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Sympathy Meals 101

Published: March 14, 2019

Those who have faced a highly stressful time in their lives, such as major surgery, the birth of a baby, or a transition to a new home, know just how helpful and comforting it is to have someone else take care of the cooking. These meals, often referred to as sympathy meals, are also commonly associated with funerals. When someone you know experiences the death of a close loved one, providing home-cooked food is a great way to support them in their time of need. This small action can be a heartwarming blessing to those who are grieving. Here are a few things to consider before you start cooking.

Communication

Let someone in the family know you will be bringing a meal and offer them a couple of dates to choose between. Because food allergies are common, send a little menu that includes a few different options so they can choose what they would prefer.

Quantity

Additional relatives or visitors might be present for the meal, so be sure to provide extra. If you are making a meal that is to be eaten at the time of delivery, you could double the recipe and make the second one freezer-friendly. This is a great way to provide more support later on when life might still feel a bit overwhelming for the family.

Presentation

You might want to consider how you personally would serve the dish and what else might be needed. Adding salad, dinner rolls, dessert, or even a beverage ensures that the family meal is completely taken care of. Use a disposable dish with baking instructions written on it. Throw in paper products, too, because the last thing they will feel like doing is washing dishes. Many people like to include a couple of inexpensive toys for children or a few basic grocery items such as fruit and eggs. These are added extras that might make life just a little bit easier for those dealing with a recent loss.

Delivery

Most likely, the best way to drop off your meal is to let them know when you plan to leave it at the door. However, depending on the person, you should also be prepared to stay and chat if they are wanting to spend time with a friend.

Not a cook? Can’t squeeze in the time? Want to be different?

While a home-cooked meal might be most people’s first thought, there are other ways to provide a bit of cooking relief to those who are going through a difficult time. Including a gift card to a local restaurant that delivers or offers carryout is a great option, particularly if you suspect the family might already be receiving several casseroles in the next few days. There are also many online meal services that can be ordered and have delivered to the family.

Why I Became a Funeral Director

Published: March 6, 2019

On Tuesday, March 1, 2016, I was a second-year medical student at a guest lecture on renal dialysis at Des Moines University.  As I sat in the back row like usual, my brother and mom kept calling my cell phone, which I ignored while I was taking notes. My mom then sent a text message saying, “Dad went down at work. Call me ASAP.” Given my dad’s history of procedures for his heart issues throughout my life, I assumed he was taken to the hospital ER to be cardioverted, as was common for him.  As soon as the lecture was over, I promptly walked out of the auditorium and called my mom. She was crying hysterically, telling me that my dad needed prayers now more than ever and that it wasn’t likely he would make it. I was so distraught, my friend, Jes, had to drive me home to meet my husband, Paul, who was also on the way home from work. At 11:10 AM, while I was still in my car, my brother called to say that the doctor had come out and told them despite their best efforts my dad had died.  When I got home, I started to pack. I grabbed my only black dress, the one I had not worn since my college graduation, from the back of the closet, and Jes said, “That’s not a dress you want to be picking out.”

While my husband and I made the seven hour drive back home, I called my mom and asked that they not move my dad to the hospital morgue yet; I wanted to see him where he was. Unfortunately, by the time my husband and I made it home, he had already been moved because my mom had elected to do skin and tissue donation. I requested to see him in the morgue. I couldn’t go to bed that night without facing my cold, sad reality. I had to know it was real. A nurse escorted my mom, husband and I down to the morgue. As I looked at my dad’s body, all I could think was, I don’t have a dad anymore. I don’t have a dad anymore. I asked the nurse what his time of death was; she was kind enough to check his chart and confirm 11:10 AM exactly. For some, the fewer details they know, the better. For me, I needed to know everything surrounding his death.

The days of planning the funeral were a blur. The only thing providing me solace was knowing my dad was in the building with me and still above ground as we made his arrangements, which was a false sense of comfort since he wasn’t truly there in a spiritual sense. My school gave me five days off and then I needed to either return or take an extended leave of absence, which wouldn’t look good to residency programs come time for interviews. So, I went back to school and tried to resume a shell of a normal life.

I studied for my boards, I passed my boards, and I started my internal medicine rotation at Mercy Hospital. I followed the steps necessary to get through my day, but during rounds on my patients, my thoughts kept drifting back to my dad’s funeral and what a typical day was like for Julie Moen, our funeral director (to whom I will forever be grateful for being the last person to take care of my dad). There were many aspects of a funeral that were interesting and a mystery to me: How did they get him in the casket? What does he look like under his suit after donation? (Sadly, now I know.) How will they get the vault in the ground after we leave the cemetery? All of these unknowns were more fascinating to me than doing my presentations on rounds. If I was honest with myself, I had fallen out of love with medicine even before my dad had died. His death had made it apparent that life could be very short, and that realization became the precipice upon which I based my future career decision.

After weeks of mulling it over, I mustered the courage to call the dean and let him know I would be taking a one-year leave of absence to sort my life and aspirations out. Although I was fearful of him being angry, he was surprisingly supportive. I emailed Julie at Anderson Funeral Home to see if it would be OK for me to shadow her for a couple of weeks, explaining  my thoughts of a career change to her. For two weeks, I spent every day with the funeral directors at Anderson. The first funeral I ever worked while shadowing Julie was for Monty Hevern, and I saw it through from pick-up to finish. At the end of the service, Monty’s wife, Jennie, handed me a packet of forget-me-not seeds to plant, hugged me, and told me how grateful she was for everything we had done for her (despite me being greener than green and probably not having done much of anything). No one in my medical career had ever made me feel the way Jennie Hevern did, and in that moment, I felt like I knew what I was supposed to do with my life.

I have had many people question why I gave up a career as a physician to be “just” a funeral director. They often cite the difference in pay and foregoing a six-figure salary, as if that’s the most important part. For me, it is about fulfilling my purpose in life. I had such a positive experience with the funeral home, and I feel it is my purpose and duty to give that opportunity to others in their time of need. Because of the perspective I have from losing my dad, I am able to meet families in their grief and truly empathize with their loss, especially if that loss is a young parent. My dad’s death has changed a lot about me, but because of it, I wake up in the morning and love what I do. And that is worth its weight in gold.

-Christianna Jahn

Writing an Obituary

Published: March 5, 2019

3/5/2019

A common assumption is that an obituary is merely a death notice. While that might be the case for newspaper submissions, funeral homes generally include full obituaries on their websites and on memorial folders for no additional cost. Therefore, writing an obituary is also a precious chance to express a loved one’s legacy and share parts of their life story from the very beginning to the very end. If you are looking to create a well-written, meaningful obituary, here are a few pieces of advice that will help guide you through the process.

Consider Organization

Jumping around with facts and descriptions makes it too hard for the reader to follow. Chronological order is almost always going to be your best option for arranging events and accomplishments. You might also want to follow up the timeline approach with a paragraph that emphasizes the nature of this person’s character and what they will be remembered for.

Use Personal Details and Examples

Individuality can be achieved in an obituary by offering specific details rather than a generic overview. Don’t simply list where your loved one lived and worked over the course of their life. Consider what made this person unique. Give an example or offer a quick anecdote to help illustrate descriptions.

Know That It’s OK to Be Funny

Or reserved. Or sarcastic. Or boastful. Or whatever you feel would be fitting for your loved one. The tone and style of the obituary should match the personality of its leading subject.

Have Someone Else Proofread It

Reading and rereading your work is great, but you will also want someone else’s input. You might even want two people to help you out, such as someone else who was close to the one who passed and someone who is more removed from the situation. Besides catching things like minor punctuation and spelling errors, ask them for their overall impressions, too. The funeral provider you are working with can also help ensure the obituary is as good as it can be before you submit it for publication.

Keep Perspective

Writing an obituary is no simple feat. Feeling like you’ve done your best to pay tribute to a loved one is the main goal. Overall, if you are given the important opportunity of writing an obituary for someone you knew and loved, try to remember the essential focus: an obituary is actually about life.

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