Funerals Are For The Living
Often, when I talk about death or dying, I say “funerals are for the living, not the dead”. Further explaining that I didn’t really care much about what happens to me after I die. Why would I? I will be dead. I would insist that I didn’t want people to make a big deal out of it. I felt very confident about my stance on this. Recently, my stance has changed… I will explain…read on…
With 17+ years in emergency services, I have seen my share of disaster. I have told more people than I can count that their loved one had died. We use the word “died” because it’s so finite. It leaves no question in the survivors mind that their loved one is no longer living. In the state of Maryland we perform our cardiac arrest management where the person lays. This is because the patient has the highest chance of survival if we perform our interventions of CPR (compressions) and defibrillation (electricity) immediately. If we are unsuccessful, we speak to the family and our attention turns to helping them transition with the police and ensuring that they are okay with their loved one staying until the funeral home picks them up. I know you are reading this thinking that is crazy, but in my experience, families have been very thankful for this for several reasons. One reason is if we transport, the family will have to go to the hospital and wait in a room before saying their goodbyes. Then after the funeral is over, they are sent a huge bill from the hospital that was unnecessary. It also allows for them to call the people they need to in their home and not have to risk driving while being upset. I once had a sweet older lady ask me to sit in the room with her husband (who had died) while she went to the bathroom because she didn’t want him to be alone. Of course, I didn’t mind. It was the least I could do to help comfort her. You see, during this process, I usually am able to establish a rapport with the family and gain their trust. It brings them comfort and helps them to cope with the initial shock and immediate next steps. Sometimes, families are not able to tolerate this and we will recognize that and transport to the hospital morgue. This is occasionally the case when the death is sudden and unexpected. At this point, the patient then becomes the family and we do everything we can to help them.
In 2012, cardiac arrest management encompassed my life. I researched, wrote and taught a program on how emergency personnel should respond to cardiac arrests to achieve the best possible outcome. Once we implemented it, our survival rates soared. With the help of two colleagues, I wrote an operating procedure that was introduced into the state protocol and we still use this protocol today. When I wrote the protocol and when this was implemented, it never crossed my mind that it would be used on someone that I love very much, my father.
Many people have asked me what happened that night. The early hours of my parents 45th wedding anniversary. So here it is:
My husband and I had just landed in Oregon. I took a picture of the gorgeous sunset from my airplane window and I posted it on facebook. It was just before 10pm in Oregon (3 hours behind Maryland). My dad is usually the first person to “like” my pictures. A little time went by and I hadn’t seen “Pop Ivy” pop up on my notifications. I just figured it was so late at home that he was sleeping. I had talked to him earlier that day before we went to the airport and I could tell he was having trouble breathing. I asked him if he was okay and he assured me that he went to the doctor, had an EKG and X-Ray and he had “walking pneumonia”. I was happy with that and didn’t really think much else of it.
We got to our room and to sleep just before midnight PST. Not long after I fell asleep, my phone rang. I jumped out of bed and saw it was my brother. I was disoriented originally because my phone is on Do Not Disturb at night. So I knew this was the second time he had to call for it to ring through. Before I answered my heart had already dropped. I lifted the phone to my ear and heard the words “Jamie Daddy is dead.” I paused as my mind tried to catch up. I replay the sound of my brother’s voice and those 3 words over and over again. “Okay it’s 3am there….”. I replied “how do you know?” I was thinking it is the middle of the night, are you sure he isn’t having some other medical emergency as I tried to rationalize. He said that our mom was there with him and the fire department had come. He told me he was driving home (I could hear the engine roaring in the background) and that a cop was following him. I asked if he was close and he said he was so I told him to keep going. The cop would understand when they got to the house. (The cop did understand just so I don’t leave you hanging). Suddenly, I found myself on the phone with a Lieutenant from the Fire Deptartment. I could hear the LUCAS (mechanical CPR Device) in the background and what sounded like a very chaotic scene. I didn’t realize when my brother said the fire department had come that they were still there and still actively working on reviving my dad. I told the Lieutenant who I was (as in my relation to my dad), explained that I knew the protocol and asked how far into it they were. He said “16 minutes with no shock advised”. I knew at that point what the outcome was going to be. I transitioned pretty quickly into thinking about my mom and my brother and knew that the rest of my family would be on the way. Knowing my family and how sudden this was and the fact that it was 3am EST, my dad would have to be taken to the hospital until we could figure out what funeral home would be used etc. Some coordinating had to be done by my husband, Bob for this to occur. I was later told, that the police department lined up outside so my family didn’t have to see them taking him out. They stayed with my mom and comforted my family. They also helped us in the days to come. The Greenbelt Police Department is a class act.
When I spoke to my mom, she was worried about where they took my dad. I assured her that he was safe and Bob coordinated with the funeral home to have a small private viewing the next day after we were able to get a flight home. When we got to the funeral home, I actually had Bob make sure that it was my dad because the hospital called us when we landed and said we had to come pick him up. That was odd because the funeral home already had him. Can you imagine if there was a mix up and we didn’t check? My dad would have found it funny. (Sorry mom, I know I haven’t told you this yet, but I figured you would get a giggle out of it).
During this process, I kept replaying the words I repeated so many times “funerals are for the living and not the dead.” First, I can’t believe that I deal with this so much and I never explained it to my family or prepared them for it. I honestly wasn’t prepared for it myself. I now realize that everyone’s reaction and ways of coping with death are different. My family will read this post and likely remember very different sounds, different interactions and have a different perception of how the events that night unfolded. As an emergency responder, we try to keep our distance or disconnect from the calls we respond to. I now know, however, that the actions we take on the scene do have a significant impact on the family. The empathy we have and our willingness to be patient, understanding and accommodating to the best of our abilities no matter how many hours into the shift it is or how tired we are will be remembered. We are their first emotional connection post event. They will forever be grateful, as I know I am for those officers who went above and beyond to comfort my family when I was across the country.
I still feel very strongly that funerals are for the living, but I care very much now what happens after my time on earth is done. Funerals are a way to honor those you love. To show that their life mattered. To bring your family comfort. There are so many amazing ways to honor people that meant everything to you. I want my kids to have a place to visit me when they need comfort. My dad visited Texas shortly before his death. He went to his father’s grave. We actually have an image of my dad and aunt walking at their elementary school and what appears to be 2 orbs following behind them. (Picture above ). At the time it didn’t seem too significant, but looking back, it was very significant. My dad called all 4 of us children within hours of his death. We all got to tell him that we love him. Though there was never an in depth conversation with my dad, he loved so much and was so close to us that we knew in our hearts how to honor him. My dad was cremated and we have cross necklaces with a part of him inside. We never talked with my dad to have him confirm if he would want this, but I know in my heart that he would want us to be comforted. This necklace brings me that.
Tomorrow is never promised. Tell the people who matter to you that you love them. Honor them when their time has passed. The conversation is difficult, but have it with your family. Make it known what your wishes are. Mine are for my kids to do what will comfort them the most especially on the hard days when time has passed and the memories sneak up on them. I want to be resting in the same place as my husband so they only have to go to one place to visit us both.
Funerals are very much to comfort the living… to honor the dead.
Until We Meet Again In the Field Of Dreams Dad…