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Silent Wishes: On Hoping for a Cure

Today’s guest post is written by Heidi Evans:

Most children wish for a pony, or maybe a trip to Disney World when they blow out their birthday candles. For as long as I can remember, on my birthday I would wish for a cure. A cure that would keep my father around for my birthday the next year.

My father had cancer my entire life. I spent so many years simply hoping and wishing that one day I would wake up, and my father would be cured. No more doctors’ appointments, no more chemotherapy, no more cancer. That was my wish every single day, but that wish was especially important when I blew out my birthday candles. For some reason it seemed more logical in my innocent mind that if a cure were to happen, it would be more probable on my birthday. I never told anyone of my wish, because everyone knows that as soon as you tell people what you wished for, it never comes true.

This year will be different. This year I will not wish for a cure. This year, I will blow my 21 candles out, and I will wish for something completely different. I will wish that heaven is just as magical as it is in my dreams. I will wish that my father’s pain is long gone, and that he gets to sleep on clouds and eat as many marshmallows as he pleases. That has always been my child-like idea of what heaven is like.

Most people who are diagnosed with cancer spend at least a little bit of their time feeling sad, or hopeless. I was blessed to spend my entire life watching my father handle his diagnoses with grace. I never once heard him complain, and never once saw his fight to live flicker. We spent our 20 years together building memories that I will treasure forever.

In August of 2014 the doctors told my father that there was not much else that they could do in order to treat his cancer. They encouraged the idea that he spend his last few months making end-of-life decisions. That doctor’s appointment was on a Tuesday. My father passed away the very next Sunday. I can remember sitting on the bench in the waiting room of the doctor’s office. My father had just received the news. He sat next to me while I cried, and promised me that we would all be okay. He could not have been more right about that.

The doctor had specifically stated that my father had MONTHS not WEEKS left to live. There was a conversation that I wanted to have with my father, but I struggled with when to bring it up. I did not want my father to think that I had given up hope. The day after the appointment we were sitting in the living room together. I looked at him and bluntly said, “Daddy, are you scared?” My father looked up at me and without hesitation said, “I am not scared of death. I am scared to leave you guys.” That was my father, always taking care of his girls, even until the very end. My next statement was the one I had been thinking about for months. I had read the articles, and heard the stories, about when people send signs to their loved ones from the other side. I could feel the tears welling up behind my eyes, and I embraced them and told my father that when he got to heaven, I needed him to send me a sign to let me know that he was okay. Together we decided on the cardinal.

When I was a little girl my father would wait for the school bus with me. Every few days a cardinal would show up in the tree outside our front door. Every time my father saw it he would get insanely excited and holler at me to notice its beautiful red feathers. For some reason that memory always stuck out in my mind. Even as a grouchy teenager, my father would point out the cardinal and I would smile. My father agreed that when he got to heaven he would send me a cardinal if the opportunity arose. I never told anyone about the conversation that we had. In the same sense as a birthday wish, I needed to keep our agreement a secret in order for it to come true.

Not even a week later, my father was gone. He passed away peacefully in his sleep. If there is anyone in the world that did not deserve to suffer, it was my father. My mother, sister, and I made the funeral arrangements together. Those few days remain a whirlwind in my mind. The world lost a great man, and I lost the best dad the world had to offer. The day of the funeral was as perfect as it could have been, considering the circumstances. The weather was uncharacteristically cool for the month of August. We showed up to the church and greeted our friends and family. The minor details remain a blur in memory. I had so many emotions raging through me, I was not quite sure how to feel. My mother, my sister, and I walked into the chapel as our friends and family stood around us. We were a team. We were minus one of our players, but a team nonetheless. We were his girls. We walked to our seats, and embraced the tears that were inevitable. As I took my seat, I noticed all of the beautiful flowers that people had sent in honor of my father’s life. Out of probably 20 arrangements, the one that was placed directly in front my seat held a small, decorative cardinal. I was at a loss for words. On this incredibly important day, my father took the opportunity to tell me that he was okay, and that he was with me. I tearfully accepted his message, and I let a smile creep across my face for the first time in what felt like forever.

I feel my father all around me, I do not need to see a cardinal to know that he is with me always. In that moment when I step outside, and the wind sweeps my hair off of my neck, my father is there. When I am walking to my car, and I take a moment to look at the stars, my father is there. And this year when I blow out my 21 candles, my father will be there. My innocent, child-like birthday wish finally came true. My father will be at every one of my birthdays for the rest of my life. This year I do not have to wish for a miracle, because I was already given one.

*****

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Heidi Evans is a senior living in Oklahoma City, pursuing her bachelors degree in Funeral Service. She works in the Funeral Service industry and plans to be a part of the changes making their way through the death care industry in the coming years. 

10 Terrifying Things About Funeral Homes You Didn’t Know: A Response

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© 2006 Derrick Tyson, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

Answers.com published an article entitled “10 Terrifying Things About Funeral Homes You Didn’t Know”.  Answers.com tries to provide answers to the random questions of the internet, but what they come up with in this article is something slightly below Buzzfeed fodder.

Although I appreciate attempts to talk about death and funerals, it’s nice when the facts are right.  And many of Answers.com “10 Terrifying Things” are a stretch.

Here’s their “10 Terrifying Things” and my responses.

1.  Death is Big Business:  Pardon the pun, but funeral homes make a killing. The caskets in funeral homes are set up to where the grieving family members see the most expensive caskets. It’s a billion dollar industry, and bigger funeral service providers will attempt to acquire every aspect of the business, such as florists and tombstone engravers.

Paint in broad strokes much?

Some funeral homes are money hungry.  Yes.  I think Jessica Mitford made this point back in the 1970s.   But — something that goes unnoticed by many is that many funeral homes are service oriented.  Some funeral homes make the most expensive caskets most prominent and other funeral homes — like ours — have our least expensive casket set up as the most prominent.  There are incredibly bad funeral homes and incredible good ones (and a whole variety of variations in between).  And the good ones usually don’t make “a killing”.

And yes, the corporate funeral homes are attempting to acquire every aspect of the industry; and as corporations, they have shareholders; and with those shareholders, it’s all about the bottomline.  And when it’s about the bottomline, you and your family become a means to an end.

2.  They Take Advantage:  People in grief are extremely vulnerable, and some funeral service providers are not above taking advantage of that. A funeral director can easily steer families in the direction of more expensive flowers or coffins. At the time, it seems like a showy, elaborate funeral is the only way to honor the deceased.

For those of us funeral directors who are ultimately concerned about service, the idea that we’re “taking advantage” of our customers frankly pisses us off.

It’s like assuming that all Catholic priests are pedophiles.

Or that all Matthew McConaughey movies involve shirt removal (apparently he keeps his shirt on in Interstellar)

Answers.com is making a blanket statement that simply doesn’t cover us all.  In fact, it’s these blanket statements like this that incite some anger in those of us who find joy in helping those in their greatest hour of need and confusion.  For the good funeral directors, our joy is helping you, not exploiting you.

And while I can say that many — if not most — in this industry exist for service, there is the dark side — those few — that do as Answers.com describes.

3.  Are You Dead or Just Happy to See Me?  When the body begins to decompose, certain areas known to have heavy concentrations of bacteria often swell to more than twice their normal size. Undertakers have to work fast to drain the bodies of all fluids, and they pack all of the body’s openings with cotton to prevent leakage.

If you want embalming, then yes, we do train the body’s fluids.  And we usually pack the nose with cotton to keep any liquids from running down the face during a viewing.

4.  Broken Parts: Funeral home employees are masters in the art of restoration. They often have to make a body presentable for viewing, despite how the person died. Sometimes, it’s as simple as using cosmetics to cover minor scrapes or bruises, but other times, morticians have to stitch bodies back together.

Answers.com got this right.  Although I’m not sure this qualifies as “terrifying”.  Bwahahaha.  I’ll put makeup on your face.  Bwahahah.  Let me trim your beard.  Look at me, I’m a master of restoration and I’m TERRIFYING.

5.  Embalming: Everyone knows that embalming is the process of removing all the fluids from a body and replacing them with preservatives. What happens to all those fluids from the body? They go right into the public sewage system. That’s what’s really running through your pipes.

Right again, but when you think about the other things that get poured down the drawn (various chemicals), it’s not entirely terrifying.

6.  The Eyes Have It: A person’s eyes are not usually removed from the body when its embalmed. They do start to flatten out, so morticians usually place a cap underneath the eyelid so that it still looks curved, or they’ll re-fill the eye to its normal size.

ZZZZZzzzzzz.  Eye caps.  Yes, we use eye caps.  No, we don’t remove eyes.

7.  They May Not Be Doing Their Jobs: In 2002, it was discovered that the Tri-State Crematory had been scattering the bodies rather than properly cremating them. Over 300 hundred bodies were discovered on the crematory’s property. It was revealed that the crematory had been giving the families concrete dust instead of ashes. Some of the bodies were never identified due to body decomposition.

Sadly, this one is true.  Tri-State Crematory did do just as they say.

8.  Please Wait Outside: When funeral directors have to go into someone’s home to retrieve a body, they are often in a hurry. The grieving family naturally wants time to say goodbye, but family members can hinder the work of funeral directors.

If you EVER feel any type of pressure from a funeral home or funeral director FIRE THEM!  Seriously, just fire them.  The fact is that your mind is already clouded by grief and the last thing you need in your life is someone trying to push you around.  You just experienced a death in your life.  You need people who will give you the time and space you need, NOT people who want to push you around.

9.  Drops Happen: Sometimes, dropping the body is unavoidable. Removing bodies of overweight people from five-story buildings, for example, can prove to be quite tricky. Hopefully if it happens, it doesn’t occur in the eyes of the family.

Yes, drops do happen.  I’ve handled a few thousand deceased persons and I’ve never dropped one.  But, it might happen.  I hope it doesn’t.

10.  Caskets Don’t Have to Be Expensive: Caskets are where funeral homes make a lot of their money — the average price of a casket is over $1000. However, a nice casket can be bought between $400 – 600. You just have to shop around. A decent service for your loved one doesn’t have to put you in debt.

Casket’s don’t have to be expensive and many funeral homes do mark up their caskets, BUT I’m not sure a “nice” casket can be bought between $400 to $600.

You can buy a pine box for $500 HERE.  But you have to put it together youself.

Walmart actually sells a pretty nice casket for $759.  You can buy it HERE.

Mom: On Mental Illness, Suicide and Grief

 Today’s guest post is written by Bridget Groh:

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Bridget at two years old with her mom.

May 23, 2012.

I will never forget that day as long as I live. I can remember how the air smelled as I walked into my childhood home for the last time believing my mom was alive, I know exactly what I was wearing, what I did with my children that morning. That is probably the most defining moment in most of my family’s’ lives. For years leading up to that day, my immediate family had been a mash of turmoil. The woman who had been our pillar for my whole life came out of brain surgery for a bleed in her right frontal lobe in 2002 as an entirely different person.

Gone was my loving and doting mother, the kind and sensitive spirited woman who my father had married in 1980, the R.N. with a Master’s Degree who opened a brand new hospital as nursing manager. This accomplished woman slowly through ten years’ time became a shell of who she was and eventually morphed into a new person.

Watching someone you love struggle with mental illness is heart-wrenching. My best description of this is like “watching a storm at sea…it whirls and whips and flies….it can see the shore, but it cannot come in…it wants to go further away into the ocean and do less damage , but its tentacles keep it in position…just beyond grasp.” My mother whirled for 10 years. Each time she attempted suicide our family would all race to the hospital just as her stomach was pumped and the respirator was placed or the priest pronounced last rites…for the 5th time. My poor Catholic God-fearing mother who advocated for the medical community, for her whole life could not be “fixed.”

That is not to say we did not try. We tried like HELL! My father spent tens of thousands of dollars on rehabs: rehabs for alcohol abuse combined with brain injury, rehabs just for alcohol abuse, rehabs just for brain injury, and rehabs for mental illness. They all worked… for a little while. However, we as people do not have the tools to combat someone who is so smart they can talk their way out of psych wards due to heightened medical knowledge.

Someone who commits suicide does not see a way out. The best analogy I have heard regarding this is similar to describing someone in a skyscraper trapped in a burning building that jumps. I believe my mom saw no way out and she “jumped.” She knew things were not getting any better. Her behavior was all encompassing of my life, my father, my husband, her sisters…. I believe in my heart she thought there was no way out for her. I don’t know ,even today, if there was. I wish she were here so we could have tried.

Her last two weeks on Earth, she had just “cycled” into a good period. My sister and I plus my husband and kids spent a fabulous mother’s day with her at brunch. I am so grateful for that day and those memories. I consciously told myself to take pictures that day, I knew the end was coming…but I couldn’t bring myself to do so, I really did not want to believe she would not beat her demons. I wanted to take pictures in July at my son’s first birthday, and Halloween and Christmas….

So May 22, no one could reach my mom after 9pm. We now believe she committed suicide sometime in the night. It was cold and dark. She hated both things. The amount of self-hatred she had still overwhelms me. I took my children to the doctor the next morning. I went to lunch and had a good time with my girlfriend and her kids. On the way home, I knew someone needed to check her. I called my dad who I picked up (he had moved out by this point), he jumped in my car and I told him to just drop me and as soon as I found her, he could come back.

The house was locked up tight. I had to get in through the basement garage.

Inside, silence awaited me. I knew something was very wrong.

I checked her bed which was empty.

The living room had her diet coke on the coffee table with the TV on.

The dogs were out of food and water, which on her worst day was unlike her.

I went out to the back deck and found her…floating upside in my childhood family pool. After screaming and calling 911, everything becomes a blur. The operator tried to coax me to get her out of the pool, I knew there was nothing I could do at that point. No one who is living even a little bit floats like that. That is one image I will never, ever un-see. Obviously, anyone in the funeral profession knows that state police came and investigated and the medical examiner was called in. Her official autopsy report ruled her death as suicide by drowning.

We went through the motions and planned a funeral. I suppose I must have been there, I don’t really remember much. I read her eulogy. We had a gathering after with an Irish band playing. She would have loved it.

Through my whole life while my mom was living, I struggled to find my place in life. I went from degree to degree changing from nursing to teaching secondary education and finally to accounting, which is the field where I worked when she died. My mom was cremated, we did not bury her for six months after her death. At her cremains burial, I was chatting with the funeral director who was looking for someone to help balance his checkbook. I offered to help. That was two and half years ago. I’ll be done my degree in mortuary science in May and sit for my board in June. I like to look at the change in careers as my mother’s final gift. I know that I can help families during their times of heartache and sorrow because I can literally relate. I know the importance of having someone guide you and be supportive.

Since my mom’s death, our family has also banned together to create a non-profit organization “Brake the Silence” which is aimed to break the stigma of mental illness and prevent suicide. I will not let my mother‘s death be in vain. In life, she helped others. She will help others in death. Through her story, awareness is brought out.

It is easy to ignore mental illness; it is not as in your face as many other illnesses. Addiction is also easily ignored. But when you hear of the staggering numbers of suicides as direct results of both of these, you have to stop and think. Are we doing enough?

My mom’s legacy lives on through her girls and her grandsons. I don’t harbor any anger towards her. I just miss her.

And, as a final note, and her favorite song by Led Zeppelin says:

And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul.
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold.
And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last.
When all are one and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll.

And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.

*****

About the author:  I, Bridget, am 31, married, with four little boys (10, 8, 5, & 3).  I’ve lived in Central MA my whole life. I have a Bachelors Degree in history.  I really thought I was going to teach high school. I am currently employed at a funeral home.  I’ve been here for a little over two years. I am also in school through distance learning at the Commonwealth Institute of Funeral Service in Houston, Texas and I will be done in May! YAY! I love my job so far and I cannot wait to be fully licensed in June.

Facing Death with a Smile

Photo from Flickr user SuperFantastic

Photo from Flickr user SuperFantastic

Today’s guest post is from Christopher White.  Christopher resides in Australia with his pug “Freddy”.

I am 64 years old, have led a healthy life, don’t smoke, enjoy a drink occasionally and I tend to avoid stress. I have never married, no kids, have a great family, and life is pretty well perfect. I have many wonderful friends and no enemies.

I began to feel unwell in about June this year – just vague feelings of not being at my best. My health became progressively worse, despite monthly attendances at my local doctor, who had been taking regular blood tests. One month ago I went to see him, I lay on his couch and he tapped two fingers into my abdomen area. I couldn’t believe the pain – he said “There’s something wrong here, you better get to the hospital straight away.” I had a mate deliver me to the local town hospital. He said on the way “They are going to ask you what your allergies are. Tell them you are allergic to big women with tattoos.”

Admitted through the emergency department, rushed into the scanning and X-ray departments, transferred by ambulance to another hospital about 50kms north, where I was taken in for an emergency operation.

When I came around, several hours later, the doctor told me they had removed about 40cm of cancerous growth in the intestines – he called it a bowel resectment. I spent 16 days in the intensive care recovery until, very well tended by both medical staff and the nursing team. Some of the other patients were a different story – I am unused to spending sleeping time with others, with their snoring, loud mobile phone conversations at all times of the day and night and people just being plain rude to each other. “Hey nurse – where’s my bloody pain killer – should have been here half an hour ago?”

When a nurse asked me how I had slept, I said that the snoring from across the passage was like “listening to a rainforest being destroyed.” I suggested that, armed with a baseball bat, some of us in the ICU would have got a lot more sleep, and that business may have been a bit brisker downstairs in the emergency admissions department.” She laughed, a bit, and said “You will recover quickly – grumpy old men always do better.” I am also pleased I did not pass on anything about being allergic to large women with tattoos, as this was an accurate description of most of those taking my blood and doing other tests.

The medical team have advised me to have lots more tests later in the year, to make sure all the cancer has been removed. One man even said “You might get better, or you might die – it is hard to say at this stage.”

I had plenty of time to think about things, stuck there in my little calico cubicle. I managed to blot out the neighbouring surroundings, and just had a really good think about things in general. I have had a very easy life – never been involved in a war, feuds, arguments. I have never had to work too hard, things have come easily to me. Always enjoyed good health – hardly ever had an unhealthy day in my life. I thoroughly enjoy my job, which involves running a small B&B here in a beautiful part of the world.

In a way, my life has been like attending a pleasant party, when one of the ushers taps me on the shoulder and says “OK mate, your time is up and you have to leave.” My first reaction is to say “Well, thanks for having me, which is the easiest way out?” I have never felt anger, betrayal, denial or “Why me? I don’t deserve this.” Instead, I have a serene feeling of relief and acceptance.

I see clearly the advantages of early checkout. OK, 64 is a bit early, but when is really the right time? There will be no Alzheimers Disease, no lonely old age in some grey nursing home, being fed on paste, and having someone else attend to my bathroom needs. No eccentric old man living in a boarded up house in unhealthy conditions, smelling of cat urine. I have few regrets – one of the main ones is leaving my two year old Pug dog Freddy, even though I know he is being left in the best of care.

If the cancer has spread, or returned, I reckon I have about nine months to prepare for the end. I am very fortunate to have a great friend to look after me, cooking, cleaning, company, transport etc. I am very grateful that I do not have a thing to worry about. This is more than long enough to get my affairs in order – most of that has already been done. I am glad there are no awkward reconciliations to endure. I await my own change of cosmic address with a good deal of interest.

10 Things Bodies Can Do After Death

1.  Dead bodies can APPEAR to have hair and finger/toe nail growth.

This is moreso a technicality.  The hair and nails don’t actually grow, but when the body begins to shrivel away (after decomposition), the skin shrinks back, exposing more hair and more finger/toe nails.

2. Defecation

Your muscles relax and anything that you may or may not have been holding in will come out.

3.  Post-mortem caloricity.

Normally, dead bodies experience algor mortis (cooling of temperature) immediately following death.  In some cases, the body temperature will actually rise for about two hours after death before it begins to cool.  This phenomena is called, “post-mortem caloricity.”

4.  Self cannibalization.

While there are exogenous facts that cause decomposition (perhaps worms, flies, cats), much of the body’s decomposition occurs endogenously … the bacteria, acids, etc. within our own body live on and have a glorious feast on their deceased host.

5. Postmortem priapism

Also called “angel lust” or “death erection”, some dead bodies can actually have an erection.  Although rare and usually cause by swift and violent manners of death, priapisms do occur.  In fact, crucifixion victims often had angel lust, which means Jesus may have died with a death erection.  Per Leo Steinberg there are a number of Renaissance crucifixion paintings that depict Jesus in such a manner.

IMG_20141114_1225156. Livor mortis

When you die, your body will turn all sorts of pretty colors.  Soon after death, gravity will pool the red blood cells to the part of your body that’s closest to the ground.  If you die face down, your face will get all reddish.  If you die on your back, your back will turn all pretty shades of crimson.  Eventually (unless the deceased is embalmed), those colors will stain skin they’re touching (embalmers call this “postmortem stain”).

7.  Coffin Birth

If a women dies while still pregnant, the eventual gases from decomposition in some cases push the deceased fetus out in what’s called a “coffin birth”.

8.  Muscle Movement

This is extremely rare.  And usually only occurs in the smaller muscles.  Out of the thousands of bodies my family has seen, only one still had muscle movement after death.  The deceased’s fingers were twitching “like he was playing the piano”.

9.  Vocalization

When a deceased person is moved and there’s air in his or her lungs, they can moan and groan.  If the deceased says, “I’m not dead yet” well, they’re probably not dead (Monty Python reference).

10.  Dead bodies fart.

Some dead bodies fart a bunch.

 

 

 

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