Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The funeral home visit

Tonight for Psychology of Death and Dying we visited a funeral home and spent about two hours talking with a funeral director and getting a tour of the building. The funeral director who talked with us was awesome--very honest and open about everything and with a good sense of humor. I was really surprised by how some of my classmates guy was texting while we were in the embalming room. Another girl showed up in her pajamas. I mean, even though we were there for class and not for a funeral, isn't there some sort of protocol for showing up at someone's place of business? Even though all of the bodies were hidden away, there's still a level of respect that I think should be upheld by people when they enter a place where the dead are.

Okay, the embalming room.

I've been to more funerals than I can count (the last time I did it was upward of 30), and I've been given a tour of a funeral home by Mark, the mortician who handled my grandma's funeral, but I have never stood inside the embalming room. I had to breathe pretty deeply. It was a lot more difficult than I thought: seeing and putting in concrete form all of the ideas that I have worked out in my head. Wally, the funeral director, said that he believes that funeral directors should be as open as possible, and I think that part of my nerves came from the fact that embalming has always been shrouded in such high levels of secrecy. It's the "back room" and morticians "do their work" there, and that's all we know.

When I left I had the same headache that I had for three days when my grandma died. I need to remember that it's perfectly okay for me to be nervous, upset, stressed, etc. when I confront the various aspects of death and dying that are foreign to me. I remember that I was scared out of my mind the first time I stood in front of a classroom, too. Fear and anxiety do not mean that I can't do the job; it just means that I need to get the training I need, occupationally, mentally and emotionally, to do the job. Wally told me that "working with the dead" is a relatively small part of the job--the funeral director primarily works with the living. It was really helpful to talk with him and to hear his ideas and philosophy on why he does what he does.

My headache, by the way, is gone.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A calmer, gentler day

Started out the day with Erica hanging at the outlet mall and doing some well needed retail therapy, which helped me recover from yesterday's "episode." Then I headed to Normandale to talk to one of the academic counselors there and see what deals I could shake down.

Apparently, I am not a deal maker. I'm taking Survey of Chemistry. BUT, I'm taking it this summer, so it will be as painless as possible. I'm also taking an anthropology class called Magic, Witchcraft & Religion, which I'm super excited about. During the second summer term I'm taking Intermediate Algebra and Health Professions Terminology. That leaves me with quite an icky schedule for fall classes, but I'll make it work. Maybe.

At any rate, I'm scheduled for classes and it's spring break and I'm c-a-l-m.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The meltdown

Call it a flash in the pan or a major malfunction, a stress buildup or a psychotic break...whatever it is, it happened to me today. The culmination of three months of stress and anxiety and overload simmering in a pressure cooker called "Kelly's body" finally flew out today and the result was, very nearly, a broken patio glass door.

Registration for summer classes is upon me, so after sitting in biology for awhile and talking to a counselor about classes I need and want and can have, I logged on and tried to work my magic. Long story short, there was no magic to be worked, and I found out I need to take a class called "survey to chemistry" which is a lower level class than my high school class and, it goes without saying, a lower level than my college chemistry class. I balked at that a bit, but not as much as the impending realization that the addition of even one more class will cause me to stay in teaching for another year and push off my plans. This freaked me right out, on a cellular level.

Then, I couldn't find my wallet. This was where I dumped the contents of my purse onto my dining room table and, not finding the wallet there, decided it would be a good idea to fling my purse at the patio door. Fortunately, my frontal lobe was engaged and quickly calculated the cost-benefit analysis of this action and told my hand to knock it the fuck off. I found the wallet ten feet away.

There is a third component to my stresses that I'm keeping totally to myself. Erica knows, and my mom, but that's it. It's nothing bad, don't worry. In fact, it will either be neutral or totally kick ass--no chance of badness. But, it's still causing potential stress because anything "unknown" right now is causing me total angst.

So, it's happened. Everyone has been saying, and I've been agreeing, that at some point I would have a complete and total freakout. I'm glad that it happened over spring break in the privacy of my own home, and that it's done now so I can go about my business.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


Tomorrow our school is hosting a Peace Site dedication ceremony to honor our school's inclusion as a peace site. Our principal, Dr. O, is supposed to be in attendance because he was the main figure behind getting the process rolling. This was before he was diagnosed with ALS, before his body began to fail, before his body stopped being able to breathe or swallow on its own, and before we were told that he had days, weeks, or months left to live.

The senior class is the last class that has really known Dr. O as our leader. This is the same class that was forever changed by two suicides within a month of each other and a fatal car accident all during their freshman year. This class is woefully unprepared for what they are going to see tomorrow.

How do you prepare someone to see the dying? The kids know that he isn't well; they know that ALS is a terminal disease. But in their minds, they see him as they've always seen him. They don't see the wheelchair-bound, 110 lb, oxygen dependent man that will be in front of them tomorrow.

I'm really glad that this dedication ceremony is taking place and that Dr. O will be (hopefully) able to attend. What angers me is the utter lack of concern being shown for the feelings of this senior class. They need to be prepared for what they're going to see before they have to see it with their own eyes. Tomorrow's ceremony will be emotional enough without having the additional shock and trauma of seeing how different Dr. O appears from when we last saw him. I will do my best to prepare the handful of students I see in a day. That's the most I can do, I guess.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The thing is...

We're all in a constant state of loss.

Driving home tonight from a late night outing with friends, a few moments combined to remind me of past times--a past where I was really happy and life was a lot simpler than it is now.

And then I thought about a few days ago, driving to work when I came up the hill and saw the horizon and the sunrise, and I could actually see the curve of the earth, and it took my breath away. The smallness of what we are, the minuscule role we play in a universe that is a great collection of minuscules trying to be bigger than they are. It made me sad.

And I'm sad tonight. I'm sad because I'm looking forward to a life full of death. Every loss is magnified for me now: the loss of friends (physically or conceptually), the loss of time, loss of age, even potential loss like looking at my darling Gatsby and knowing that one of us will eventually have to live without the other.

I'm questioning everything I feel--both physically and mentally. My stress is manifesting itself in pretty significant physical ways, and I feel like I'm not being honest with it--trying to make it something that it's not. People are trying to help me but I'm not giving them all of the facts. I wonder if it's in my head....and I know it isn't. I wonder if I'm being a big baby...and I know that pain is pain and it's individual.

And the more I think about it, the more I wonder if I can handle a life of death. I want to--the desire is not a question. But, how can I deal with death in a professional way, help others deal with it, when I can't even manage my own feelings?

Friday, March 7, 2008

Some first hand experience coming up

A good friend of mine, my former boss, was diagnosed about a year and a half ago with ALS. We got word today that he has been placed on 100% oxygen and is having trouble swallowing. His wife had to suction out his throat roughly every five minutes for an entire night. He said that it's his goal to be able to be at an event coming up on March 20.

I don't know how my friend's death will be for me. It'll be the first death of a terminal illness that I've experienced. I went to visit him in October and spent the afternoon. He played the piano for me and we looked at pictures from his trip to China and my trip to Belize. It was a really good day, and I decided that if I didn't get the chance to go back and visit that I was okay with how I last saw him. But, we've been invited to visit him anytime now, rather than the sign up sheet that had been available, for fifteen minute visits. I think I should go see him again.

His death will be the first that I've gone through since I made the decision to become a funeral director. It'll be interesting to see how I handle it.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Dead vs. dying and the balance.

I had no idea when I began this process of learning about death and dying that the "dying" would be so painful. I was worried about dead bodies, about smells and fluids, and about making the bodies look nice for families. I now realize that I'm nowhere near that stage yet. Before the dead arrive, they have to die. The process of dying is where the core of my fear is.
I used to think that I feared "death." Now I know that it's dying that I'm afraid of and the more I learn about "dying" the more I find my fears are completely rational and founded in reality. Dying is, nine times out of ten, icky. Even if a person dies "comfortably in his home," it's still icky for someone.

Last night in class we talked about Jamie Butcher and the horrible decision his parents, Pattie and Jim, had to make to remove his feeding tube after caring for him for seventeen years. Yes, seventeen years. He was seventeen when he was injured in a car accident and they decided to pull his feeding tube when he was thirty-four. I cannot imagine my parents having to make that decision...I can't imagine having to make that decision myself for someone that I love. But, everyone always thinks that they'll never need to make that kind of a decision---lots of people find out that they're wrong.

I absolutely need to find ways to begin to desensitize myself. I cry in every class, and that needs to stop. I internalize everything--when I looked at Pattie Butcher I saw my mom. I can't allow that to happen or I'll never make it into the business. I'll break. The writer in me wants to fall into these feelings and swim in them, cover myself in them and write them out into beautiful scenes and verses. I need to find the balance.

Monday, March 3, 2008

The bubble

Took that stressful histology quiz a 20/20. I missed two questions (confused "ground substance" for "matrix" and completely forgot what collagen fibers were) but answered the 2 point bonus question (transitional epithelium) so I evened out.

Let me tell you about the bubble. The A bubble. Lots of people know about this, probably, but I'm just finding out about it now, since I used to be a B/C student. The A bubble is a delicate balloon of perfection that starts out innocently enough but snowballs into a tightrope of pressure and stress.

In the A bubble, I have all As. The number of points I've lost in all three of my classes can be counted on one hand. I love that. I kind of wish I'd done it sometime before my thirties. But, here's the thing: the harder and longer I work to keep my A, the more stressful it becomes. If I keep an A until now and then blow it on one test, what then? The chances of my getting it back are slim to none, because the trick to the bubble is: once it pops, there's no repairing it. Whereas if I was a perfectly happy B student, all the pressure is off.

Is this making sense? I'm delirious I think.

Anyway, I love being smart. I've always been smart, but I've never been that big of a fan of utilizing my brains. It's kind of a cool thing and, whether or not I actually end up in funeral directing (more on that later), it's been totally worth going back to school just to do it right the second time around.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

"And damn'd be him that first cries, 'Hold, enough!' "

My mind and my body are currently waging war against each other.

Mind: Babydoll, you've got a ton of stuff to do and time is flying by. Get to work. Quit being so dumb.

Body: Dude, please. I'm tired. I'm sick. I want to be horizontal rather than sitting at this damn table for the rest of my life. We can do the work later, can't we?

Mind: Absolutely not. We've got papers to grade, accounting to do, histology to study, and bone anatomy to memorize. I need you on top of your game!

Body: But we've got As in everything. Can't we maybe just, I don't know, stop studying histology? You'll do fine on the test.

Mind: We haven't started studying histology! You think we have because you look at it all the time, but we haven't been studying. I've been reminding you to study it but you haven't because you've been so lazy.

Body: Not lazy--TIRED! I'm exhausted! My phalanges hurt from writing comments on a billion essays and my eyes hurt from reading, reading, always with the reading......

You see how it's going. So, we'll see who wins. Either my mind will give in or my body will. Either way, there's not a prayer in the world that I can keep pushing myself full force without a break.