As a funeral home director for the last 25 years, Dick Merritt was responsible for not only organizing respectful burials and services, but looking death in the eye and educating others on how to come to terms with grief.
While passing on from this life is not always an easy topic to discuss openly, volunteering at Masonic Village Hospice helped Dick realize it is critical to talk about death and the progression of life. Discussing these topics helps ensure family members are not left with unanswered questions, which can be much more painful than starting the conversation.
Dick’s daughter, a college instructor, followed a similar path in her career — teaching a course on human growth and development, from birth to death. Earlier this year, she invited Dick to teach a session on end of life, from his unique perspective.
While preparing for the class instruction, Dick referred to notes he had from previous speaking engagements. However, in reviewing this material, he discovered much of it was outdated and would not effectively resonate with college-aged students.
Seeking insight and guidance on what young adults should know about death and dying, he reached out to Masonic Village Hospice staff. Dick knew Tim Nickel, hospice chaplain, from working together at Masonic Village at Elizabethtown’s Sell Chapel.
“When I sat down in his chair, Tim said, ‘How are you?’ And I said ‘fine.’ Then he asked again, ‘How are you?’ And I said, ‘unfulfilled,’” Dick recalled.
Wanting to help his friend overcome his internal conflict, Tim asked him to take some time to analyze what was triggering those feelings. Dick replied, “You know, Tim, I’m the same person I was before I retired, but I’ve not been able to use those gifts that I’ve been given in my retirement.”
Dick told Tim he believed his self-fulfillment lied in the realm of volunteer work with Masonic Village Hospice. However, he was convinced that it would never work because he is known as the funeral home director, and people would not want to speak with someone who is connected to a funeral home as they are approaching the end of their lives.
“At that point, I could see wheels turning in his head,” Dick said. Tim wanted to make sure Dick would get the experience he was seeking in volunteering, so he came up with a unique solution, which would play to Dick’s strengths.
He proposed two ways Dick could assist hospice — helping with funerals and writing life reviews. Dick chose to do both, but at the time, he was especially intrigued by the idea of life reviews, and began almost immediately.
Since Dick was already volunteering at Masonic Village by delivering laundry to residents, he was familiar with the organization, its campus and residents, and asked one of the residents with whom he had developed a bond to be his first subject.
“I went online, and I simply typed in ‘life review.’ I found a list of questions to ask about each stage of life, and then I found other things that were similarly arranged. That’s how I have organized my interviews,” he said.
With these questions as a guide, Dick works chronologically through the course of the assigned patient’s life. Toward the end of the sessions, he asks them more in-depth and effective questions that encourage the individual to reflect on the entirety of their lives, such as: Whom in your life would like to forgive? What legacy do you wish to pass down onto your children? What lessons do you hope your children have learned?
Upon the completion of the interview process, when Dick feels like he has a thorough overview and understanding of the individual’s life, he goes home to type his hand-written notes while they are still fresh in his mind. After reviewing the notes, he begins to piece the memories together into a coherent narrative.
Like most literary works, the first draft is not the final product that he will give the patient’s family during their funeral. Dick has dedicated himself to producing a well-constructed life review that will be cherished for years to come. With this in mind, he shares the first copy with several editors before it is bound.
Dick only began his journey with this volunteer project in March and is currently tying up the loose ends of his second life review. However, he already has ideas for improvements going forward, which include more personal visuals to accompany the bound text and potentially the addition of audio files so families can listen back to the narratives in the voice of their loved one.
“I didn’t have any idea when I walked into his office that Tim would find a place for me, and it was a marvelous gift,” Dick said.
Dick no longer feels unfulfilled, because giving the patients’ stories a second life in writing has given him with a sense of passion and purpose.
“I’m a helper; I want to help people in difficult situations or through tough times, and that just comes very naturally to me,” Dick said. “I don’t have to really work at that — it’s who I am.”