevertheless, I felt horrible seeing that tiny head. From my view, she looked like a little doll.

I stood motionless for a couple of minutes, wondering how I could ever accomplish the simple task to measuring her for height. "How does anyone do this?" I wondered.

After a few deep breaths, I got closer. Without looking directly at her face, I did my best to ascertain a measurement to bring back to the conference room. When I was sure I had a good measure, I could not help it. I looked directly at her face. Though men are not typically known for expressing tenderness, that's all I felt. To see a child lay there lifeless broke my heart.

To-date, I have never forgotten that face.

Somehow we got through the rest of the funeral arrangements with this family. A time and day was agreed upon, and they left to gather additional things we needed.

The child was dressed in a white outfit, which would have been suitable for a First Communion.

One of the most difficult times for a family during a funeral is the first time they get to see their loved one in the casket. This would certainly be no exception. Gently opening the door to let Mrs. Mom in to see her daughter, alongside her parents, was as difficult as the day we sat with them in the conference room. I closed the door behind them, as they walked slowly and defeated to the small casket. They relived the pain at the graveside, when they had to leave her behind for the rest of their earthly lives.

We were with this family a total of five days from the moment we were notified of the death, to the long good-bye at the grave. It was a true test for me. In the end, I did survive.

I had just experienced my official calling.

There's no other way to describe it. I could explain the logistics of how I met that director. I could say that a number of events led me to be in the same insurance educational course as he.

But, to be honest, looking back I have to say I was called to do this work. All events that led me to that first funeral home and what I have been able to do since then confirm it.

It was not easy to evolve into a persona that allows me to serve families in the darkest hour. There's so much speculation and fictitious stories about what happens in funeral homes, that overcoming those insecurities -- in the beginning -- was very trying, to say the least. As opposed to popular belief, most funeral directors don't get into the field with some morbid lust. If you ask any funeral director, "Why?" most will have tales of a previous experience in their family with a funeral home; being associated or part of a family that owns a funeral home; or as a second career (which I had a lot of in my mortuary school class). Yes, there are bad apples, but I'm confident they are the minority.

My family was initially devastated. Being Mexican American, I heard a lot of superstition associated with death. My immediate family -- my wife -- was nervous, but she'll tell you "she saw it coming."

I was actually relieved, as I progressed in the field, most of it -- superstition, urban legends, folk tales, et al -- are just not true. The dead are at rest.

A year after the first case involving two-year-old, I enrolled in mortuary school. Because I had a psychology major in college previously, I was able to get through it fairly easily and promptly. I entered my internship in 1998, and it would be then that my second difficult test came.

One Wednesday morning, I got a call at 2:30. It was my brother and he said, "Grandpa has died. The family wants you to take care of all his arrangements."

At the age of 25, the care of my family's patriarch was laid on my hands. He had been ill for some time, and we knew this day would come. My wife booked the first flight to El Paso. I put on my suit and headed to home.

I had instructed the funeral home in El Paso I would embalm him myself. As I drank my coffee on the plane, I kept asking in silence, "Can I do this?"

I arrived at the house late that Wednesday morning. The entire family was there. After greeting my parents and siblings, my grandmother literally collpased in my arms. She began to sob and there was not a dry eye in the house.

For the first time in my life, I was the man in charge of the family. All the men, including the senior members of my family, followed my lead.

Pressure? Yes. And incredible amount, but the experience elevated my confidence more than ever.

I headed to the funeral home. I entered the preparation room and could see my grandfather's face from a sideview. It was then, and only then, I broke down and cried. I held it in front of the family so they would know I could make take care of this.

The embalmer assigned to help me that day walked in the room. A former master sergeant of the U.S. Marine Corps, he put his arm around me and gripped my shoulder firmly. With a deep voice and determined look he asked, "Son, are you sure you want to do this?"

**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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