by Peggy Sweeney
In April of 1975, my best friend died. Not only was he my best friend, he was more importantly my dad. He died suddenly; a massive heart attack. The paramedics assured us that he had not suffered. But the pain and suffering our family was to endure over the next several months was monumental.I remember thinking, at that time, how I wished I could ease mom’s hurt just a little. I wanted to give her the ability to forget for a short time her visions of dad’s last moments with her. Seeing him die before her eyes must have been so traumatic. Not being able to save him caused her much guilt. I felt so helpless. There was nothing I or anyone could do or say to fix the problem. He was gone. It was so final. I believe it was at that time in my life that I started on “the road less traveled”. In years to come, I chose the path that led me eventually to funeral service.
All at once, I was forced to deal with emotions and feelings I had never had before. Hate. Anger. An overwhelming sense of loss. Usually an introvert, I wanted to be left alone to grieve, but my family needed me more. My younger sister was away at college and had not seen dad since January. My seventeen year old brother was told by many of our family and friends that he would have to assume the role of the man of the house. There was so much that had to be done to prepare for the wake, funeral, and burial. Mom—usually the strong, take charge person—could not even choose the suit dad was to wear. All her basic thought processes had shut down. As the eldest child, I had to put my fears and trepidations aside and assume the role of caregiver.
While making the funeral arrangements, I remember walking into the casket display room with row upon row of caskets. I felt repulsed. Mom was so distraught that she asked me to select the one I liked best. Whichever one I thought daddy would want. I chose green. He was Irish. The most horrifying experience of all was seeing my dad in the casket for the first time. You are never prepared for that.
The following days are something of a blur. Bits and pieces of memory rise to the surface and cause my mind to wander. The seemingly endless hours of standing and greeting relatives and friends who came to show their respect. Repeating over and over again how dad had died and assuring everyone, including myself, that we would all be fine. Would we? Would I? The periods of uncontrollable sobbing, the nauseous smell of the flowers in the funeral home, the pall-draped casket at the church, the seemingly long ride to the cemetery, and finally, saying our last goodbyes to daddy. It was time for us to begin a life without our husband and father.
Several years later, I became friends with a lady who had been a mortician before she married and had children. She intrigued me with her stories of life in a New York City funeral home. Then, in 1985, I met Jimmy Dilday. He changed the direction of my life overnight. He owned Bowlin Funeral Home in rural Dresden, TN. Over the course of the next several years, Jimmy taught me about the many facets of operating a funeral home. Most importantly though, he helped to nurture a sense of caring for the families and pride in whatever task I was doing. In time, I realized I had gifts and talents that shouldn’t be wasted. I had found the road to a meaningful career.
In the fall of 1988, at the age of 41, married, and the mother of three young children, I began classes at John A. Gupton College in Nashville, TN. Over the next year, I studied during the week then drove two and a half hours to spend the weekends with my family. It was a very trying year for all of us, but I believe we all grew because of this experience. After taking my state boards and graduation, I proudly received my licenses in Funeral Directing and Embalming in September 1990.
My journey was not easy at first. It was uphill all the way. A black preacher once asked me what had been the most difficult challenge. I smiled and replied, “Being a Yankee, Catholic woman in a male-dominated profession in the rural South.” In spite of that, and with the support and encouragement of my family and friends, I achieved my goal. My determination to succeed paid off.
I have received many blessings and have made many friends over the years. Even though I am retired from the funeral profession, I continue to help others through support groups, workshops for healing grief, and several online newsletters. Whenever I know that I had been able to help a family or an emergency response professional through the most difficult time of their life, there are no words to describe the feelings of satisfaction I have. The road less traveled has been very rewarding.
Copyright Peggy Sweeney. All rights reserved.
About the Author: Peggy Sweeney is the president of the Sweeney Alliance. She has developed and taught countless workshops for coping with grief and trauma, including How to Understand Grief Seminars (HUGS) and the Grieving Behind the Badge for emergency response professionals. She has written numerous award-winning articles and is the editor of the Journeys Through Grief Newsletters. Peggy is a former member of the Comfort (TX) Volunteer Fire Department and a former EMT-B.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.