Writings

As Christmas Approaches…

As Christmas approaches, my heart goes out to the countless number of bereaved parents who maybe facing their first, second, third, 20th or even 50th Christmas without their precious child.

be aware of elephants….. 

Some will have died as babies, children, teenagers or adults, their age is irrelevant, just as how long ago it was.  Some would have died through illness, car accidents or may have even made a decision to take their own life.  Whatever the reason or cause the result is the same, their parents face Christmas without them.

Those who have not had this experience are probably thinking, “30 years ago?  You’re holding onto the past, you should be over it by now”.  But the truth is, just as in life, your child is yours for all time, whether they are alive or not – they are still a part of the family you love.

I remember a dear friend of mine, who at the age of 95 had her 77 year old son die.  At his service, they talked about him having a good life, his achievements and the wonderful legacy in the family he had left behind.  All this was true, but as my friend said to me later, all she could see was her blonde haired little boy, scruffy and full of mischief.

My heart goes out particularly for those who face that first Christmas, whether they have other children or not, it always creates turmoil.  So, as they get ready, most do what they really don’t want to do, that is to reach into the cupboard and put on the smiling face they keep in there, one which they know will be well used in the years to come, if it is not half worn out already.  It is a mask, a disguise, so that people cannot see the “go away Christmas, I don’t even want to know about you!” face that is really there.

Depending on where their child came in the family creates another dilemma.  It could be that it was their only child and suddenly there are no presents under the tree for their child, but plenty for their nieces and nephews.  Everyone is acutely aware of the elephant in the room, but everyone tries to tiptoe around it, heaven forbid there be tears, not on Christmas Day, everyone should be happy shouldn’t they?  After all, it has been such a miserable year, can’t we just forget about it for one day?  If it was only that simple!

Just as hard is the family with other children who feel they have to ‘keep things normal’ – Santa still has to come, everyone has to be bright and cheerful as they “ooooh” and “aaahhh” over presents bought as small compensation for the major loss in their children’s sibling.  The children too are caught in the middle, often putting on their small happy faces which, unlike adults, they easily take off and on because they are very comfortable in the happy mask, because at times it is not a mask at all!

So the scene is set and I’m sure you all waiting with great anticipation for the six easy steps to making Christmas better for the family you love – sorry folks, no fairytale story ending here!  Each family has to find, grope, struggle and forge their way of dealing with their own elephant.

There can be memory candles, photos, a special chair, a bauble, going out to a different place, the list goes on and on….but as much as these things may make the elephant a little smaller, and in time maybe even tiny or transparent, it is still there and will never go away.

Please don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that never again will anyone ever enjoy Christmas, that will more than likely happen, but I’m just saying that it will never be quite the same again.

So from a bereaved parent to anyone who is trying to fit their own elephant into the room, I wish you the most peaceful Christmas that you can have.

With my warmest regards,

Robyn O’Connell 

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

A story of motherhood

I looked down at your perfect face and the words of my mother went tumbling through my head.  “You will never understand the breadth, depth or power of a mother’s love until you become one yourself.”  A realisation came to me of how wise my mother was.

I looked at you again and fear enveloped me, you depended on me for your life, I had no idea how I could possibly raise you to be what I wanted you to be, the prime minister of Australia.  They did not teach me those things at school.  My only parenting skills, were those that I had witnessed from my parents, and while these were great, I couldn’t remember what my mother did with me at 2am in the morning when I would not stop screaming.

Then it came, that first smile, the first recognition from you that I was someone special.  My heart wanted to burst the first time you said my name ….. Mumumumum….so this was what motherhood was like!

I remember our first outing to a restaurant, I was so proud of you sitting there quietly while I read you the menu and asked what you would like to eat.  And you sitting there at the age of three, pretending to be very grown up and it was great while it lasted, even though it only lasted five minutes before you wanted to be running around.  I sat there and wondered, how many times would we sit and chat like this during our lives.

I seemed to blink and you were at kindergarten, ohhhh that Mother’s Day with a very ‘interesting’ gift that you had made and how I discreetly asked what you thought I should do with it and how you replied “ohhh Mummy, it’s to put all your diamonds in”  It looked rather more to me like a milk carton with contact on it, but I smiled at you and said “of course, I just wanted you to tell me which diamonds to put in there”.  Looking down at my ring knowing that was, and probably ever will be, the only diamond I would ever own!

We used to go shopping, and you were forever telling me your legs were tired, you wanted a drink or you needed to go to the toilet.  I would curse because shopping would always take much longer than it should have, I tried to remind myself that I should enjoy it while I still had you home, but there always seemed so much that had to be done.

My heart broke when I had to leave you at school that first day, the house seemed so empty, but again I no sooner blinked than I was saying goodbye as you headed out the door to go to high school.

Then it happened, you fell in love, I think you thought that you were the first person in the world to experience love, I reminded you that l loved you and you laughed at me saying “yeah right Mum, get with the times, I mean ‘real’ love”.  I smiled and thought, long may it last.  But it didn’t and suddenly I found myself in a great deal of pain, you were hurting and there was nothing I could to soothe that hurt.

The only words that came to me were the ones my mother said that I swore I would never say!  So I tried to comfort you the best I could while my own heart was breaking at your pain, but I really shouldn’t have worried, because only the following week you were in love again, fortunately this time it was someone else.

Eventually you met the love of your life and I watched you, my beautiful daughter, as you were dressing and when the veil was placed over your face, I felt tears of joy and pride overwhelm me.

Then the day came, I remember where we were, sitting in my favourite coffee shop having lunch.  You told me you were going to be a mother and I wasn’t to tell anyone because it was only early and just in case!  Not tell anyone?  How could I not tell anyone when I wanted to put it on the front page of the newspaper?  “Ok” you said, “you can tell Dad.”  Bursting, I raced into the house…. “Guess what?  We are going to grandparents ….”  “Great”, he said – great?  This was the best news I had ever received and he said “great?”  Then I pulled out the little outfit I had stopped to buy on the way home from that shop where the woman did not realise at the time, that I would eventually be her best customer.  He rolled his eyes and just said “here we go”.

I kept my word, well sort of, ok I only told about twenty of my closest friends and of course the woman in the baby shop!

If I thought my pregnancy was interesting, I was fascinated by yours, but I found myself walking a fine line, wanting to tell you that eating healthy was essential but I guess if I hadn’t shown you that by now it was futile telling you at this point.

Then SHE arrived.  Oh my goodness, such an experience I had never had.  Trying hard not to take over, I remembered the grace my mother had to let me learn by my own mistakes and to be there to encourage and support.  Boy that was hard!

If I thought hearing Mumumum was great it had nothing on hearing Nananan, how fantastic being a grandparent was.  I remembered reading something that said, ‘if I had of known grandchildren were so much fun I would have had them first’.  Yep, that was me, you were now giving me the best years of my life and once again, I got to take HER shopping and I didn’t mind at all stopping to have a drink or rest her tired legs or go to the toilet, it gave me a chance to catch my breath!

I don’t know when it is when you realise you are old, maybe it’s when you look in the mirror and see grey where there was colour in your hair, or when you realise you need your glasses before you can read the big print on the Mother’s Day card to Gran.  I think it’s when you see your grandchildren grow up so much faster than your own children seemed to.  Suddenly I was at her graduation from primary school.  They never had those in my day, but this is a new age, things are different now.

With a wry smile as we sat and ate lunch, I listened to you pour your heart out about how hard it is to be the mother of a teenager.  How things were so much easier when you were young – “were they?” I asked you?  Love still came and went.  And then those words I had waited so long to hear, “how did you do it Mum?  How did you get us to be the people we are?”   I smiled at her and touched her hand and said “just follow your heart and your instincts”.

Many years passed and suddenly your daughter was married and going to have HER child and I remember the excitement in your voice when you rang and said “Mum, let’s go out for lunch tomorrow.”  Knowing something was in the wind, I knew before we even left for the shopping centre.  But I didn’t want to spoil your moment so I waited patiently until over lunch, after you had read me the menu and asked me what I wanted to eat, you said “Mum, I’m going to be a grandmother and I can’t wait and I found this wonderful baby shop!”

I couldn’t help but think, as we walked around the centre later and I asked you to wait while I went to the toilet and then suggested perhaps we could have another coffee so I could rest my tired legs.  I had come the full circle.

I watched with great pain as you watched me in my final moments of life, once again, wishing there was something I could do to make it better for you.  To tell you that I was going to a better place, that I had no fear, and that eventually I would be sweet memories, but I couldn’t speak any more, but the love that came from my heart was unending.

I still watch you, you know, my spirit soars as I see you with your grandchild doing the things I remember doing with mine.       So when you feel a hand on your shoulder and you turn and no one is there, it’s me giving you a hug and reminding you that I will never leave you, you are my child nothing can separate us.  Not time, not distance…not even death!

© 2007 Robyn O’Connell


You’re A What?

The life of a Funeral Celebrant

That is the normal reaction I get when I tell people that I am a Funeral Celebrant.

It then leads to one of three responses:

Total silence!  You know those conversation stoppers at dinner – no one quite knowing where to go with what you have said.  Or….

“Why on earth would you do a job like that?”  Which is then followed by the questions everyone wants to know but is afraid to ask – like “if coffins are only 6’ long, do they break the legs of someone who is taller to fit them in?” Yes I really do get asked questions like that and no, in case you don’t know, they make coffins in all sorts of sizes they are not limited to 6’!  Or…..

The last is probably the most treasured to me.

It is when someone will then share with you the recent death of someone that they knew and loved. It is an opportunity for them to talk to someone who is not going to change the subject, or belittle anything they say, someone who will just listen.

Which then begs the question – why are we so afraid of talking about death?

I have to be quite honest and say some people can’t handle what I do or have me talk about it and I respect that, but it just goes to show how uncomfortable people are with the subject of death.  But why?  Why are we so afraid?

Dead, dying, death are only words to describe something – the end of life and yet they terrify the bravest of people – this is usually because associated with that end of life is separation from someone we loved. There is pain, agony and feelings that can be so overwhelming they frighten us.

I am probably preaching to the converted, because if you have got this far in reading this article, you are more comfortable with death than 80% of the general population. Or perhaps there is a part of you who really wants to know more about death and this is a safe area, you can close the page when you have had enough?

Quite wrongly, most people are under the impression I have a very depressing job, I don’t,  I celebrate life. Most people think that when I visit families everyone sits around the table and sobs their way through the questions I ask – wrong again! In fact this can be one of the most healing times, remembering all the good things about that person and the wonderful times they had together. Sure there is the odd tear or two, but sometimes that can be caused by too much laughter!  People normally dread my visit for the very reasons I just spoke about, but after a while they relax and then they start to realize that it is a therapeutic time.

Suddenly they have the opportunity to talk about the person, to share stories, to remember the good times and the bad and talk about that person and the affect they had on their lives.   90% of the time, they tell me as I leave that wasn’t any where near as painful as they expected to be, in fact they enjoyed it.

This is why I tell people I have one of the best jobs in the world. I love what I do and I admire the fact that people let me into their lives at their most precious time, a time when they can be feeling very fragile and holding themselves together only with a piece of cotton. They open their door and their hearts to me and allow me the privilege of writing that special person’s life story. What more honourable profession could you have?

I remember hearing Paul McCartney interviewed on television about his work. He said – ‘I love what I do and the fact I get paid for it is a bonus’ and I thought –‘sure, that’s because you have bucket loads of money and can afford to make a statement like that.’ But now I realize he is right, if you love what you do and you are passionate about it, it doesn’t feel like work at all!

When a person dies who had a long and fulfilled life, say they were in their eighties or nineties even, I am always saddened when the family tells me how many people say to them ‘they had a good innings’.  Because you see regardless of how old they were, they were still someone very special to their family and the hurt doesn’t lessen even though they were a good age, they were a precious part of the family unit who was loved!

The younger the person is, then the more tragic death becomes, but that however should not stop the celebration of life. Viktor Frankl in his book Man’s Search For Meaning writes, ‘a biography should not be judged by the number of pages in the book, rather the richness of the content…..  some of the most beautiful symphonies are the unfinished ones….’ This is how I look at the death of a young person and I try and help that family make a treasured celebration of life because regardless of length, every life is worth celebrating!

Of course I consider anyone younger myself young!  In my ten years as a funeral celebrant, I find I have celebrated far too many young people’s lives. Some of them expected, some of them not, but I have yet to do a funeral of a young person whose life didn’t touch so many others. With nearly a thousand lives celebrated I would be hard pressed to tell you how many were males/females and yet if you asked me I could tell you the first name and age of every child’s life I have celebrated – they will remain with me always, they hold a special place in my heart.

Sometimes I am lucky enough to meet the person before I conduct their funeral, as has been the case with many families that I have done more than one funeral for. I have sat and listened to someone tell the story of the person they loved, then when they die, I have been asked by the family to conduct their service as well.  It might seem a strange to say but it is a real thrill for me to be able to write the story as I recall their ‘voice’ telling me about their life with their partner.  It is great for me to be able to have recalled their animation at certain parts of their lives and their (usually) endearing comments about their loved one.

Over only such a short period of time I work intensely with a family, visiting, phone calls, organizing, so much to do in such a short space of time, we become close for the those few days. They open themselves to me in a way that would be unlikely to happen in any other circumstance and I feel honoured that I can walk part of their grief journey with them.  People always ask me if I get upset.  I am a human being (even though my sons thinks I am immune to funerals!).  Young people’s funerals are never easy and I always feel emotional, however my role is to help the family make the best celebration of life possible, so I contain my emotions and deal with them at another time.


Don’t think that I do not feel for the pain that the family is in, but it is not my pain and the best thing I can do is to help those who are in pain, work through it. I do listen to the music that will be played at the funeral many times so that I don’t react emotionally on the day, no one wants to see the celebrant sobbing!

When a family writes to me after the service and tell me that I helped them through one of the toughest days of their lives, I will sit in my car at the post office and the tears will flow, the postmaster is quite used to coming out and seeing me with a tissue or two!

If I have been working with someone who is dying and helping them to prepare their celebration of life, then I am likely to have much more of emotional demand on me, but there is also the gift I can give them by presenting the farewell they wanted.

After the funeral my role is done, it feels rather like reading a good book and when you finish it, you know you may read part of it again, but for now the chapter is closed and the work I do is completed. I write to my families a few days later to thank them for the opportunity of coming into their lives at a most precious and sacred time and I send them a little booklet to help them deal with the myriad of emotions they will face over the coming time.

I say to families as I leave, “I have one of those jobs where I say I hope I don’t see you again for a very long time!” But occasionally I do and I have become friends with a few families and those friendships mean the world to me. Only earlier this year I helped one of them celebrate their wedding.

Sure, my work is not everyone’s cup of tea, but like others who chose this profession, I wouldn’t change it for the world!