Shine Bright illuminated my childhood experiences with death and depressed family members. When I was a freshman in college my family experienced a major case of déjà vu.
I began my studies in the summer semester in July to get an early start on graduation. My baba who lived with us on and off for twelve years was suffering from declining health and spending a lot of time in and out of the hospital.
At the same time, my grandmother on my dad’s side was just diagnosed with terminal cancer and she decided not to treat or fight the illness. I turned nineteen that fall, carried a full course load, maintained a 4.0 GPA, worked two jobs, and barely managed the emotional trauma of coming to terms with likely losing both of my grandmothers in the near future. At one point, they even shared a hospital room which made it easier for our families to visit and more difficult for my immediate family related to both of them to watch the two matriarchs we loved fade away side by side simultaneously.
By that November, they had each passed away almost one month to the day apart in rapid succession. It was a painful and sad time and I cannot remember who died first.
A few weeks later, we received a call in the middle of the night. My uncle had died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital from a massive heart attack. He left behind an eight year old son, 22 year old daughter, and wife.
I remember jumping out of bed, quickly getting dressed and driving to my cousin’s house with my parents leading the way in the early predawn darkness. Crying, shaking, and listening to the City of Angels soundtrack playing Sarah Mclachlan Arms of an Angel as I drove carefully through the pitch black and quiet roads for thirty minutes. That song stabilized me and helped me understand my purpose that night.
I volunteered to stay behind and spend the day with my youngest cousin so that my parents, aunt, and older cousin could handle the final arrangements.
I remember that night and the following day as one of the most difficult times of my life.
How do you help an eight year old navigate the loss of a parent at the age of 19? I only knew I had to try.
After I graduated with my associate degree the following fall, I quickly moved to the Washington DC metro area. I found a listing in the paper for a casket sales position and immediately called. The interview was set and I drove to the cemetery to explore this career path.
I really didn’t know what to expect. I learned the position was a pre-need sales counselor. I would go into residential homes and convince folks to pre-plan and pre-pay for their burial expenses.
I could think of no better fit for my passion! I enthusiastically accepted the role.
I became an excited and absorbent sponge during the two week training. I went all over the metro area into the projects in Southeast DC, into Maryland and Virginia too. This was the late nineties before GPS on phones. I learned to read paper map books while driving and had the privilege of seeing the inside of countless people’s homes.
I loved helping families protect their spouses and children from the financial shock of an untimely death. I shared my personal stories of both uncles dying while their children were so young. I was driven by a mission and I had a purpose.
I was promoted to the at-need family service counselor position. Now, in addition to helping families pre-plan, I also sat with them and helped them navigate the final arrangements for their loved ones at the time of death.
That aspect of the business was more difficult emotionally. I still thrived. I was the professional in the room able to gently walk them through a chapter in life we all must endure.
I was promoted again to help interview, recruit, hire and train new pre-need sales counselors. I loved that too, because with more quality staff, I could share my passion and help more families prepare for the unexpected.
Eventually, I was leading my own team of at-need family service counselors. It was a customer service position, but it was also a sales position. That combination of helping people and making incrementally more money every time they bought a casket, head stone memorial or other service made it hard to stop working and maintain or even establish work life balance.
The vice president of the region took me under her wing. She spoke with me of a future income and leadership role where I would earn nearly half a million dollars a year. It was early in the year 2000. I was 20 years old.
I was working close to 70 hours each week. I had money to dye my hair, pay for a manicure and pedicure, and buy expensive, designer clothes. Many others my age were still pursuing their education in college. I was putting a deposit on my first home. It was new construction and I was working with the builder to pick out every option.
I was mostly thrilled with my life until one day I helped with the funeral arrangements for twelve and thirteen year old sisters who died in a fire.
My sister and I are fifteen months apart and most of the year we have only one year between our ages. This experience shook me to the core and I began to reflect on the life I was leading.
Yes, I was doing good work and earning a lucrative income. However, I came to the conclusion the cost was too high. I didn’t have the time I needed to pursue life. My health was already suffering at the age of 20 with body aches, headaches, and other signs of stress. I didn’t have the time to exercise or take care of myself. I was frequently so busy I made poor food choices.
I found a new role using my recruiting skills and my work life balance improved without my income taking a dramatic hit. My experience working at the cemetery for about a year was the most intense professional and personal training, plus the greatest preparation for life I could have ever experienced.
On average we buried 10 folks a day, six days a week. I gained an incredible perspective on life. What defines a good life. What qualities a family misses most when someone passes away. How differently various cultures, backgrounds, income and education levels manage the loss of a loved one.
The exposure changed me. It healed me. It shaped me into the person I am today.
I still place a high value on helping others. I also know my professional limits and how much of myself I am willing to give to my employer in exchange for the almighty paycheck. A degree, even an MBA cannot teach what I learned in that year working in the death care industry.
I am grateful for the perspective and lessons I was afforded from the families I worked with and the leadership I received. The experience really put my personal misery into place and helped me move forward in life with a skill set many professionals struggle to develop.
Here are some of the lessons I mastered:
- Take care of yourself first. I learned I could not stop death. Not in my family, not in the families I served, and not in my own life. The very best thing I could do was live my life, love those closest to me, and make the most of every new day and opportunity.
- Serve others. Life is frequently cruel and difficult. I learned at the age of 20 that my fulfillment comes from working to make the lives and struggles of other humans just a little bit better.
- Death comes to all of us. Death is unpredictable. Death is unstoppable. There is nothing to fear except missing out on the time we do have together. Have the difficult conversations. Spend the money. Take the trips. Eat that dessert. Love who you want to love and do what you want to do. If this is your last moment or the last day of your loved one’s life, did you say what you needed to say? Did you make the most of the time you have been given?
- Death doesn’t have to be sad. Living each day with gratitude and fulfilling your purpose can be as simple as saying thank you for the food you have to eat and the bed you have to rest in. Appreciating the loved ones in your life and preparing yourself for the possibility that everytime you see them, talk to them, hug them or laugh together with them, if very possibly could be the last. Acknowledge and find peace with that possibility.
Working at the cemetery and being a part of the team that buried over 60 loved ones each week helped me develop this perspective. I talked with grieving families from every walk of life and every spiritual belief. Many who had peace and joy at their time of loss. I saw broken humans devastated by loss and I witnessed true celebrations of life.
Death, illness, obstacles, challenges, and hard times do not have to ravage our human existence. We can learn from the cultures and belief systems of the people who have thrived despite their difficulties and apply those practices to our own lives to make the most of our days.
Identifying these things years before my bipolar disorder diagnosis created the basis for my resilience and subsequent comeback from that very difficult experience. The important priorities remain guideposts in my life.
No one’s life is easy all the time. The greatest resource we have is our ability to be resilient in hard times.
Review the American Psychological Association tips to help you when Building your Resilience.
Read the next post, Anticipate the Good.