Meet Susan Fuller
Curious about how I got so interested in death and grief?
• Carl Jung said the first remembered dream of our life is about our life’s purpose. My first remembered dream was of a tombstone which I interpreted as God.
• Around the same time (age 4 or thereabouts) I made my parents stop at every cemetery we passed because it was “God’s House’…not the churches but the cemeteries.
• My first dog died when I was 5. It was an easier conversation with my mom than the later ones about sex.
• I grew up with my mother’s losses…
– Her father 10 years later on exactly the same day.
– A stillbirth before I was born (also a red headed girl).
– A miscarriage between myself and my sister.
• The end result was an attempt to protect me (some might say overprotect) from death which just made me incredibly curious.
• A high school friend was killed in a car crash when I was 16. I heard the sirens at 1:00am and was positively terrified…someone I knew was in trouble. It’s the only time sirens have frightened me. I woke up the next morning to the news he was in a coma. He died a week later on his birthday. The driver was drunk.
• My grandfather died when I was a junior in high school. I got to see him in the hospital a couple of months before he died but was not allowed to see him after that.
• In my senior year in high school my English teacher died suddenly. It was after a freak October snowstorm that we all boarded buses to attend the funeral. I never told my mother that we were expected to file by the open casket before the Funeral Mass. It was the first dead body I had ever seen and it was in that moment I KNEW there was a soul.
• My grandmother died in the summer between my sophmore and junior years in college. Again I was not allowed to see her. I remember staying home with my 13 year old sister playing Peter, Paul and Mary’s version of Freight Train over and over and over again.
• In 1983 my uncle, my mother’s brother, died of a heart attack at age 70.
• I started studying religious and spiritual texts on death and dying. I was particularly interested in reincarnation.
• I spent about 6 months photographing cemeteries. I took the last of that series in the spring of 1984 (digital scans on the way).
• As I look back on this time of study and reflection, I feel like I was being prepared for what was about to happen next.
• A month later, my mother got sick and she was eventually diagnosed with cancer (they should have and could have caught it sooner than they did). It was a terrible time. It was an enlightening time. It was a healing time. It was my introduction to hospice.
• She died on June 10, 1985 at the age of 64. In the moments following her death, I experienced the most profound suffering of my relatively young life, and was catapulted into a state of ecstasy. Never in almost 30 years of meditation and spiritual practice have I ever experienced anything like it…profound and transformative to say the least.
• I went back to school in the fall of 1985 because I wanted to work for hospice, but my admission to the program was dependent on not doing any work with death and dying for 2 years (see Do You Need to Experience Grief to Help the Grieving?). In many ways it was the wrong degree program for hospice (not social work or divinity) but it was the right one for me…a Master’s in Counseling Psychology with a specialization in Holistic Counseling.
• In my third year, I finally got to do an internship with hospice.
• After graduation in 1988, I immediately began volunteering for Omega Emotional Support Services where I co-facilitated a general bereavement group. I also filled in occasionally for the suicide and homicide groups. For 3 years I was afforded the great privilege of witnessing the grieving process of hundreds of people from the earliest days of grief to the day they would come in saying, “I don’t need to be here anymore.”
• This was the best possible education I could have had. It trumped my own personal experience, my schooling and even my internship when it came to understanding the nature of grief. Everything I do in this field is done with a deep sense of gratitude to the people who walked through that door.
• In 1989 I landed my first hospice job as a Volunteer and Bereavement Coordinator. I continued to work for hospice into the 90’s when my dad started showing signs of Alzheimer’s.
• I was my dad’s primary caregiver until his death in 2003. It was a different kind of death and a very different kind of grief.
• In 2007 I wrote, How to Survive Your Grief When Someone You Love Has Died, foolishly thinking I was wrapping up that part of my professional life.
• For me, this work is like the Siren’s call. It’s not done with me yet.
• The past nine years have been relatively quiet on the personal loss front until the death of my beloved Golden Retriever, Heidi, in January of this year (2012). She was my friend, companion and partner for almost 11 years. She is sorely missed.