Hello, I’m Jackie Williams and I work at a cemetery – the cemetery where I buried my husband in July 2018.
It was February 2017 when my father-in-law passed away. His burial was in a cemetery I had never heard of before.
I remember looking at my husband on the twenty-five-minute drive to his father's burial and saying, “I wonder why we are burying Dad way out here? There is a cemetery right down the street from the church.” He waited a moment before responding. He cleared his throat which was thick with grief and says, “I am not sure, babe. I wondered about that too but didn’t ask. This is where his wife wanted him. I am okay with it.” All I could do was nod as we drove through the gates.
February 2018, I was hired as a receptionist at this same cemetery. It was a great job with great people. I was learning about an industry that no one really knows about unless you work in it, or you have a loved one who passed away. Five months later, I was promoted to a counselor. My job is to walk families through the very difficult process of what happens after a person passes away, referring them to various funeral homes, finding a final resting place within our cemetery, and memorializing their loved ones.
My husband was the one who pushed me to go after the job. I remember calling him once I got home.
“I know it’s been a while since we talked about that opening at work. I went for it, and I got it!”
The happiness in his voice was tangible through the phone. “Great job! I am so proud of you!” At that moment, I felt like even though this job was a ton of responsibility, I could handle it. But nothing could have prepared me for the moment of my husband's death. Let alone burying him five graves away from his father.
But there I was in an instant, sitting on the couch with my head in my hands sobbing. “I don’t know what to do!” I looked at my friend searching her face for an answer I was paid to know. “Do I go to the funeral home first? But I have no place for him!” There was a bizarre moment of clarity and I remembered that I worked at a cemetery. This cemetery. My training slowly began to kick in. I had guided people through this process before. Now, it was my turn.
We went to the funeral home first. I had been there way too many times within the past year for family, but, of course, this time was different. It was my first time being in charge of final arrangements and I was so afraid of making the wrong decisions. All I remember is begging the funeral director, "Please go get him now. He is alone. I don't want him to be alone."
Through a dense mental fog, I walked into work. My co-workers hugged me and gently led me out to a grave that they found near my father-in-law. They helped me pick out a casket and a vault, which mostly consisted of me just standing there blinking and nodding. Next thing I know, I am sitting on the opposite side of my own work desk signing an Internment Order for my husband's burial.
The staff at my job were incredible. The love and solidarity they showed during the most traumatic moment of my life is something that I will never forget. The entire staff was at the graveside - including our groundsmen and women. Most people don't stay for the burial, but I decided to watch my husband being lowered into the ground. Later, when his marker came in, my groundsman was kind enough to ask me if I wanted to watch him set it - and I did.
From the moment I found out my husband died; it was a sobering experience that I could not escape. There was nowhere to run. I realized that the best thing for me to do was to be present for every step of this process so when a family sits across from me, I can guide them with authenticity. Going back to work was a difficult but necessary aspect of life. It is one thing to go back to work in general, but how does one go back to a place where your husband is buried? How does one stay emotionally stable and present enough to help families in their time of need? We are told to "keep busy" while grieving, and this job has given me something to focus on - my families - however, I also know that I am internalizing my grief. This is manifested in many ways, and there are several triggers in my line of work.
The most recent one was a casket training. It only took three minutes before the salesman's words faded into gibberish like Charlie Brown's teacher. I was sitting there, jaw clenched, trying to maintain a normal expression on my face. But every muscle in my body was tense as the salesman went through the different parts of the casket, the mechanisms, and the types of finishes. All I could see was my husband. All I could remember was my daughter's reaction seeing her father for the first time in his casket - her gasp, sobbing, and turning away into me, the silence and anger permeating from my sons as they sat there, staring off into space. I slowly closed my notebook and tried to appear as present as possible. Once I got home, it was a lot of lonely tears, quietly screaming at myself, and going to bed at 6:30 p.m. All because of a casket.
So, what keeps me going back? Why don't I just find another job? Clearly, this isn't good for my mental health, right? I have asked that question over and over. I have lost count of how many times I have screamed internally at God and asking what the hell my purpose is in this place. "I want to run! Why won't you let me run?" And then the next day, a widow walks into my office, and my entire being aches for her. I see the pain, anger, and confusion in her face. I see the fog surrounding her. She needs a guide. And I am reminded why I chose to be present for the process.
It is for her.
Jackie Williams, a Black Women Widows Empowered member, resides in Toledo, OH and is a mother to four awesome kids. She lost her husband, James, in July 2018.