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Hand placing flower on tombstoneHave the difficult conversation. Laugh a little. Cry a little. Have the conversation. It's hard to accept our own mortality. Even harder to anticipate that of a loved one. Be prepared. It's hard enough to face a loss. It's even harder if you haven't had the conversation. Let me explain. But first, allow me to introduce myself.

I am a funeral director and have been in this profession for 23 years. I chose this profession, or perhaps, it chose me after my father died 28 years ago. He battled cancer for many years. He lost that fight at the end of six months of hospice care. And we never had the conversation.

If we had spoken of his wishes, of our beliefs and what to expect, it would have been much easier on us. Fortunately, my parents, brothers and I felt very connected to our religious beliefs and followed the guidelines set forth for funeral and burial practices. But there were other decisions we had to make, such as which family plot to be selected for burial and which funeral home to call.

Every so often, I am asked about my role as a funeral director. Isn't it sad?  How do you manage?  Actually, I am so very blessed. My role is to help people through a very difficult time in their lives.  I am a stranger in their world when they should be with close family and friends. I take that role very seriously, and do my best to offer guidance and respect for them and their beliefs.

Facing loss can be so hard to accept, perhaps because it is inevitable. Preparing ourselves for loss, both mentally and financially takes effort. There are so many decisions to make after the death of a loved one.  It can be an emotional roller coaster. If we ask ourselves a few questions now, and answer them honestly, we can help our families navigate through these difficult times with more ease.

How do you start a difficult conversation?  We all have our own style. Go for a walk together. Share an ice cream sundae. Have some laughs. Embrace. Then begin…

If you find it difficult to talk about, put it in writing. Make certain to share your thoughts with your family (If you send an email, a quick note of explanation is advisable).

I recommend beginning with a basic understanding of your desires. Do you prefer a traditional burial or cremation?  Do you have a preferred cemetery?  Perhaps you already own graves or have decided upon a cemetery. Is there a clergy member you would choose? Do your religious beliefs play a role in your wishes?

More specifically, what type of burial garment should be selected? Are flowers or music appropriate?  Do you have a favorite charity for donations?

Or perhaps document the detailed information for the death certificate which may not be readily available, such as social security numbers, maiden names and dates of birth.

The more we know, the easier the decisions. The more we understand, from each other and from the professionals, the smoother the process.

As parents, we want to protect our children from life’s difficulties.  By not preparing and sharing our wishes, we are actually creating more angst and stress. So many times, I sit with families who are unaware of what their loved ones wishes were.  They want to do the right thing, to be respectful and loving. But they just don't know.  Or they cannot agree. Their pain is palpable. My heart goes out to them.

One of the best gifts we can give our families is to prepare for our funeral in advance. Meet with a professional. Make the decisions needed. You are even able to pre-pay the costs, which often means that most expenses are guaranteed.  Regardless of the financial decision, your arrangements will be made. These decisions are so much easier to make when you are not making them immediately after a death has occurred.

Although the death of a loved one may be expected or may even sometimes be a relief, especially after an extended illness, it is still a time of confusion for most.  Are we ever fully prepared for a loss? It's possible, yet we cannot anticipate all of our feelings and all of the tasks before us.  Emotions may be high, often mixed with feelings of extreme loss, memories and even guilt. Why add to this with the multitude of decisions that must be made in a very short time, both practical and financial?  Don't be afraid.  Think it through. Plan. Share.

At any time, we may be faced with the death of a loved one.  Allow yourself to breathe. Welcome the comfort and care from others.

Jewish tradition offers a framework for burial, mourning and grieving. There is much comfort and healing to be found within these guidelines. Embrace your own traditions, be they religious, cultural or family traditions. Be patient with yourself and those close to you. Accept help from community. Take time to prepare. Take time to grieve. Take time to mourn. Allow yourself to heal. 

Judaism, like many religions and cultures, has many time honored traditions. The wisdom of our sages and ancestors still prevails; at the time when one should be joyous, be joyous…and when it is time to mourn, mourn.

My own feeling remains; if you can plan and be prepared…plan and be prepared.

May we all be comforted in times of loss and may our hearts always be open to those in need.

About the author

Image of Mindy Moline BotbolMindy Moline Botbol is the Managing Funeral Director of Shalom Memorial Funeral Home in Arlington Heights, Illinois and has been in the funeral profession since 1994. She is frequently a guest speaker at many schools, synagogues and organizations. Mindy has been on the boards of numerous professional organizations and has enjoyed other volunteer roles as well. She has been married to her husband for almost 34 years and is a proud mother and mother-in-law of five.