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Establishing Significance—Bringing Meaning

It has been said that “We can embrace the death of someone we have loved by re-embracing their life.” That phrase sums up a great deal of what a funeral or memorial service seeks to accomplish. We come together in order for our hearts, minds and spirits to confront, absorb and integrate into ourselves that someone that someone we love has died. There are many powerful and meaningful ways this can be expressed. Taking the time to listen to people helps them to communicate to you what would be meaning-making in expressing and honoring the life of someone loved. Another important phrase is to think of is “What does this loss mean to this person at this time in his or her life?” The answer to that question might be totally different for each family member or friend.

• Invite people into the process of planning by asking about meaningful scripture, poetry, readings, hobbies, and passions of the deceased person.

• Creating memory photo boards can be a wonderful process that ALL can enter into. The sharing of stories and memories while doing this is a marvelous way of getting people involved. Tell the stories behind the photos.

• Creating a memorial table helps to bring tangible, visual objects that express someone’s life. It can help, in a very simple and symbolic way to tell those present something more about the person’s life and loves. We have seen a handmade quilt draped over a casket, a guitar draped with flowers, a young person’s snowboard propped against a stand of flowers, and an embroidered cloth from the family table covering the table on which photos and other precious objects might be placed. When a baby has died, families sometimes bring objects that express the hopes and dreams they had for their child.

• Encourage people to write letters or notes expressing their thoughts or feelings that can be read during the service and then either placed in the casket for burial or into the cremation container. Children might prefer to express themselves through drawings or bringing objects that express their feelings about the person who has died.

• Music brings out so many emotions during a service. Depending on your tradition and what kind of music is permissible, choose music that expresses the feelings.

• Pallbearers, made up of family and friends, can be a different form of participation and service for some. Those who are not of strong stature can serve as honorary pallbearers.

• Candles brought from home or a number of candles that represent family members, children or grandchildren can be a powerful visual symbol of the light that continues on in their lives.

Please understand that we are here to serve you & your family in any way we can.

Cupcakes at the funeral home?!?

by Jennifer McBride

I heard a wonderful story about something one of our funeral directors did that added that “extra touch” for a grieving family…

Debbie Winslow was making funeral arrangements with a family for a woman who had died. In the course of the conversation, laughter and tears that are a natural part of that process, Debbie heard the woman’s children talk about their fond memory of their mother’s cupcakes. At each of their birthdays, her children (now grown), she would send them to school with cupcakes for their whole class that were personalized with the name of each child in the class. They talked about how proud they were to bring these to their classmates…

When the family came in for their private viewing, before others would come later that day, Debbie had a tray with a cupcake for each of the family with their name written in icing!

Thank you, Debbie, for not only hearing what is shared with you, but also really listening and honoring the important treasures that are shared with us each day by those whom we are called to serve.

Some of the Most Helpful Things I’ve Learned Over the Past 14 Years… by Jennifer McBride

It was in 1996, my first year at Horan & McConaty, that I took a daylong class from an organization called American Academy of Bereavement. The instructor was a woman named Judith Skretny. What I learned from Judith that day has been useful for me and for the individuals and families we care for over the last 14 years.
I’d like to share these:

Top 7 Things to Know About Grief

1. Grief lasts longer and is more painful than most people expect.
2. There is no right way or wrong way to grieve- just your way.
3. The least helpful thing for grieving people is other people telling them how they should be doing things.
4. The most helpful thing for grieving people is to be able to process their feelings (talking, writing, composing, creating).
5. Good grief doesn’t mean forgetting, it means remembering and forming a new relationship with the deceased person.
6. Sometimes the people we think should help us simply can’t.
7. People are fundamentally resilient. They can and they will survive. We can empower people.

My observation after walking with grieving people would be to add an “8th thing” and tell people that “Having faith does not preclude you from going through the process of grief.” I think about when I served in a congregation and the times that grieving people would talk about their thoughts, fears, feelings and struggles. Many times, people would say, “If my faith were stronger, I wouldn’t be hurting like this.” My response to them was that having faith means you have a relationship you can lean into and onto as you integrate loss & change into your life. Expressing the wide range of emotions in grief does not indicate a lack of faith or a lesser faith… It is an indication of being fully human!

Judith Skretny also shared this list of factors that affect a person’s experience of a death. When I am listening to people tell their stories, I try to always be conscious of how these different variables can impact and influence their grief…

Variables that Influence Grief

• The bereaved person’s unique relationship with the deceased (strength of attachment).
• Degree of ambivalence or unfinished business.
• Circumstances of the death (sudden or unexpected; violent or peaceful; age of deceased).
• Personality and coping behaviors of the bereaved person (previous history of loss; ability to express emotions and seek/receive help).
• Social support (family; friends).
• Cultural and religious support (belief system; rituals).
• Health and lifestyle of the bereaved person (history of mental illness; depression; substance abuse).

I still believe many years after hearing this question, that is a clarifying lens we should hold up as we hear the experiences and feelings of those whom we serve…
“What does THIS loss mean to THIS person at THIS time in his or her life?”

A Time of Remembrance
Please join us for our annual memorial candle-lighting ceremony
to honor the memory of those whom we have loved and who have died.

Monday, December 7, 2009- 3020 Federal Blvd.
Tuesday, December 8, 2009- 1091 S. Colorado Blvd.
Wednesday, December 9, 2009- 5203 E. County Line Rd.
Monday, December 14, 2009- 9998 Grant St.
Tuesday, December 15, 2009- 3101 S. Wadsworth Blvd.
Thursday, December 17, 2009- 11150 E. Dartmouth Ave.
(at Parker Rd.)

All programs begin at 7:00 PM and last about one hour.
Refreshments will be served.
All programs are free and open to the whole community.

All are welcome. Please RSVP to 303.745.1771 x342 as to
the number of people and which evening you wish to attend

The following was written by John Horan for our staff newsletter – we want to share it with you as well.

11 words…

I forgive you.
Please forgive me.
Thank you.
I love you.

Dr. Ira Byock, one of the pioneers and proponents of palliative medicine (care for those with chronic life-threatening illness), spoke to a small group brought together by The Denver Hospice. Dr. Byock believes people whose lives reflect these 11 words are much more likely to live a meaning-filled life. Dr. Byock’s 11 words apply to how we live, how we die, how we say hello, and how we say goodbye.

I rode along for a morning with Kathleen Kegel, chaplain for The Denver Hospice, not long ago. In visiting with a woman who did not have long to live, Kathleen probed for unfinished business (think of Dr. Byock’s 11 words…) I could see it was a relief for this dying woman to reflect on what had been said and done and what needed to be said and done. I saw something similar when making hospice visits with Paulina Natema, nurse and coordinator with Selian Hospice in Tanzania. Paulina always began a visit to a terminally ill patient by probing for unfinished business. She explained to me that one cannot begin to help someone die by using the drugs and other tools of medicine until this person’s heart and soul are at peace. Just last week I observed Jason Faris as he opened the arrangements for a young man who died suddenly and violently. Jason’s warm, kind manner put the traumatized parents and other family members at ease. Jason invited all to tell their stories. He leaned forward, showing patience and interest. I thought of Kathleen and Paulina as I marveled at Jason’s good sense and natural ability to connect and earn trust.

I recently watched a Japanese movie with English subtitles, Departures. This touching and brilliant film follows the life of an “encoffiner,” a young man who prepares the deceased before cremation. His father left when he was a boy and then, many years later, dies without having made contact with his son. Now, the son is faced with “encoffining” his own father. There is so much to say and, now, his father has died. The son’s initial anger moves to tender interaction with his father’s body and a sense of peace with his past.

We encounter similar issues with family members after a death. Sometimes for the living, there are words that need to be said, things that need to be done, even if this is to the mortal remains of their loved one. As I saw the young Japanese “encoffiner” tenderly care for his father’s body, it occurred to me that this could be anyone in our Care Center: Terri Koelling, Sal Ramirez, John Glaspy, Diann Simon, Sara Dvorak, Marissa Casillas, Laleh Miller, Stacey Arndt, or Stephanie Kummet.

Rarely does a day or two pass that I don’t receive a note or a call from a family expressing appreciation for the care they received and for the important differences our co-workers made in their lives. To each of you in front-line and support roles, I think of your tenderness, your professionalism, your thoughtfulness in all the big and little things that help open the door to the living, the door they must walk through, the door that leads to expression of pain, acceptance, reconciliation, peace. I continue to be amazed for all the ways you express your compassion and your professionalism.

And that leads me to conclude with something I recently read in the casket of a young woman who died suddenly, a woman who was lovingly prepared, a wife, a daughter, a mother of 4 young boys. This family was able to say a genuine goodbye that reached into their hearts and souls, let out what needed to be released, let in what needed to be let in. Among other things in the casket, I saw this note:
I love you mom. Sorry, that is all I could say. I love you.

I hope you know what an important difference you make in people’s lives and how proud I am of you. I hope your lives are filled with meaning, love, forgiveness, thankfulness, and peace, all being reflections of what you make possible for others.

I received this email last week (I removed the last name of the deceased and replaced with an initial):


Today at our Grant Chapel we had a funeral service for Violet C., and the family had talked about how she and her husband, Dominic, were great dancers. This was also part of their DVD that H&M prepared to show at the service.

The last song to be played was “The Dance” by Garth Brooks. After the song was over, the minister came down from the lecturn. He approached Dominic and asked him if he would dance with his daughter and granddaughter to the song. Dominic said, “Yes, I would like that.”

The minister asked me to play the song again and Dominic and his daughter, Kathy, danced to the song. After the song was over, the hundred or so who attended the service gave them a standing ovation. This was totally unrehearsed, and off the cuff. The family was so overwhelmed with emotion, and couldn’t say enough about what a wonderful service we had provided for their family. It just brought to mind, once again, why we do what we do!

The minister was Richard Brest!


Some things can be trained. Some things cannot. The creative thought, the compassion, the courage of this minister to take this “detour” in the funeral made a huge difference to this family and to their friends. I’m proud to say Rev. Richard Brest was one of our funeral directors for many years after he retired from full-time ministry.

I share this with you because it strikes me that Rev. Brest did not take the path of least resistance and just proceed as had been planned. Rather, he took a moment to follow his instinct and have a private word with Dominic, the husband of Violet. That showed compassion, courage and wisdom.

Kevin Kassner, our funeral director, has been arranging and directing services for 45+ years. Kevin was my boss when I was just a kid who cut the mortuary’s lawn, vacuumed and did other maintenance work. As I grew older, Kevin became a great trainer and mentor for me and, I should add, many others. After all these years, it’s gratifying to see Kevin excited about what he does.

People ask me how we can do this work and keep good mental health. The next time I get that question, I will ask the person to read Kevin’s message to me – a message reinforcing the fact that we get one chance to do our work well and, when we do, we can help make an important difference in someone’s life. As Kevin said, it’s why we do what we do.

by John Horan


Welcome to our blog.

Our purpose is to provide information that helps you cope with some of the most difficult and painful times of your life. I hope you find this helpful and interesting. Your feedback is encouraged and appreciated!

A well-known therapist and researcher on death and dying described Americans as the only country where people think death is optional. This same individual described Baby-Boomers as the “first death-free generation in the history of human kind.” As a Baby Boomer myself, I can identify with this as someone who has lived to the age of 52 and not experienced a death within my immediate circle, my parents, my wife, my children, my siblings. In previous generations death was more common among younger people, whether from disease, accidents or in other manners.

The classic “fight vs. flight” dilemma taught in psychology classes becomes real everyday to the people we serve. Some say “try to not think about it, stay busy, get on with your life.” And some say “we have to face this; by leaning toward our pain we move more through it more effectively.”

Which approach sounds more correct for you?

My experience is that people who choose “fight,” choosing to do the hard things that involve confronting the painful realities of the death of someone loved, are the ones who lug around less emotional baggage, more fully experience life’s lows and highs, and mourn more completely.

I want to tell you about “Lisa.” The love of Lisa’s life died much too young. Today, when I see Lisa visiting her husband’s memorial, sitting pensively and deep in thought, I see a woman doing exactly what she needs to do, leaning toward her pain. Lisa’s choice to embrace her pain is not only helping her to cope, but to also receive “divine momentum” that helps Lisa move forward toward other meaningful relationships and a life worth living.

I welcome your comments at jhoran@horancares.com


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