A Life’s True Calling

life's true calling

My friend Kimberlee Baer says her response is sometimes a conversation starter. At other times it can bring a conversation to a screeching halt.

The question: “What do you do for a living?” Her response: “I’m a licensed funeral director.”

Presently most funeral directors are male. The percentages vary depending on a) whether you’re looking at just the United States or the world, and b) whether the site combines funeral directors with morticians and/or undertakers.

The National Funeral Directors Association, whose members are from the US and 49 other countries, states that 16% of its membership is female. But in an article from NextAvenue.org titled “Why Your Funeral Director Will Likely Be Female,” the author tells us a strong shift is occurring. In the last few years, more women than men have enrolled in America’s 59 accredited mortuary science programs. And in 2016, 61 percent were female.

Kimberlee’s mom (a registered nurse) had encouraged her daughter to find her life’s calling in the medical field. As a science buff while in high school, Kimberlee thought that embalming was a fascinating topic. On senior career day, she chose to shadow a funeral director.

Earning a B.S. in biology, she spent two years in mortuary school and did a two-year residency in Chester, Virginia. Shortly after that, she responded to a funeral home’s ad of looking for an apprentice. She took that position and has been with the independent family-owned funeral home ever since.

Kimberlee has seen many changes over the years, and if we ourselves think about it, we can realize how end of life services have evolved. They used to be somber events, no photos or videos, with just sad music.

Now “celebration of life” services often replace a funeral. There are photos and videos showing the person when he or she was enjoying life. Playlists enable us to hear the person’s favorite music. Often people will include warm or funny stories in their eulogies. People attending the reception share favorite moments of the deceased and laugh as they remember the best times, the most poignant times, of the person’s life.

When I asked Kimberlee to share the most unusual service she had directed, she didn’t pause. This particular man had loved being on his sailboat. His life had basically revolved around sailing so he had left specific instructions for his celebration of life service. Palm trees with tiny lights and antique rum bottles decorated the room. A band played Jimmy Buffet music. Guests were requested to wear shorts, t-shirts, and flip flops. Apparently, it was quite the send-off and everyone agreed that the deceased would have thoroughly enjoyed it.

As for the most difficult moments she faces in her role, she named three. The first instance she referred to is a sudden tragic death such as from an accident; the person was here one moment and the next they were dead. Family and friends are in shock and are sometimes barely able to focus.

A second has to do with her location in a small town; often the deceased is someone she knows and/or she knows their family. The personal connection makes it much harder.

And then, coming as no surprise, is the death of a child. Regardless of how old that child is, comforting a bereaved parent is the most difficult aspect of her work. Kimberlee shared the story of a baby who had died of SIDS. The mom had come in to plan the service and the two of them were still standing when the mom just collapsed into her arms. Kimberlee lowered them both to the floor where they stayed while the mom cried and they talked. Together they got through the planning of the service.

Kimberlee feels it is her life’s purpose to be with those who are facing the finality of death. She is able to remain calm, yet loving and compassionate, with those who need her. While seeing so many different sides of grief (anger, denial, heartbreak), Kimberlee has the ability to gently guide people through their most difficult time.

The two of us are new friends who were brought together on a Facebook community page. But that’s a story I’ll tell another time. For now, I’ll simply say that the world is a better place because of her.

~~~~~~~~~~

Next Avenue article

At A Loss For Words

at a loss for words

Occasionally that first year after October 2008 I would run into acquaintances who had basically ignored the death of my son. It seemed to be the same routine each time. They would offer up something like, “I’m sorry I didn’t reach out to you when Tim died. I just didn’t know what to say.”

That forced me into the role of offering comfort and absolution to the offending party. “Oh it’s OK. I know it’s hard for people to be around a grieving parent.”

Well, guess what. No, it’s not OK. And yes, it is difficult to be around people who have lost someone they deeply love whether it’s a child, parent, sibling, spouse, or friend. But it’s the correct action to take. Avoidance is never the right answer.

Twice this week I have found myself in conversations about offering condolences. Because often the people who do show up or send cards or call after a death make statements that are not helpful.

“She’s in a better place.”  Really? The place I want her to be is right here by my side.

“It will all work out for the best.”  I can’t even imagine living a life without him so how is that supposed to work out for the best?

“God never gives us more than we can handle.” So if I had been a less strong person, God wouldn’t have let her die? Can I have a do-over? I promise to be weaker.

In his 1981 bestseller When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner writes on how ashamed he was of having offered such statements to bereaved people early in his ministry. When Kushner’s son Aaron was 3 years old, the child was diagnosed with progeria. Extremely rare, occurring one in twenty million newborns worldwide, the disease is identified by NIH as “dramatic, rapid aging characterized by baldness, aged-looking skin, a pinched nose, and a small face and jaw relative to head size.”

The average lifespan is early teens and the Mayo Clinic says that death is usually due to heart attack or stroke.

When Kushner went through the heartbreak of his son suffering all of his short life and then dying at fourteen, the Rabbi found himself on the receiving end of empty platitudes such as noted above. And his responses pretty much paralleled the responses I provided.

So what words can we offer in times of tragic circumstances? I am asking my tribe of readers and Facebook friends to share with me words that most comforted you when you faced a tragedy. My guess is that (unless you are very young or extremely fortunate) everyone reading this has lived through at least one heartbreaking experience. Please identify the experience (death of a loved one, a terminal illness, divorce, serious injury or illness, dementia in a loved one, or other) and the words you heard or read that lifted an unbearable burden if only for a day, an hour, or even a few moments.

If you’re not comfortable responding as a comment on this post, you can always email your response privately to me at Norma.Thatcher@LiftedUp.us. Then I’ll share the responses I receive in a future post in the hope of enabling us all to find the right words. I won’t identify you by name, only by the experience and comforting words.

Thank you for sharing not only your response but I’m asking you to share this post with others and/or on your Facebook page.

~~~~

NPR article on Rabbi Kushner 30 years later

 

How To Not Forget

how to not forget

Several commercials that first aired during this year’s Superbowl have people talking. Google’s Loretta is one that many folks are responding to with deep emotion.

The commercial tells the love story between the unnamed man narrating and his late wife Loretta. Obviously elderly, he appears to be fearful of forgetting the details of what their life together had been like.

When it opens we see his computer monitor as he’s typing a Google query “how to not forget.” Part of the advice we see for holding onto memories is to repeat them.

Then the man requests the voice-activated Google Assistant to show him photos of Loretta and himself. We see photos from the recent past as well as older pictures from when they were newlyweds and middle-agers traveling to Alaska. The man offers verbal commentary such as, “Remember that Loretta hated my mustache!”

Each time he says the phrase “remember” the Google Assistant types back, “OK, I’ll remember that.”

We see a clip of Loretta’s favorite movie (Casablanca) and short videos of her with their young children.

As the commercial comes to a close, we see some of the memory markers he has asked Google to remember…that Loretta used to hum show tunes, that her favorite flowers were tulips, that she had beautiful handwriting. At the end, the man says, “Remember I’m the luckiest man in the world,” presumably because he had loved (and been loved by) Loretta.

The reason why this commercial tugs so darned hard on our heartstrings is because it’s based on truth. It’s the story of a Google employee’s 85-year-old grandfather who actually voices the commercial.

In today’s hurry-up-preoccupied world, we may subconsciously long to be known as deeply as the unnamed husband knew Loretta—all the little things that made Loretta a unique person.

My guess is that, after viewing the commercial, many of us wondered what our loved ones might say about us. What little idiosyncracies set us apart? What is OUR favorite movie, favorite flower, favorite song?  What makes us laugh? And what makes us cry? What’s something we’re truly passionate about? And what family story have we told too many times but still laugh every time we tell it?

Life is so short. But it’s packed with thousands upon thousands of little memories. We just need to make a point of learning how to not forget them.

Even if you’ve watched Loretta already, be sure to watch it again (link below) with new eyes and understanding.

And just for the record, I have terrible handwriting but my favorite song is For Always by Josh Groban and Lara Fabian.

~~~~

The Loretta commercial

The story behind the ad

Blog from Lorraine Twohill, Chief Marketing Officer of Google

For Always

A Peace Page A Day

a peace page

Last June I gave a dear friend (who at the time had just been diagnosed with ovarian cancer) the gift of a year in the form of a National Geographic book: Daily Peace, 365 Days of Renewal.

The book’s jacket encourages readers to “Pause to reflect, enjoy life’s simple pleasures, and renew your spirit with the timeless wisdom of Daily Peace. Filled with elegant photographs and thoughtful quotes, this inspiring book will provide perspective and meaning every day of the year.”

National Geographic has a series of these 6”x7” by 1 ¾” thick perpetual calendar books. Besides Daily Peace, they include

  • Daily Kindness, 365 days of compassion
  • Daily Joy, 365 days of inspiration
  • Daily Gratitude, 365 days of reflection
  • Daily Love, 365 days of celebration
  • Daily Calm, 365 days of serenity

Each book offers a monthly theme. The twelve themes for the Peace book are Transition, Healing, Resilience, Strength, Acceptance, Forgiveness, Mindfulness, Perspective, Balance, Tranquility, Kindness, and Simplicity.

Don’t you feel better just saying those themes out loud?

I also bought the book for myself since I had pledged to my friend that I would travel the healing journey with her. Each new day as I turned to the date’s offering, I thought of my friend and whispered a prayer for her recovery.

At times I felt her spirit with me. Other days as I pondered a fresh interesting quotation, I wondered what meaning she might find in the words.

For instance, January 14 provides a quote from Narihira: “I have always known that at last I would take this road, but yesterday I did not know that it would be today.”

That quote has stuck in my brain, well, since January 14. Consider all the meanings those words might have for various people because what it means to me will be different than what it means to you.

(In case you’re wondering, Narihira was a Japanese poet who (it’s believed) lived from 825-880. No, I’m not an expert in Japanese poets; I had to look it up.)

These books can last a lifetime because they are set up as simply dates, such as February 1. It doesn’t matter if I’m reading that page today or five years from now on February 1.

Because my friend Linda and I began our reading journey in June, the pages for the months January through May are new to us. But even when June rolls around again, I plan on keeping my Daily Peace book right where it is and refer to it each morning. I’m a different person, as are each of us, than I was a year ago. So I’ll be absorbing the photos and words from a different mindset.

Who knows what new motivational renewal awaits me?

A Flash of Unforeseen Remembrance

flash of unforeseen remembrance

Life lessons appear around us each day if we can just remember to be attentive. I certainly wasn’t expecting to find one at a celebration of life ceremony for the son of a friend. I guess because it was unexpected that I felt (and still feel) a tremendous sense of awe and gratitude.

At just 31 years old, unable to recover from a devastating two-year battle with a brain infection, Catzby Pitzvada died on December 17. I had never met Catzby; it was only through the stories of his mom Denise that I knew of him.

The ceremony was TRULY a celebration of life because Catzby lived a full life…full of adventure, travel, learning, music, friendships, laughter, and love.

Although the eulogies and tributes were each uniquely personal, one clear message shone through them all:

  • Catzby cared deeply about people.

  • Catzby understood that relationships need to be nourished.

  • Catzby encouraged those in his orbit to also care deeply about people and nourish their relationships.

A high school friend of his was brave enough to admit that she’s always been kind of a loner. She said she had let many friends drift away, but that Catzby always kept in touch over the years and nudged her to do the same, to keep reaching out, to maintain bonds.

That was the lesson that hit home for me. Because it’s easy to get lazy about relationships.

Right now (without having to think twice about it), I can name four people I’ve been talking about visiting for over a year. Each lives within an hour’s drive from me so why do I only talk about it? Do those people feel loved by my inaction? No. Likely they feel forgotten.

A line of poetry by Edwin Arlington Robinson goes like this:

We cannot know how much we learn

From those who never will return,

Until a flash of unforeseen

Remembrance falls on what has been.

Catzby, thank you for being such an inspiration, for choosing a full and joyful life, for having smile lines around your eyes before you hit 30. And especially thank you for the flash of unforeseen remembrance that we need to hold onto our relationships, to value them and care for them like the precious gifts they are.

~~~~~~

Catzby’s obituary

 

Itsy Bitsy Teeny

infinitesimal

Someone at a party on New Year’s Day mentioned she was vaguely aware of my blog. It turns out a mutual friend had forwarded her several of my posts over the last few years. “How do you figure out what to write about?” she inquired.

My standard answer is that typically I’m inspired by something I’ve heard or read or seen or done. Or sometimes a story or event from my life seems worthy of sharing. Today’s post is different.

At the risk of sounding like a yaya-new-age Mrs. Mysterio, I’m going to tell you the truth. A word came to me just as I was waking from a short nap today.

The dog and I had been going to just rest on the sofa for a few minutes, but the rain lulled us to sleep. As I began waking, the word infinitesimal kept repeating in my mind in a woman’s voice.

As I became fully awake, I tried to make some sense of it. I couldn’t even recall the exact meaning of infinitesimal and had to look it up. Mainly used in mathematics, it means “so small as to be impossible to measure.”

Great. How do I write about almost nothing? It’s a new year, a new decade. I want to talk about BIG ideas and BIG thoughts, and definitely NOT something so small as to be impossible to measure.

But I’ve learned when a topic strongly presents itself to me, it’s my responsibility to write about it. What slant on this subject might be of help or encouragement to my readers?

In considering the concept, I realized that right now, in this moment in time, I know more than one person who is feeling like an infinitesimal.

Their existence feels like nothing; their lives are nearly unbearable. One is due to the tragic early death of a loved one. Another has a multitude of serious illnesses that afflict him. He said recently that he’s in such unrelenting pain that he wishes he could just disappear.

And I’m willing to bet that each one of you reading this post also knows at least one person who feels so beaten down by life circumstances that he/she feels like an almost-zero.

When people are in that state, we need to be there for them. To me, being there means something specific. It’s not showing up with a casserole and a smile and singing “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow.” Each person will have his or her own needs. Listen to your heart and empathically provide what’s needed. It may be simply holding a hand and sitting in silence with them.

This is one time when it’s OK to make something out of (almost) nothing.

 

The Color of Christmas

a blue Christmas

This entire day I have been thinking about people I personally know who are suffering in some way. My heart is full of loving compassion for them. If you are one of those people, you will know that this is written for you tonight.

Thanksgiving was not happy for these friends nor will Christmas be merry.

Some of the tragic circumstances involve recent deaths—a loving mom not yet 50, a grandson from a brain tumor. The year of “firsts” is upon those families; the first Thanksgiving and the first Christmas without that special person; birthdays, anniversaries, and other holidays will follow.

One friend has a grievously ill adult child who has spent the past several months in the hospital; this mom already lost her other son a few years ago. I pray for them and have asked many to pray for Denise and Catzby, and yet I feel as though words are not enough. No matter how much I wish I could, I cannot fix this for them and I feel useless.

Some of my friends have a chronic illness and live everyday with pain. Cancer and other life-threatening conditions have entered some of your lives. Getting ready for the holidays may not even be something you’re considering.

Others have lost a special someone…a mom, a dad, a grandmother, a grandfather, a sister, a brother, a son, a daughter, aunt, uncle, cousin, friend. Regardless of how much time has passed since that person’s death, we all miss them terribly. If Christmas was especially important to our loved one, this time of year is even more difficult for us.

And it’s made all the more trying by the “noise” about Black Friday and Cyber Monday and Doorbuster deals and how much everyone will be stressing because there are only 28 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas instead of the usual 35. None of that matters to people who struggle to get out of bed each day because they are desperately sad.

Some churches offer what’s referred to as a blue Christmas service. My church, St. James’ in Warrenton, VA, is one of them. To quote from the church’s website: A “blue Christmas” service acknowledges that Christmas is not always met with joy and celebration. Sometimes it can be difficult to participate in the glad carols and merriment of our Christmas services. This service provides an opportunity to light candles acknowledging the people we miss, the pain or emptiness we may feel.

If Christmas is a difficult time for you, this type of service may offer you some hope, and I encourage you to find a church near you that provides a blue Christmas service.

For the rest of us who are doing okay, let’s remember to live the words of Henri Amiel from 1868:

“Life is short. We do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us. So, be quick to love; make haste to be kind.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Piano Guys and Craig Aven “The Sweetest Gift”

One man’s take on the “year of firsts”

Invitation to St. James’ Warrenton blue Christmas service on December 18

 

The Circle of Family

CIrcle of Family

A child dying before a parent is something that no mom or dad should ever face. Whether that child is six months, six years, or fifty-six years, the agonizing heartbreak is the same.

My nephew Greg died recently. He was born when I was fifteen. I left home at nineteen, and Greg also moved out of state as a young man. So my only recollection of him was as of a little boy.

Seeing my brother Gene’s son lying in a casket, no longer a little boy but a man of middle age, brought forth feelings of deep regret for not having kept in touch with him across the many years and miles.

But deep-seated feelings of contentment and peace outweighed my regret. Because from his mother’s side of the family, Greg’s brother, many cousins, aunts and uncles and friends came and stayed for the two viewings and the funeral service in Pennsylvania. Greg’s two grown daughters drove from Ohio to attend as well. The girls, now with young families of their own, cried when they saw the outpouring of love for their dad.

His daughters hadn’t even known about their aunts, uncles, and cousins from their paternal grandfather’s side of the family. When I held open my arms and said, “I’m your Aunt Norma,” together they fell into my embrace. My sisters and others shared that they had similar encounters over the two days.

Yes, I know there are schmaltzy Hallmark movies about “instant families,” but this was the real deal! It was a perfectly lovely experience shared by many in the midst of a tragedy.

The day I returned home I took the dog for a walk at a local park. I happened upon this view of three trees in a triangle shape about twenty feet from each other. As you can see, one tree branched into two trunks, another into three, and the third into many. I knew it was a perfect metaphor for the funeral experience.

The trees are separate, yes, but joining them together are their roots which have reached out across the expanse almost like hands extending out to reach another’s hands. At first glance, they may appear gnarly. But look closely and admire the beauty of their endurance.

Our individual families may consist of a few members or many. But joining our individual families together are our roots…our family ties. Our family roots run so deep. Sometimes they are deep underground. Other times they reach the surface for all to see. Our roots are strong. They are resilient, withstanding neglect, and years, and miles. Our family roots help us carry one another through sorrowful times.

There is a print that hangs over my son’s bed that says this:

Our family is a circle of strength and love.

With every birth and every union, the circle grows.

Every joy shared adds more love.

Every crisis faced together makes the circle stronger.

 

 

Thoughts on Prayers

Thoughts on Prayers

image by Coco Parisienne on Pixabay

During my final year of commuting to work, I passed by the same young teen waiting for his school bus. He was a lone soul at that bus stop. The thought that I should pray for him popped into my head one day. So I did, calling him Bus Stop Boy in my mind since I didn’t know him.

It became a habit for me to offer a short prayer for him as I drove by. And then I wondered, “What if I am the only person on earth praying for this child?”

Most often I don’t feel as if I am good at praying. I feel I am lacking; that there are others who pray more fervently or more genuinely. I suffer from Imposter Syndrome in my prayer life.

It likely won’t surprise you that among the many books on “how to pray,” there is one in the “dummies” series called appropriately enough, “Christian Prayer for Dummies.”

The author offers an acronym so readers can remember the four parts of an effective prayer:

ACTS

Adoration Praising God the Almighty
Confession Verbalizing and asking forgiveness for the sins we have committed
Thanksgiving Remembering to be grateful for all we have
Supplication Asking God to watch over us and care for our needs and the needs of others that we name; seeking God’s healing grace for those who are ill in body, mind, or spirit

While I poked gentle fun at Prayers for Dummies, I actually like the ACTS reminder. Although I feel more in touch with God when I follow the acronym loosely and not as if I’m at the grocery store checking items off my list.

One of my favorite true stories about prayer concerns my friend Sherry. She had been having horrendous headaches for months. One day while shopping, she saw a man who, from the rear, bore an uncanny resemblance to her dad.

When the man turned, however, he looked nothing like Sherry’s father. The two exchanged pleasantries, and then the man asked if he could pray for her because she seemed upset. Sherry agreed and bowed her head as the man touched the exact area on her head where a brain tumor would successfully be removed one month later.

She said the touch brought her chills (good ones) from her head to her toes. A prayer from a complete stranger—and how she needed the prayer at just that moment.

After my friend Linda was diagnosed this spring with stage IV ovarian cancer, I found a prayer by Rabbi Naomi Levy. I amended it to include Linda’s name and sent it to mutual friends and other prayer warriors I know. I’m sharing it here and asking you to not only include Linda in your own prayers but forward it on to others.

May God heal Linda, body and soul. May Linda’s pain cease. May Linda’s strength increase. May Linda’s fears be released. May blessings, love, and joy surround Linda. Amen.    

Here’s the tough question: What about when our prayers aren’t answered the way we want? When the child doesn’t recover from the disease, when the elderly parent’s first slip into dementia rolls into an avalanche, when car wrecks, freak accidents, and people with weapons take our loved ones from us… what then? Why were our prayers to watch over those we love not fulfilled?

Life isn’t easily understandable. And I don’t have the answers. Certainly, I have questioned God’s wisdom myself.

But I do know that it’s at those very worst times in our lives that we need the prayers of others. Because in tragedy, we need to be lifted up in love and empathy, to know that no matter what, we are not alone and that we are indeed loved.

~~~~~

Please take two minutes and listen to Sarah McLachlan’s lovely rendition of the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi

The prayer of St. Francis

Make New Old Friends

old friend

Image by Wallula on Pixabay

Isn’t deep conversation with a friend fulfilling? It nurtures the soul. It leads to stimulating thoughts. It can help us understand others better.

In talking with my friend Jen today, I learned she grew up in an Army family. They moved every single year until she was a teen. She now thinks those early years played a part in molding her into feeling like a loner who is insecure about what may come next. And that’s understandable because it’s hard (especially when you’re a kid) to build lifelong friendships when you know people less than twelve months.

When I asked Jen if I could write about her story, she agreed but added that she recently met another “Army brat.” That woman was affected by the constant shuffling in a way quite opposite to Jen. When they first learned they had similar backgrounds, the woman exclaimed something like, “Wasn’t it wonderful to always be on the move, meeting new people, having different experiences?!”

Hearing that story reminded me that various life circumstances impact each of us differently. We know that’s true if we draw on our rational brains. But too often we take the lazy way out and lapse into thinking that everyone should respond to issues just like we do. And if they don’t, they’re “wrong.”

My personal belief is that much of the negativity and hostility going on today is due to a lack of empathy. Wikipedia defines empathy as, “the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.”

Instead, too many people automatically jump to judgment, blame, point fingers, and instantly spew forth opinions from their own frame of reference.

My only link at the end of this post is an old favorite of mine by Brené Brown. It is less than three minutes long. Please watch it, even if you’ve seen it before.

That topic of childhood friendships popped up today because I had mentioned I’m still close with my oldest friend (we’ve known each other since we were toddlers) as well as with my best friend from high school. And I noticed the wistfulness on Jen’s face as she shared that lifelong friendship was an unknown experience for her.

Well, Jen, while we’ve known each other for only seven or so years, I’m making you a promise: I’ll be your friend for the rest of our lives. So from this point forward, you have a lifelong friend.

~~~~~~

Brené Brown’s classic take on empathy