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Listen, Learn.....Wait, Who Died?

I am standing at the grocery store face to face with a woman. I buried her loved one 8 months ago. She looks up, makes eye contact and says, "Hi Kari." My pulse quickens, I am embarrassed. I greet her, but not by name. I know where she works, and what type of service I provided. I remember the name of the person who passed away, but cannot remember who this woman in front of me is. Names are something I have always struggled with.

If I was pumping gas, saw my hairdresser and she remembered my name and stopped to say hello, I would want her to be the one to cut my hair. That small gesture would prioritize her on my mental list, because she made me feel important by remembering who I am. I'm not so sure the family at the grocery store 8 months later, would feel the same connection we had previously after I saw them and forgot their name.

If a family remembers your name you have probably made an impact on them. People who remember us will probably be returning clients because we have developed a relationship with them. Remembering the names of each family whom we have served in the past is just as important as them remembering us. Why is it that so many families can remember my name but I can't remember theirs? I provided the service they had asked for, answered their phone calls at 2 am, but the connection was one sided and thus broken. This is something which bothers me.

Let me tell you about an amazing funeral director, who somehow continues to teach me about funeral service to this day, even though we no longer work at the same home. He's old school: he doesn't use social media, he is active in the community and, even though he's in his late seventies, he's sharp as a tack. He knows the names of hundreds of people, even from 25 years ago. And even from that long ago, those families still ask for him.

I used to wonder how someone’s brain could retain as much information as his does. At our funeral homes’ Christmas Vigil for the families we served throughout the year, he would somehow remember the names of all of the families he served (and many of mine). He would jokingly tell me that he takes the memorial cards home and studies them with his wife at night. His sarcastic nature left me believing that he had absolutely no life. I tried studying the back of cards but my efforts were in vain. Making notes helped, but I still couldn't remember 8 months later.

He is a real person, not some magical unicorn, and today I figured out how he is able to remember everyone’s names. Simply, he was present at work and practiced active listening when dealing with bereaved families.

We are mentally busy, more so than we have ever been. Ping! My phone just went off. I have a notification, I need to take my dog to the vet, my car is making a clicking sound, if I have pasta again it will only take 20 minutes to make, I have company coming this weekend and I need to clean the house, my phone is ringing now. Sometimes I believe that these things are important. Sometimes they actually are important, but not all of the time. I keep getting this meme on Facebook saying: people will remember how you made them feel. No wonder I can't remember the name of someone I met with 8 months ago! It's because my brain is busy and I am unable to give my undivided attention. So I am not immersed in the communication between us.

Active listening is becoming a rare skill in our hectic lives, with the increase of social media. Many of us can spend a whole day communicating with people and come home feeling isolated and alone. We can talk to 50 people in a day and feel like nobody understands us. We throw information into that void called the internet, hoping that someone will read what we have to say and may be receptive. On a day to day basis many of us feel deprived of human interaction, because we prefer to instruct rather than listen. Our families are receptive to our ideas, but are we providing the same courtesy?...... "Excuse me, I just have to check my phone. Never mind it is just a spam email."

Today, our youth are taught skills and techniques to show they are listening; such as repeating or affirming what was said, making eye contact, etc. I think these are somewhat redundant. If you are truly listening, you don't need to know these skills. They will come naturally if you are paying attention.

If you can't remember the names of the families you serve, it is because you are not giving them your undivided attention. Your relationships with your funeral families would be so much stronger if you were not subconsciously, obsessing over that long list of to do's once you're done work. Rather, write it down and complete it when there’s not someone who needs you. Or shut your phone off, put it away, and silence the mental background noise. If you stopped prioritizing checking your Facebook or Instagram over the people in front of you, your receptiveness to listen will change.

I know as funeral directors it seems like we are unable to shut out the noise because we're on call regularly and there is such a long task list, but when when you're not on call, don't sleep with your phone. Sleep with your partner. When you're making arrangements, be present. Put your phone in a separate room so you can't feel it vibrate. That is how you remember peoples’ names and how you build connections with people.

Actively listening helps us as human beings to relate to others. It builds connections and helps prevent feelings of isolation. If we are only instructing, we are not making connections which both the bereaved clients and we as humans need. As Buddha says, "If your mouth is open you're not learning."

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