This weekend was a HUGE stretch out of my comfort zone – and I realised it is a long time since I have done something for the first time. What about you? How long is it since you have done something for the first time? May I share my weekend with you?
THE BACK STORY: An old friend has had cancer for a number of years and had his voice box removed. I reconnected with him and his partner 3 months ago at a reunion after not seeing him for many years. I had seen his partner on my beach walks and not realised the connection to Brian, so after the reunion we have got to know each other better. And have walked together occasionally and I had been to see she and Brian a number of times for dinner. Not that Brian could eat, but it was good to connect. When it looked like Brian only had a few weeks to live, and thinking that Gerri, his partner may need extra support, I offered to help her in any way I could with the funeral. I explained I had arranged a few funerals before, and knew what to do. And something like that can be really overwhelming when you are coping with grief as well.
Fast track to this week, and unfortunately Brian passed away. Gerri phoned me with the news and told me she had arranged with the White Lady Funerals that I was going to preside at the cremation and there would just be a cremation – no church involved – just the chapel at the crematorium. I quickly phoned my friend who is a celebrant and asked her the question – what does presiding me? She said, “You’re it, she wants you to run the whole ceremony!”
After I recovered from the shock, I Goggled cremations and found out as much as I could about them, still unsure if legally I could even do this. Next day I met with Brian’s children and step daughter and Gerri at the White Lady funerals office. And made sure I got there early and checked with the White Lady that as I wasn’t a celebrant, was that legal? She assured me yes anyone can do a cremation, just not a wedding – phew – I did explain, although I had done a eulogy, I had never actually done the ceremony before. “No problem” she said, “Gerri has total faith in you!” Reassured as I was, I knew that Gerri believed in me, way more than I believed in me with this very responsible task.
So I put my “pretend this is a briefing for a networking presentation and just ask questions” hat on. And once the formal side of the funeral arranging was completed (and I made sure I didn’t say much at all during those discussions – because those decisions belonged to the family) – I started to ask questions about Brian and the memories of their dad Brian.
I took copious notes, just as I do when I am in a briefing, and watched the adult children move from tears to laughter as they recalled many of the special moments with their dad. Then we talked about the music he liked, where his surfboard might fit into the ceremony and what he had wanted his ceremony to be like. That time was very special with them – and for me too. And hour later, I left them and went home with twenty pages of notes with the thought – “where do I start?”
I am a big believer in asking for help preferably before I need it. And that morning, I had asked my celebrant mate Maggie, if she could send me an outline of one of the cremations she had presided over. That was waiting in my inbox when I got back to my office, phew – it’s a start. A few hours later I had written up the stories, collated them into some sort of chronological order and watched as the document and order of service took shape. There were still a lot of gaps with music and photos and whom, from the family, was actually going to speak. And I had said to them during our chat, that everything was flexible and just because it was in the order of service, if they changed their mind about speaking, I would just go with the flow.
Next step was to send the draft order of service to Gerri for approval. I knew she was grieving and would not necessarily get back to me immediately. At 4.30 a.m., I received a text message – “are you awake, Robyn?” “Yes!” I texted back while ringing her. Little did SHE know I had been awake all night as I tossed and turned, worrying about the order of service and whether I had totally botched the task, not to mention if I could remotely complete the emcee role at the cremation. “Hi Gerri how are you feeling?”
Phew everything was fine, I just had to correct the 3 different dates of birth I had for Brian throughout the documents. He was a great guy but not able to be born 3 times in one lifetime.
I would love to tell you that the original draft document was the same one that I used on Saturday – I wish. I honed that document many times between Thursday and Saturday lunchtime as I gathered more stories and examples of Brian’s life. And I realised that all the skills that have taken me until today (writing, speaking, researching, communicating, networking and asking for help) were all that I needed to complete my task. I stopped sending updated versions to Gerri, she trusted me and that’s all I needed.
Fast track to yesterday and the same as if it was a presentation, I dressed professionally, arrived more than an hour before the start of the ceremony. And rather than taking my networking books, workbooks etc. I took:
* multiple copies of the order of service (in case I lost one – no chance). But it was helpful to give a copy to the White Lady who was managing the music and photo show.
*two different folders so that I could decide which one would work best (I didn’t need either)
* bottles of water (just in case they didn’t have any)- silly me – of course they had water and a water cooler.
* tissues. Yes I knew they would have those, but just in case there was a rush. I wasn’t a girl guide, but I do get the drift – be prepared.
* a couple of small bottles of Apple Juice – just in case someone fainted and needed a sugar hit. I am not a nurse either, but I was trying to eliminate all the possibilities.
*of course I checked the microphone and podium and realised as a short statured person that there was a big chance that if I stood totally behind the podium my face would be covered by the light shining on the speech. So I quickly worked out if I stood at the side, I didn’t need the light anyway and at least I would not have a barricade between me and the congregation. And I made sure I gave Brian’s mates heads up about stand on the side, not behind the podium. (Just as I do when I speak at networking events.)
Phew, by the time the family arrived, I was calm, cool and collected! Or so it appeared. My greatest fear was that I would not meet the family’s expectations and would blubber and cry the whole way through the service. Thankfully, I knew about 50% of the congregation and just as it’s reassuring to see a familiar face in an audience when I give a networking presentation, I could look towards a few mates who would smile and nod and I knew it was going okay.
Brian’s instructions were that the service should be fun and not morbid. So with the help of the stories I had collected, a few of his mate’s contributions with the eulogy, the PowerPoint photos and the music, everything went to plan.
I surprised myself how strong and confident I sounded and thought to myself, if only these people knew what was really going on. Yes I have been a speaker for 20 years, have done thousands of presentations in 12 different countries, but this would definitely be one of the top 3 hardest presentations in my life.
I would love to tell you that I made it from start to finish without crying – I almost did. I got 95% of the way through, and had just started the words for the Committal – when I glanced down to my final notes where it said – don’t forget to press the button to close the curtain on the coffin. That was it! So I did blubber my way through the last 50 or so words – but the congregation were also crying to, so I was in good company and I knew Gerri would forgive me.
AN AMAZING HIGHLIGHT:
Brian’s step-daughter Penny told me that she might sing or she might read a poem – she would let me know on the day. When she told me she had decided to sing the Beach Boy’s classic – Let’s Go Surfing before the committal, I made a note. And thought to myself, gee I hope she’s good – but whatever happens, her step-dad would be so proud of her for doing this. Not expecting and not knowing that she was a brilliant singer and strong and confidently she not only sang Let’s Go Surfing, but played the ukulele to accompany her during the song. Come to think of it, everyone was crying at that time too – it was an extraordinary experience. You had to be there.
Everyone clapped wildly as she finished the song – it was a very special moment. I made an off the cuff comment, that we would definitely have a sing a long at the wake and get Penny to repeat Let’s Go Surfing. (She did decline my request at the wake to sing it again, but I know it will be a memorable for everyone there on the day. Penny gave her all for her step dad in a very emotional situation).
The curtain closed, the final song was played and the congregation made their way out of the church. And I breathed a HUGE sigh of relief. Phew, I did it. And I only cried in the last 2 minutes.
A lady came up to me and said, “I’ve just told my son I want you at my funeral. Actually I thought you were a professional celebrant, until you cried at the end. And then I realised you actually knew Brian. You did a great job.” I had covered my connection to Brian in my talk, even though she must have missed that bit. In one of the re-writes, I included the fact that I had known Brian since the ’60s from teenage days growing up in a beachside area. I remembered clearly a mentor’s tip when I was starting out in speaking – always answer any questions you think the audience may have about you. And the obvious one, who is she and how comes she’s presiding?
Soon after Gerri came up and gave me a big hug and said, “You are amazing, I don’t know how you did it. How can I ever repay you?”
My response, “You just did!”
In hindsight, I didn’t know I could do it either or how I did it on the day. But there is a first time for everything, and as we toasted Brian’s life at the wake, I reminded myself that it’s good to do things for the first time – even if my comfort zone was stretched more than it has in a very long time. And it’s about time I started doing more things for the first time, way more often.
What about you? What have you done for the first time recently? Was it as stressful as the cremation was for me?
Well done for doing it – maybe we can all attempt something new at least once a week for the next six months – and just see opportunities open up for us all.
Until next time – happy networking.