Joining in Empathy: A Story about Being More than a Funeral Director
A couple years ago we had a late night house call. My grandfather and I drove up to the house and an uncle came outside of the house to meet us, explaining the situation we were about to enter.
“You guys are here for my niece, Sara.
She’s 16 years old.
Been fighting cancer for four years.
She’s in the living room with her mother, Joan.”
We entered the house, walked to the living room and were greeted by about 20 family and friends who were scattered all over the living room, some sitting, and some standing, others laying on the floor.
It was late. Or early. 2 AM. Time gets confused by death.
When a terminal person is dying under home care it’s normal for a hospital bed to be temporarily set up in a large room, enabling larger groups to visit the dying. In this case, the bed was in the living room, but the deceased wasn’t lying on it; which was very unusual. We allowed them time to explain who Sara was, what she meant to them. All families need this time.
They need to believe that through their stories Sara could be incarnated in us, so that we could love her the same … so that we could become a part of their family. Once we’re apart of “the family”, we no longer represent a cold funeral director, but a tender caregiver.
After their stories, we asked them if they were ready for us to make our removal. They confirmed that they had all said their last “good-bye”.
And then we asked, “Where is Sara?”
“She’s here”, said Joan the mother. And then we saw her. When we first walked into the living room we saw a small girl being held by Joan. The girl looked to be around ten years old, and being that it was late we just assumed that this was one of Sara’s younger sisters who had fallen asleep in Joan’s arms. But, it turned out, Sara had died in her mother’s arms and there she laid. A small pile of bones, large enough to fill a whole room.
Like the transfer of a sleeping child from one adult to the next, I got down on my knees, slide my arms under Sara’s head and thighs, lifted her starved body out of her weeping mother’s lap and carried her to our stretcher. The room was full. Full of love. Full of grief. Full of tears. And I was a part of it all.
I tell you this story because I want to make a distinction between empathy and sympathy. Let me explain the difference:
Imagine being at the bottom of a deep, dark hole. Peer up to the top of the hole and you might see some of your friends and family waiting for you, offering words of support and encouragement. This is sympathy; they want to help you out of the pit you have found yourself in. This can assist, but not as much as the person who is standing beside you; the person who is in that hole with you and can see the world from your perspective; this is empathy. — Dr Nicola Davies
There are times (at funerals especially) when all we can give is sympathy. When it’s outside of our ability to fully empathize with a person’s situation. After all, the person laying in the casket isn’t my father. This isn’t my daughter. This isn’t my family.
And that’s our job. You pay us to be directors. You pay us to be the stable minds in the midst of unstable souls. And we couldn’t handle much more. We have to maintain a certain level of objectivity because there’s only so much pain, grief and heartache we can share until we too start to crash … burn out.
But, there’s other times when you can’t help but be drawn into the narrative, so that you enter the narrative and become a character in the story. Not just a director, but an actual character in the drama of life and death.
We touch the core of our profession when we enter the narrative and become part of the story … when we become more than directors … when we become part of the family.