A search for hope amidst grief- Rosie Hoban

After 27 years in the funeral business, Patsy Healy has come to the fierce belief that death is not the end, but the beginning. She knows how much life and energy goes into dying. She felt grief’s raw and brutal touch when she delivered a stillborn daughter many years ago. She’s journeyed with hundreds, maybe thousands, of families as they prepare to bury their loved one. 

Patsy’s belief that death is not the end gives her the compassion and courage to turn up each day and meet grief head on.

‘I am with families at what can be some of the most intimate moments of their lives’, she said. ‘They share stories and memories with me about their loved one who has died, that other people may not know about. It’s such an experience of faith and it is such a privilege to be part of these four or five days. 

Patsy joined the funeral business 27 years ago. Two years in, she joined WN Bull Funerals – a large funeral home in Sydney with a long tradition of conducting funerals for Catholics, although they also do secular services. WN Bull has been in business since 1892 and Patsy, who is now the company’s General Manager, is grateful she fell into the work a quarter century ago, when women in the funeral business were a rarity.

She began in the business as a Presbyterian-raised woman from New Zealand living in Sydney. Her life now is very different. Though she still lives in Sydney with her family, she converted to Catholicism and was received into the Church in 2002. It was less a conversion, more a transition for Patsy.

It didn’t take her long to immerse herself in the Catholic tradition and develop a deep gratitude for the rituals a Catholic funeral offers families at such a vulnerable time. She loves the readings, the inspiring and consoling Gospels and some of the wonderfully uplifting hymns. But it was the death of a young boy which marked a turning point for Patsy.

‘I was about to go into the home of the young boy who had died to meet his family and arrange the funeral. I was wondering how on earth I would be able to maintain my composure. 

‘When I walked in and met the parents I was so struck by the calm they seemed to feel amidst their deep grief. They felt assured that their son was now beginning his new life and as desperate as their sorrow was, there was a calm beneath it; a sense of assurance that he was now safe and home’, Patsy said.

‘I left that house and went back to my boss, John Harris, and told him about the experience. I told him that if that is what faith is about then I want to be a part of it. John got me some books to read and I spoke to a priest after a funeral one day and told him I wanted to become a Catholic.’

The priest was part of the Epping and Carlingford Parish in Sydney, which is Patsy’s parish today. It’s rare to hear a Catholic say they love their faith, but Patsy doesn’t hold back. In fact, she raves about it: ‘I love it and I am so glad I became a Catholic.’

Patsy’s faith has made a lot of things fall into place. She believes that death is the beginning of the next life. Perhaps it’s her sense of hope that gives strength to people as they navigate through some of the hardest moments of their life.

Her compassion and empathy isn’t just borne from years of experience in the funeral business. Patsy knows first hand the grief that engulfs many families. In 1991, just after starting at WN Bull Funerals, the baby she was carrying died at 34 weeks. She had to learn to cope with the grief and the separation from a baby she had come to know and love. 

In a recent Sydney Morning Herald article marking Pregnancy and Infant Loss Day (15 October) Patsy described the anguish that followed the news that the baby she was carrying had died:

‘Then I had to give birth. It was too late for a lot of pain relief. That was the most difficult bit, knowing that the labour wasn’t going to stop and that I was going to deliver a dead baby’, Patsy said. 

‘They took a Polaroid photo of her, which I was given. That was the last I saw of her. I never did get to hold her. Our eldest daughter named her Melissa. She would have been 25 last month.’

For Patsy, it was the grief of knowing that a life that had barely begun had ended so soon. 

As General Manager of WN Bull, Patsy continues many of the traditions that began long ago. The firm has a close association with St Vincent de Paul and buries people too poor to afford the usual trappings of a modern funeral. Funerals and the preceding days spent with families can be gruelling, at times days bringing families together, but also sometimes tearing them apart. 

‘Of course, it isn’t always good and sometimes I go home at night and I can’t talk about my day because there has been so much sadness’, she said.

Funerals, particularly in the Catholic Church, don’t change too much. Sure, a few meaningful and contemporary pieces of music might sneak through, but the Mass is the same as it has been for decades. It offers security and hope as people grapple with the end of someone’s life and the hope that another has begun.

‘My faith is like a safety net that gives me something to hold onto. It gives me hope and I can’t imagine what it is like to not have that sense of hope’, Patsy said. ‘A nun once told me that being a funeral director isn’t a job, it’s a vocation. She was right. I could not keep doing this job unless I felt I was where I should be, doing what I am doing.’