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  • Writer's pictureGlen Burkholder

Lives Lost, And for What?

Updated: Jun 16, 2022

(2022 - Volume 1)

Once a person works in a funeral home long enough, s/he quickly learns that every time the phone rings, there is likely going to be some form of back story to follow that call. That was no different on the day I answered this phone call. A gentleman on the other end of the phone identifies himself as an uncle and proceeds to say his niece is dead and is currently located at the Chief Coroner of Ontario’s Investigation Building, located in Toronto. Typically, when a decedent ends up at the Coroner's Building there is going to be a reason that is surrounded by suspicion. In speaking with the uncle, who I have learned his name to be Henry; “but all my friends call me Hank '', and he is calling to begin the arrangement process for his niece, of 30 some-odd years, who accidently overdosed and was found dead in her home. She was later transferred to the Coroner’s Building for a postmortem forensic investigation.

These types of arrangements are particularly difficult. In preparing to meet the family I am anticipating surviving relations, who are in a state of shock, disbelief, extreme sadness and often even anger. On this day I welcomed into the funeral home the decedent’s Uncle Hank and one of the decedent’s sisters. They were noticeably upset and somewhat quiet at the same time. People come to the funeral home to arrange a funeral for a loved one and they truly don’t know what to expect, so these reactions are “the normal”. As a funeral director, it’s my job to complete all the legal requirements that surround and follow a death. Arrange and facilitate the funeral service. And, with honesty and respect assist the family in the purchase of a funeral service, along with all the merchandise, casket, flowers, stationery etc. However, in order to do so, effectively, I wholeheartedly believe that rapport followed by trust must be established. For that, I never hasten arrangements. I take my time and engage in conversation. I ask questions, I share personal stories and I search for the open door into the soul of my client families. I connect. This is something we as funeral directors do each day. This can be exhaustive and taxing on the funeral director, yet strangely, extremely gratifying. I have often said that a good consultation will begin with a handshake and finish with a hug.

Hank and his niece, Sharon, were not openly giving up information. With as much compassion and empathy, I began to explore my guests, with an understanding of how difficult the circumstances surrounding their niece and sister's death must be. I hoped to and helped to give them the distinct validity to own their emotions and to not be ashamed of them. And the conversations unfolded. I learned Hank and Sharron’s loved one was one of seven kids, all of whom fit into an age bracket of approximately 10 years from oldest to youngest. I learned that Uncle Hank was a father figure, a man who was trusted enough by his seven nieces and nephews to assume responsibility for making the funeral arrangements. I also learned that most of the family resided on the east coast. I learned that their loved one was a mother herself, and I learned that her addiction to drugs had robbed her of her children, her family, her home, her reputation and her dignity. For years she lived on the streets, in parks and in shelters. Later, she began to try and put her life in order, with government assistance she would get her own apartment and she would try to seek employment until that next “hit” would result in her last. The pitfalls of addiction at its maximum.

For greater than 3 hours, I consoled and counselled, and I earned the trust that I had hoped to get. With funeral arrangements now in place I walked Hank and Sharron to the door. A splendid break from the dark, windowless office. We stepped into the late spring, early afternoon sun. As I was saying goodbye, I extended my hand to Hank and he gently pulled me into a man hug and he said thank you. He started to turn away and with some hesitation he turned back to me, and he said…” you know what? Like my niece, I was an addict. I was homeless and I have been in prison too many times to count. I stole to support my addiction. One day after I stole and sold some property for $800, I got myself and all my friends high. When I sobered up from that bender, 3 days had passed, and I realized I hadn’t eaten in days – I was starving. I reached into my pocket, and I all I had left was $1.40. Imagine, I had eight hundred dollars!!! As I stood outside and looked at the hardware store, I was about to rob, I noticed a hotdog stand. I approached the vendor and said I am homeless, hungry and I only have a $1.40 will you sell me a hotdog? He said no…a hotdog is $2.50. I asked him if he would sell me a bun, and he did. I filled it with as many condiments as that bun could hold, so much so the man had to push me away. I began to eat the bun and thought this is the best tasting thing I have ever had, and it dawned on me…what am I doing with my life?” From that day forward, and for more than eleven years, Hank has been sober. Hank, with an understanding that only a recovered addict could have, understood his late niece. He explained to me that she ostracized herself from the family, not out of hate or frustration, but out of shame and embarrassment. The very same way he had done. He knew the consequences of addiction. But those consequences, in the moments of addiction, are sub consequential. The addiction rules. Addiction is an illness that goes untreated and often only cured by death.

My heart was torn for another life lost, due to addiction, and in the same moment my eyes, full of tears, out of pride for a man who found the courage to face his demons, recover and devote his life to the service of helping others conquer addiction. I am deeply humbled.

It’s important to know that not everyone can be helped, not everyone wants to be helped, in their moments of addiction. Hank couldn’t save his niece; he could only hold space and have the hope and faith, to one day, do so. However, he could love her; for all that she is and was, with a level of understanding that not many could elevate too.

I have buried far too many victims of addiction and every fatality, is one to many. If you or someone you know, and love, is faced with addiction; don’t give up! There is help for you or your loved one. There are people, family, friends, willing to help. And when your willingness to help falls on deaf ears, and you feel hopeless, you can still love. Don’t give up.

Lives lost and for what? The what is sickness. Addiction is amongst the deadliest forms of disease and yet with persistence and commitment it can be curable.


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