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Death teaches us

A nonanxious presence in a funeral home

How people die remains in the memory of those who live on” – Dame Cicely Saunders.

In July of 2021, I saw a Facebook post about a newly opened funeral home. Nearly a year later, that post changed the trajectory of my life. That day I mustered up the courage to send a message to James the one who had posted about the funeral home. And today, I have a career in funeral services.

Sometime later, I was telling my new pastor about my work at the funeral home. He is no stranger to funerals and funeral homes. In that conversation, he taught me the term, nonanxious presence. What a perfect description of what I am in my work. I set out to learn how to be a nonanxious presence in a funeral home.

How I found my calling

My best friend, Jenny died in 2011 at the young age of 36 after battling an autoimmune disease for most of her life.  Jenny’s funeral was a significant moment in my life. And it transformed me and how I saw death and dying. At her funeral, my friend Jim, the funeral director told me I had a gift and I should consider a job in the funeral industry.

I had several moments in my life that I’ve walked with friends as they’ve grieved the loss of children, spouses, and loved ones. I realized I wasn’t afraid to be with people as they grieved. Without knowing it, was trying to be the nonanxious person when their life was in shambles and chaos.

Jim’s words never left me. The experiences of holding space for the grieving inspired me. That’s how I found my calling to work in a funeral home.

A nonanxious presence

The term nonanxious presence was coined by Edwin Friedman a Jewish Rabbi. He described a nonanxious presence as “an individual who provides a calm, cool, focused and collected environment that empowers others to be relaxed.” Pastors, hospital chaplains, and leaders are familiar with this term and embody it. I also believe that those working in funeral homes have learned this trait as well.

On his blog, http://thenonanxiousleader.com Jack Shitama says this about being a nonanxious presence, “It’s important to understand that this power is different than authority or the ability to control others. It’s about positive influence and helping others to be their best.”

In my opinion, our role at the funeral home is to be calm, reassuring, and helpful without being overbearing. We really are the people in the shadows making things run smoothly and supporting the family. Even being overly helpful can cause anxiety and be counterintuitive. Our goal is to be present but not overwhelming. As Friedman said, “The trick is to be both non-anxious and present simultaneously.”

Behind the scenes of a funeral home

In future posts, I hope to share behind the scenes of a funeral home. It’s fascinating and rewarding work. I look forward to sharing my experiences and what I learn along the way. Every day and every funeral is different. And through it all there are many lessons to learn.

There may be no single thing that can teach us more about life than death.” –Arianna Huffington