The bodies blur together after a while, Michael Dixon says, because how else would anyone keep doing the job, travelling to homicides, accidents and suicides to collect the human remains of bad luck and dark choices. But there are always the ones that memory refuses to give up. The father grieving his newborn child who stood in front of a train. The two children who died when a car missed a stop sign on Christmas Eve.
When the paramedics can do no more, and the police finished investigating, Mr. Dixon, a funeral director’s assistant for Ottawa Mortuary Services, would pick up the bodies from where they’d fallen, carefully place them in a van, and deliver them to the coroner. Ghosts in the back, their stories finished. A long drive, even when the distance was short.
It’s enough to break a mind. If Mr. Dixon is honest, he struggled with depression longer than he wanted to admit, a wound opened in childhood. But then you get called to 36 murders in three years, and too many suicides to count.
When he decided, secretly, to end his life, he knew exactly how to do it. The job had taught him that.
He stepped to the edge, but help came at the right time. And an idea formed.
Since then, with help of colleagues, Mr. Dixon has been creating extra routes for the people who work in his industry to reach out for help, hopefully before they are in crisis. Last summer, he started one of the country’s first peer-support groups for funeral directors and staff in his city, and word spread. A second group will soon have its first meeting in Saint John. Another is being developed in Hamilton.
The Ottawa Funeral Peer Support meetings have opened up a conversation, participants says, about how to cope with what they see each day on the job, how to live well surrounded by death. Traditionally, Mr. Dixon says, that’s not been talked about – the people who tend to the bodies and guide families through funerals are to be stoic scene-setters, never scene-makers. Large cities typically have companies, such as the one Mr. Dixon works for, that specialize in transporting human remains. In smaller places, this grim, unsung role falls to the staff at funeral homes. But that’s the job; you can’t dwell on it. So if you heard your colleague weeping quietly in the staff bathroom, you might not ask about it. If you were being overwhelmed by layer upon layer of sorrow and tragedy, you might not say anything.
For a long time, Kate Lavhey didn’t. She has worked as a funeral director in Saint John for 11 years. The late-night murder calls she could, somehow, keep at a distance. But the car accidents were harder to let go, the randomness of a moose on the road, or a distracted driver in an intersection. When she closed her eyes, she saw her loved one’s faces on the bodies she removed from mangled cars. Medication for depression didn’t stop the flashbacks. When finally, her doctor ordered her to take time off work, diagnosing her with post-traumatic stress disorder, she kept the reason quiet – until during the Bell Let’s Talk campaign this year, she decided to open up. Then she began hearing from her colleagues, living with the same feelings. This month, she returned to work, and, having learned about the group in Ottawa, is now organizing one in her city.
Funeral directors don’t like to burden their families by bringing their work home, Mr. Dixon says. At the Ottawa meetings, for instance, members have talked about being called out at Christmas to assist with a death, and then struggling to enjoy the life waiting for them at home.
Silence is a dangerous side effect of mental illness, which is why advocates have pushed so hard to decrease stigma. Peer support can’t replace a health-care system that provides timely access to the best-evidence care. But, as the dozen or so people participating in the Ottawa group have found, speaking openly about shared experiences, as well as coping strategies and stress management, can be a preventive step, and a path to getting help. The group’s coordinators have brought in experts speakers, and provided resources for counsellors. Since they began having meetings in August, Mr. Dixon says, at least eight people have gone for therapy.
One of those is Melanie Giroux, an embalmer who works with Mr. Dixon in Ottawa. In September, her father died by suicide. She prepared him for burial, as were his wishes. It was the first Tuesday of the month, so that evening she went to her peer-support meeting. They were waiting for her. Therapy helped her work through the grief, she says. But the support of her colleagues, who understood her work, meant she didn’t carry it alone.
A complicated grief heard, a stumbling request for help answered. Do we forget how healing that can be? Mr. Dixon never will. On a January morning in 2017, the married father of three found himself sitting in his car near a park, the rope in his trunk, the tree scouted earlier.
Something made him decide, one last time, to make a call. If his doctor’s office picked up, he said to himself, he would take a chance on another day. If he got an answering machine, he was taking a walk into the woods. The receptionist answered the phone, and put his doctor on the line.
“How often does that happen?" he says.
A lucky break, that meant everything. Getting help, Mr. Dixon says, shouldn’t come down to chance. It should be there before you even know you need it, and not only on the first Tuesday of every month. But that’s a start.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868 or Crisis Service Canada at 1-833-456-4566, or visit http://www.crisisservicescanada.ca/