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Confessions of a Funeral Director by Caleb Wilde

I take 40 mg of antidepressants each day. I’ve done so since my last dangerous bout with burnout some five years ago. Life loses its value. I lose empathy. And the boundaries that stand between me and self-harm become very thin.

May is mental health month and it’s an important chance to look at the state of mental illness and mental health in the world. But it should come as no surprise that caregivers—those who are often on the frontlines of serving those suffering from mental illness, depression, grief and sickness—often find themselves in the midst of their own emotional battles.

As a funeral director, I see grief, depression, anxiety and the effects of trauma everyday. And when you combine the at-need demands of the funeral business and the old school “you’re on call 24/7 … that’s how we’ve always done it” demands of a family business, life in my 30-year-old body is often sucked away by death.

My wife … my wife … I know this isn’t what she was thinking when she said “I do” some ten years ago. “In sickness, in health, in 100 hour work weeks, with two days off a month, twentieth century management styles and night calls” wasn’t in our vows. If I was her, I’d leave me. I rarely see my 1-year-old son, Jeremiah, and when I do he gets the leftovers of me.

Funeral directors can become so numbed by death that day-to-day pains seem less than difficult. We just aren’t as empathetic toward anything less than death.

“Jeremiah’s sick? Be thankful he’s not dying. I just buried a child the other week ….”

“You’re girlfriend dumped you? Well, at least your dad didn’t die. Buck up.”

“So what if your cat died. Be thankful your husband is still alive.”

Sure, as professionals in the public eye we are usually compassionate and caring, but in private we can be some of the most course and insensitive people you’ll ever meet. When that death-induced high pain tolerance is compounded by the depersonalization and lack of empathy that comes with emotional burnout, funeral directors can become monstrosities, scaring away friends, family and spouses with our utter lack of humanity.

For many who are working in a caregiving or stressful capacity, burnout can be resisted when one receives as much if not more from a job or profession as one puts into it. For many, the positives of pay, work environment, work enjoyment and accomplishment can outweigh the negatives, and make one’s job at least tolerable, avoiding burnout and never reaching that monster stage of the self where self-hatred festers.

As believers, Jesus said we’re supposed to be the salt. We are supposed to breathe life into every vocational area we choose and find the heaven within the world. We are supposed to bring heaven to earth. I thought the Spirit was supposed to come in power and make me godlike. But, I’m all too human. All too fragile. All too powerless to withstand the destruction that comes with a lack of Sabbaths.

The process of burnout looks like this. You have a full cup. The contents of the cup slowly evaporates and isn’t refilled. Eventually, there’s nothing left. You haven’t got back what you’ve put out. There’s nothing left to give. You’re empty.

For me it’s …

The night calls.

The lack of sleep.

Getting chewed out by a pastor for something that isn’t my fault.

The 14 hour days.

Being constantly available to the grieving family.

Never being able to leave the phone.

Always having to be within a couple mile radius of the funeral home in case a call comes in.

Burying children.

Hearing nothing but negative stories.

And having to wrap yourself up in those stories so you can best serve the family.

Many funeral directors receive ample affirmation from families, and that affirmation can counteract all the negatives of this business. “We couldn’t have done this without you.” “You made this so much easier.” “We love you … you’re like family.”

But when you work in a family business and your father and grandfather are the front men and you are the guy who does the stuff behind the scenes, there’s little affirmation. And the cup gets drained, and drained and drained and drained.

You think about leaving your wife because you see just how awful you’ve become and you don’t want that person to be near the ones you love. You draw near to God and He walks away from you. There is no light at the end of this tunnel. It’s just dark. And then at some point, after you have a moment to breathe and your body has somewhat recouped from the stress of a month of 12 hour days, you realize, “Hey, I’m burnt out. I need help.” And you hope this realization comes before you’ve left your spouse, before you’ve rejected God, before you’ve committed acts of self-harm.

But for many, it’s too late. Family shattered. Body sick.

As a man, I was taught we’re not supposed to be vulnerable. “Stay strong”, we’re told, “hold yourself together.” As a believer, I was taught we can do all through Christ who strengthens me. The assumption for many of us (women included) is that we will never run out. That our cup has no bottom. And that assumption is dangerously wrong. In attempting to be godlike in our strength we become inhuman.

I need help. This Friday I see my doctor.

I imagine I’m not the only one who needs help. Join with me, before it’s too late. Join me, in embracing our humanity and our weaknesses. So that together we can find some solace and some strength.