Life’s precious moments emerge from the dance between joy and grief, proving that even two floors above, we’re never alone. Join us on a heartfelt journey through the pages of life, grief, and the enduring bonds that shape us. Our special guest, Kevin O’Connor, former educator and author of the book “Two Floors Above the Grief,” shares the tales of growing up above a funeral home, offering a unique perspective on death, life, and the wisdom passed down from one generation to the next. Kevin explores the complexity of grief not only from the perspective of grieving families but also from the eyes of the funeral home director’s family. Through the experiences and valuable lessons he shares, Kevin shows how grief journey is not linear; it’s an ever-evolving process. Tune in now and remember that through life and loss, we are never truly alone.
Thank you for viewing this post. I am not a licensed therapist or professional life coach.
I am sharing my experience of loving the same man for 32 years, a mother to two adult children, a retired military officer, a breast cancer survivor, and my connections with others.
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Two Floors Above Grief: The Untold Story Of A Funeral Home Family With Kevin O’Connor
Our conversation now is with Mr. Kevin O’Connor. He is the author of Two Floors Above Grief, and it’s like, “What is that about?” It’s not a self-help book. It’s not the steps of grief. This is a book that Kevin is sharing about his family and their experience of living above the funeral home. It’s unique. Let’s get into the conversation now.
Our guest is Mr. Kevin O’Connor, and I will let him introduce himself.
My name is Kevin O’Connor. I’m the author of the book Two Floors Above Grief. I am thankful for this opportunity to be talking with Tina. We will talk more about the book and some of the premises of the book as we get into our discussion.
Before we get into the book, which is still part of who you are, where are you from originally?
I’m much more than the book, although the book is a memoir of my life. I live in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I have been here since 2007. Before that, I was involved as a teacher and school principal in California, in the Bay Area and outside of Chicago, in McHenry County. I was a principal there for eighteen years.
I then came here in 2007 after I retired from the Illinois system. I did some volunteer work and helped here and there, and before I knew it, by 2011 or 2010, I was working full-time for the school system again. I spent another 8 or 9 years working in the Department of Diversity in Broward County Public Schools in Fort Lauderdale. My job there was in the curriculum area, working on curriculum and support for LGBT students and families.
I was also heavily involved with the writing and professional development for the family life and sexual health curriculum that had been provided to the students in Broward County Public Schools, but I retired there in 2020. That’s when I started, “Now is my time. Time to write this book I have been wanting to write,” but I worked in the Biden campaign first. After I retired in August 2020, I went right from there into working as a field organizer for the Biden-Harris campaign. At the start of 2021, I started to focus on giving the book some legs and getting going with the writing and things. That’s where I was and a little more about me and where I came from.
There is so much there. I’m not quite sure where to jump in, but I want to be clear that he said near the Chicagoland area, which is different than being from Chicago.
You are in Chicago. That gets back to the book a little bit. The location of the book is mostly set in a town called Elgin, Illinois, which is about 35 or 40 miles Northwest of Chicago, and that’s where my dad and my uncle operated their funeral home. My mother and her family had been longtime residents of that town back to my grandfather.
My mother was raised there and she and my dad met in high school there in Elgin. I was very much a part of Elgin until I went to college back in Loyola, Chicago. I spent a year of those four years in Rome, Italy, at their campus in Rome. Eventually, being an educator in California for six years, I came back to the Elgin area in 1978 and I was employed in McHenry County.
I worked in McHenry, Illinois, as a teacher, and then I worked in Cary, Illinois as a principal. I was also a principal in Mundelein, Illinois, which is in Lake County. These are all on the Northwest collar of Chicago, and that’s where I retired from in 2007. It was the school district in Cary, Illinois, and then I raised my family. I was married at the time with two kids. I raised my family in Crystal Lake and another town in that area.
The cat over there. What’s the cat’s name?
It’s a dog. It’s a chihuahua. Thanks for asking. It’s so small. She weighs about eleven pounds. She’s bundled up in her blanket there. She keeps me company quite a bit, and she had her morning walk, which we have to temper a little bit because now she has a congestive heart condition. She takes a lot of meds. We know her time is coming, but we don’t know when. Who knows? That’s part of what I talk about in the book. There is no schedule. We are doing what we can to keep her comfortable and she spends a fair amount of her time in the position you see her in now.
What was her name? I didn’t catch it.
Her name is Rosie. She was a rescue dog that we got several years ago.
Who is we?
We are my husband, Leon. We met several years ago and have been together since about that time. I moved to Florida in 2007. I’m getting my math going here. Between us and his marriage, he had three sons and in my marriage, I had two sons. We consider that we have 5 sons between us, and then we have 7 granddaughters who range in age from almost 5 to 22. Our family keeps us pretty busy, pretty grounded, and pretty involved. That’s the we in the statement.
A couple of things if you could unpack a little bit. How do you see being in education formed your life?
Part of my experience in the funeral home informed my decision to get into education when I was an undergrad student. I took electives in Education, not knowing that I would pursue it as a career. I was a Political Science major, but that got me intrigued. Right after graduation, I moved to the San Francisco area and was dating a college friend named Sue. She was pursuing an Education degree at UC Berkeley.
UC Berkeley at the time, in California in the ’70s, didn’t have an Education undergraduate degree like we would have been familiar with in the Chicago area or other places. You had to go through what was called a fifth year or a credential year. I came into the state with a Bachelor’s in Poli Sci, and then I worked at the Bank of America for a year, and then I decided I wanted to pursue this education thing, so I did. I spent a year getting my credential, getting intern teaching, student teaching, and then getting a job and working there for four years. The frame of your question was what informed my education?
How did working in the educational field form your life?
Working in education, I went all-in when I got my job. I opened myself to whatever I could learn. From my credential year, I was working in a town called Vallejo, California, close to Sacramento and North of Oakland. I worked there for four years and I was still involved with the university work at UC Berkeley, and decided I was going to work towards my Master’s and got that. That informed me in such a way that I wanted to take a look at and be involved in more of a developmental approach to education.
We structure a grade-level system for them, but that’s not how they learn in how I approach my teaching. I was hired and student taught and I was hired in a school that was in Vallejo that was all focused on what they call multi-age education. My first teaching job was for kindergarten through third-grade students. Thirty-two of them are all in the same classroom.
That was the philosophy of the school, and I had learned and picked up on it while I was student teaching there. I got immersed in that over those four years that I worked there, and that became a guiding perspective when I moved back to Illinois and got other teaching jobs. Even though I was assigned oftentimes as a grade level teacher, I always kept in mind that I thought I maybe learned as I went through.
I learned this in first grade and this and second and this and third. As I worked with kids and other people in the profession at the time and took more and more professional classes, I became more and more intrigued with the theories of PGE and other people who said that we probably learn from that. We may learn in a developmental sequence, but the timing of that development is different for everybody. That’s part of what informed me during my education.
As I went to other classrooms and physicians, I kept that philosophy in mind and I shared that with my colleagues. When I became a principal, I worked at an institute in our school district and got people interested in the concept of multi-age education. I was able to, for some time, offer those options in our school district, and that was an exciting time for me because I felt like the thinking I had as a youngster or young teacher was coming full circle now that I was in a leadership position, I could work with people and given those options, whether they be parents or teachers or kids.
That system was still in play when I retired in 2007 in varying degrees. That kept me informed and that part of my philosophy has always kept me informed about learning. Not only how we learn as children but also as adults. Every time I would teach a class, a college class or professional development in our districts, I kept that in mind that adults are like kids. We are not all going to learn in a way that we think is prescriptive. We are going to learn our way. It might be a developmental thing or what we are willing to learn at the time or our experiences, but it’s not lockstep.
It’s not anything that we can say, “You are going to learn this in first grade because this is what you told you are going to learn in first grade.” It doesn’t work that way. Even though now, our country is still pretty much structured on a grade level system. I know that teachers in those classrooms still have to work within those parameters.
How do kids learn even though they are assigned to a particular grade level? What are their differences in learning? I could go on and on, but that’s my educational thinking and things that some of the things I continue to work on with people that contact me or ideas I have for other writing, committees I end up serving on, and things like that. It’s still part of my background, my philosophy, and in education.
You retired once and then returned to the education system. I’m interested in hearing the type of impact you think you made with the diversity program in the LGBT framework that you were a part of.
I love that work. By this time, I had come out. I had moved and found some resolution in my family with my spouse and kids. I was much more free, willing, and wanting to be my authentic self. Some of the volunteer committees or volunteer work I was getting involved with here in Broward County had to do with groups that were advocating for LGBT students and adults, and that led to people recommending me to inquire about doing it. Combining my educational background with my interest in that.
That’s the name of the department that I was head of. At that time, it was called Diversity, Prevention, and Intervention. I was hired 6in different capacities, part-time and then full-time. I readily got involved with the people who were doing the work with LGBT advocacy work and got involved. We decided to write a critical resource guide for LGBT youth, and it was designed for the teachers.
We worked with the ideas that have been promoted by the San Francisco education area and diversity department. We put together our version of that with the school board’s approval at the time, and then we put together plans to educate staff and to get them included in the importance of this work and how to use different types of language. At this point, I’m fast-forwarding to touch a little political stuff.
We are not going to go too deep because I saw where that could go, but we are not.
No. Even though the book is on hold and the programs are on hold, I’m convinced that the writing and ideas are not gone. They are there. There will be a place where there will be some phoenix. I take a little bit of pride in the idea that some of our not approving government officials have used our critical resource guide in their talks about what’s wrong with schools and with what we are doing. I take the opposite viewpoint, but if that book has gotten that much recognition, not only from the book we wrote in our district, but also from other Florida districts, then we have made an impact.
We have been influential, and some people turn to that document and others to seek assistance and ways to go. When I think about the work we did, and then the other part of the work was helping teachers educate their students about family life and sexual health. How do you talk about it and how do you not keep it a secret? How does a family or teacher talk to the students about what’s going on with their bodies, how do they do that in a comfortable setting, and how do they do it with kids to make it? It’s part of life. It’s part of what you are experiencing. We don’t want it to be fear-based or anything like that.
That program, too, is there. It’s under wraps right now. That program is admired around the country. I had the pleasure of speaking about it in other states and other school districts. To know that it made that influence, it was a good capstone for me in my career to say, “I am making a difference. That’s how I value not my whole educational career, but that last aspect would be answering your question. What was it like to work in the area of diversity and things for LGBT families and others?
Speaking of family, I can’t help but admire all the pictures behind you, and I thought that many of those people are part of the book. Am I in the right line?
These pictures are both in the book. There’s a picture taken around 1953, I believe, with my older brother in the back there. I’m in the front with darker hair, and my brother is a year younger than me. He’s to my side. That was taken when I was about three years old. There’s a nine-year difference between my older brother and me, and then my younger brother and I have a year difference.
The other picture I have is this picture that was taken in 1981. Incredibly, as I look back, I get myself involved with other families. There’s one more photo, but these are the only two that my family took, with the five of us. Part of that is the virtue of not as we didn’t use cameras like we do now. Part of it is just the idea that part it’s mostly to do with, we didn’t use cameras like we do now.
My dad died in ‘84, but as adults, my brothers and I always made time to do things with my mother and take pictures. This is one of those pictures. That’s myself. That’s probably around ‘94 or in the ‘90s. That was probably there, and then this picture is the new one. In the book’s last chapter, I talk about how my son bought a house in St. Paul that’s very similar to the featured house in the book on the cover there that you have.
Was that the house your son purchased, or this is the house that you grew up in?
I will do a comparison. Here’s the house I grew up in on the cover of the book. My son, a few years ago, came across this house. He wanted to get into real estate and have something that he could have a place of his own and also rent. This particular house was built the same year in St. Paul as this house, coincidentally, was built.
His initial look, it’s like, “What a similarity.”
It’s in the last chapter of the book. As I was writing the book, two years after finishing and writing, I was at this house in St. Paul with him. We have got construction gear in our hands and stuff, and that’s my brother. It’s my husband and my son on one side. The other side is my brother who’s a contractor, so he came up and helped out, and we spent 2 or 3 days knocking into walls and things like that, and building front steps there. As I was doing that and getting into this old plaster and lath type structure, I thought, “This must be what it was like from my dad and my uncle when they first bought the house in 1938 in Elgin and converted it from a single-family home into a funeral home.
As I was picking around plaster and that this must be what it was like for Dad. I felt like I was sharing that with my son and it was a good way to close the book, too, because it shows how families continue in their stories and how sometimes by plans and sometimes by happenstance. This one is more by happenstance. It’s been an interesting continuation. Full circle. Those are some of the pictures I have kept on those shelves to keep me grounded in our stories. Those pictures show some of the elements of the stories in the book itself.
Let’s get into the book and thank you for sharing those pictures. In the introduction, I want to read something. It says, “We live in an environment considered funeral.” I was like, “Interesting.” I convert the word into an advert funeraly amidst the wakes in funerals conducted in the first-floor funeral home.
We had moments, days, and years of joy and fun in the apartment on the second and third floors. It made me think about how much death and life were intertwined. We often don’t want to think about death, but it is a reality that we have to consider and it also made me think about how death and joy can coexist in that person who is grieving. I will let you take it from there with your thoughts on that introduction. I won’t hold you.
Thanks for reading from the book and I enjoyed writing those words. When I was making up, I don’t think I made it up funeraly. It’s not a word that we use very often in the funeral home, but it seemed to fit like an adverb for how our life was. It was an adverb that went along with whatever verb we might have been doing.
We are having a party upstairs funeraly because there might have been a wake or a funeral going on downstairs. There was that. I might be watching TV, singing, or dancing upstairs, but still, sometimes as a kid or as a teen, I would have to stop and think about living in my home environment, “Wait. There is a funeral home downstairs.”
Our apartments were connected in many ways, but they provided a home like anybody would have a home. If I had taken one of those apartments, used the same footprint and built a ranch house, it would have been a place to live with a family. When I was writing the book, I wanted to show, Two Floors Above Grief, that there was certainly grief going on with the funerals.
Let’s say if Dad and Uncle Lawrence were, they might have had 50, 60, to 70 services or funerals in a given time, which would equate, based on the average number of people that came, there could have been 12,000 people that walk through the house on the first floor in any given year. As I say in the book, “How many of my friends had 12,000 people come to their house any year’s time, but that was just what it was.
I didn’t know much different, yet I have learned the thing since I wrote the book and listened to and appeared on some podcasts that are part of the funeral industry. I have learned some stories about the background of embalming, preparation, and things that funeral directors and undertakers encounter when they come to a death scene. Some of those that I listened to and heard about were stories that my dad and uncle never shared with me and that were purposeful.
I assumed that they had similar experiences to what I have learned on some of these podcasts, but they kept that part of their professional lives separate from their family life. There’s this chapter in the book about when I was fourteen, one of my classmates died very suddenly. We graduated from eighth grade in June, and in August, he died. He had a sudden death with electrocution.
I conveyed the story in the book about how my dad got off the phone and told me what had happened. This is a kid who I played with and he walked my paper route with me sometimes and did things like that. He told me, but it was in the very early stages and my inclination at the time, as I recall, was I wanted to call my friends and I wanted to tell them and share the news.
He said, “No. Just wait. Let me learn a little bit more about it, and there will be time to do that.” That was part of his thinking or his values, whether it was my friend Francis or any family coming to the funeral home. He didn’t want to put his kids in a position or even have us have the information we would talk about among our friends, which was out of respect for the client and the family. I’m not even sure how much information he may have shared with my mom or aunt that those things were something my dad or uncle kept between themselves and their family.
Private. I hadn’t given that much thought until I was growing up in it. I knew that the funeral home was there. I knew I walked through it. I knew I helped and did different things, but I didn’t necessarily know many details. Kids, people ask me, “Didn’t you ever go to the embalming room?” No. That was an off-limits.
I made a couple of mentions in the book where I was, “What are you doing downstairs here? Why are you here?” I might have been going to pick up something else that was in the basement. “You got to go upstairs.” There was never that issue. I’m sure as I got older, in my teens and twenties, if I had asked, they might have said, “Come and watch,” but I hadn’t expressed any interest in the business itself. I dare say they wouldn’t have done that if I had shown an interest because they would have waited. You said that you will learn about that when you go to school. We don’t want to jeopardize the, “You are not an employee. You are a child, my son.”
That part, right there, is the idea of letting a child be a child because some of those things you don’t get to divert from. They will happen eventually. That was a gift that your dad and your uncle gave you to be able to do that. I want to talk about two more things in the book, and then I’d like for you to talk about what the book is about formation. I know that we have been talking about it, but I want to give you space to talk about how you came to write in the book and the things involved in it.
What I think is interesting is the family tree you laid out, between your mother’s and your father’s sides and breaking that down. Giving to something that you said, and I will read this before you talk about the book and its development. How did I live in an apartment above a funeral home? Simply, I did not know any differently. I imagine my brothers and cousins have responded in fashion. Becoming funeral home children happened at that moment of all of our births. That’s a good segue for you to talk about the book and its development.
Thanks for bringing that in. That’s pretty much one of the opening chapters of the book. I said that even prior to our talk, I didn’t know any different. I even poke a little fun there in that paragraph to say that conceivably, I was conceived in that building as probably where my brothers and my cousins were in the prior location of the funeral home. We don’t know that. I never asked my parents that.
We are going to make that assumption.
I was conceived in the same house where people were having the formal exit to their lives.
Back to that circle, that life is happening.
There’s another mention in the book about my dad, my brothers, and I helped out in the funeral home and how we did different things. One of the stories I mentioned was in the mid-’60s. My older brother was married and had four children. One of their births might have been the birth of his first or second child in ‘63 or ’64. Anyway, my brother had informed my father that he and his wife were on their way to the hospital. Just a bit after that, my father got a call on the phone. We called it a death call that said that he needed to go to the hospital to pick up a body that had passed, so he got to the hospital.
The same hospital your brother was at.
The same hospital. We only had two hospitals in our town. My brother happened to be at the same hospital as my dad drove to. He got to the room where the deceased was and realized that the deceased was heavier and he couldn’t do this on his own to get the body onto the gurney. He thought, “I have got some help here. Do I dare go ask my son?” As I convey in the book, he walks. He knew his way around the hospital. Dad knew where all the wings were. He walks down to the father’s waiting room. Remember in 1962, Fathers don’t go into the birth room or anything like that.
He walked into the new, he figured out where my brother was, and he pushed the door open, and he went, “Barrett.” “Dad, what are you doing here?” He says, “Do you have a couple of minutes? I could use your help.” “With what?” My dad explained to my brother. “I think I can get away.” This particular man’s room might even be on the same floor as the maternity room.
He walked with my brother. They went down and my brother made what we called a removal, my brother was no stranger to that. He knew how to help. He did and helped my dad. He walked with my dad with the gurney down to the hearse to load the car up. They gave each other a hug. Dad said, “I love you.” He went back upstairs. My dad drove home.
By the time my dad got home, maybe ten minutes later, the phone rang and it was announcing the birth of his grandchild. That circle of life things. Dad and my brother were helping another family with their period of loss and transition while, at the same time, our family was experiencing the birth of a newcomer. That was part of what happened or what I was surrounded by oftentimes in my life. The way that my dad, my uncle, their wives, my mom, and my aunt inculcated that culture under our family that this is what is.
These are certain families we knew. If we knew them, we would feel that grief a little stronger. That’s what it was how the funeral home evolved and how we incorporated our lives with it. That’s pretty much what the book’s about. It’s more people who will pick up the title and they will say, “This is the self-help book I have been looking for with the idea of being grief.”
I said, “You will get some stories that involve grief, but it’s not a Gary Sturgis or some other readers,” people I have been following how they do a step-by-step or incident-by-incident process. I have listened to some of your things, too, with your guests, how you talk to people about how you get through a situation and how you make that part of your life.
The book doesn’t do that. Some people might. Based on some of the reviews, people do take that away and I’m happy about that. The book, when I wrote it, was more the idea of how growing up in a funeral home? How do we live? That’s pretty much what I wanted to say in the book, and the more I wrote, the more I was convinced that we didn’t live a whole lot differently than any other family. I had plenty of friends who also lived in the home of their family who ran a business, whether it be a plumbing business or a printing business, and they lived to the side or upstairs and incorporated the business into their family.
I knew that from the other friends I had. I had friends that played at my house and stayed overnight and I did the same with them. All of that was very much similar to what a lot of families do. Part of what I wanted when I wrote for an audience, not only my own family, but when I was writing, I was thinking of the audience I wanted to tell these stories. Even though people that, “You lived in a funeral home.” I want to normalize it too that it was my parents, my family’s chosen profession, like another friend’s father was a doctor or a pediatrician. That’s part of what I was working to come across with telling family stories.
How you come across the family stories to share is also part I wanted you to bring out.
A lot of them were in my head. People have asked me, “How long did it take you to write this book?” I said, “About 73 years because that’s what I am.” The other treasure I had was a collection of family letters. The book is based on and has a lot of foundation in 700 pages of letters that had been collected and saved over the years.
Mostly from the time period of 1968 to ’74 or ‘75, around in there when I was away at college. What I point out in the book is in those days, we didn’t have cell phones. We didn’t have the immediacy that we have now. We didn’t even use the phone that much, even though we made long-distance calls. Calling from Elgin to Chicago was considered a long distance and in our family’s eyes, it was expensive and it was.
I’m going to jump in there. I was born in ‘66. That’s like collecting phone calls and what that looked like. The idea of calling somebody. There was a long-distance call like calling out of your state. Those fees are applied. The idea of having a cell phone and picking it up and calling anybody anywhere was like the Jetsons compared to when we grew up as far as that was a thing. I remember paid phones that you go make a phone call. I was stationed in Korea for eighteen months. Him calling me. We were still dating and seeing that phone bill when it came across as far as what those calls looked like, then trying to maintain that relationship so different than what people are experiencing now.
It is. I’m not sure how Amazon does all these analytics, but I will take this one. The book was listed as number nine for teens and young adult readers. I’m going to use that as part of my marketing now. The lesson I tried to convey in the book to explain to my children, nieces, nephews, and granddaughter is, “Things weren’t as immediate as we have now.” It was the idea that we looked forward to getting the mail in the ’50s and the ’60s. My son in Minneapolis, who I introduced, doesn’t even check his mailbox, and that’s probably true of a lot of people his age.
“I sent you something.” “Did you? I haven’t checked the mail in a few days.” In those days, I can go from the ‘50s, ‘60s, ’70s, or ’80s, but prior to that, the book started in 1930. You look forward to the mail. That was your way of communicating, especially when I was a student in Rome and had no phone call when 1 phone call a year or 2, maybe.
People in the house would be writing letters to me, either my aunt, uncle, dad, or mom, and they didn’t know when they were writing the letters. As I say in the book, I picture them. My mom typed their letters. My dad and uncle hand-wrote his letters. When I was transcribing those things into the book, I felt like I could feel them either typing or writing and using their words.
I want you to explain what typing is compared to what we discussed. I don’t want to make an assumption that someone knows what that is. Back up on that a little bit.
Very astute. I probably making an assumption there that even some of our younger readers would be typing in what we would refer to as word processing or typing into a keyboard. The keyboard is based. The keyboards we use in our computers are based on the typewriters of old. If you study how we go back to the printing press, I suppose, but in the 1400s, but if we want to go that far back. The idea was that people had typewriters, and then, even in the ’50s and ’60s, there was the evolution of manual typewriters by hand to electric typewriters. That was a big deal. When I bought my first typewriter in college, I bought an electric typewriter. It was heavy. It was a big deal for the officers, and my mom typed from those, from her office or where she worked.
People were timed and you were skilled if you could type fast without any errors.
They called them and one of the brands was the IBM Electric, but it was a big typewriter. I still see them sometimes when I go to a print shop or even some offices will still have them because that’s the best way for them to print a label or something, but that’s what a typewriter was. Thanks for your question. Part of what happened in the, you said, “Where do these stories come from?” Part of them come from these letters.
I was saying that sometimes the people would be writing, they didn’t know they were writing letters to me at the same time and go into the post office to mail them, but I would get letters in my mailbox at college in Rome. I would open them and they would be telling the same story but from a different perspective.
I probably realized it at the time, but I didn’t realize it until 7, 8, or 9 years later. Several years ago, when I started taking these 700 pages of letters and saying, “What am I going to do with these?” I decided to lay them out on a floor and I sequenced them. I put them in plastic tabs with a little sticker like you have in your, a little sticker like this on the side, which would note the date of the letter, and I’d have it in a plastic sleep.
Once I got them organized, and then I started to read them sequentially. That’s where the characters of my family came out were this different perspective that I would read one letter and say, “That’s the same thing mom talked about in the previous letter, but look at dad’s take on this same situation.” When I had those letters, I thought, “I have got to do something with these letters.”
I have been wanting to tell my family and other people who have been asking me. Somebody got to write this down about it, what it was like to live in a funeral home. Those letters have helped propel me to say, “Now is the time. I’m going to put this together.” After I retired from my profession and the Biden campaign and got into having more time, that’s when I started putting the book together.
What do you think of the book seeing it in print compared to what you envisioned it to become?
Thrilling would be one word that comes to mind. It was quite a process. I had some good teachers, people who worked with me to help with the writing. I had done a lot of writing in my job as a teacher and a principal. I got a doc wrote a thesis when I was at Berkeley. I wrote a Master’s and Doctor’s thesis, so I was no stranger to writing.
Sitting down and telling stories and how do you do that? I had a lot of good coaching and people that I could feed off of. I made the decision not to approach this memoir sequentially, like some memoirs. I approach it more thematically and there are some intertwining themes to do that, and then getting involved in the editing process.
The book cover process when the person that was doing the cover design said, “Do you have any pictures of the house?” I remembered this one because it was done in our house. The house in Elgin is periodically on what’s called the house tour. A lot of towns have house tours of vintage houses, and so this was done for the house tour in 2009. This artist had gone through other historical renditions of the house and she put this sketch together.
It was thrilling to contact her, introduce myself, and ask, “We were considering using your sketch as the cover of the book,” and she was thrilled. Her name is Laura Ann Sanchez. She was thrilled to have it, and then the book club. The book cover designer is Victoria Wolf. You can see it probably on the cover. The background of the book and the background of the house are the letters.
When you first glance at it, you think, “Those are clouds,” but when you look at it, I’d taken some of the letters and had a photographer help me lay a lot of the letters out on a table, and he took pictures to like a scattergram or a collage of the letters. That forms the basis of the background because these letters tell the story. It was wonderful the way the book cover designer incorporated that together.
When she first came up with her designs and started showing me, I thought, “That’s incredible how you did that.” It gives me a tug to know that she helped those elements of the book, not only my own stories and the concept of Two Floors Above Grief but also the role that the letters played in the storytelling and how she made it all come together. I was happy with that.
She asked me, “Do you have a picture of some of the family gathered?” For the back of the book, when she was designing the back?” This was taken in 1993 when my Uncle Lawrence passed away. He was in his late ’80s then, I believe. We all gathered back at the house, the house that was there in the background and I took a picture there on the front lawn. At the time, those were many of the offspring that had been raised. My generation and our kids were in that picture in 1993. That was a representative of some of somebody. Those people in the picture have gone on to have many more kids and grandchildren. We are up to over 100 offspring of the house.
Thank you for sharing that. I want to read another section, if you don’t mind. Dad and Lawrence designed and created an ambiance in the business spaces with their clients in mind. They provided seating places that fostered the closeness of conversation. At times of grief, there are feelings of uncertainty and vulnerability. The atmosphere of the funeral home was intended to counteract and soothe those emotions. What comes to mind to you in rehearing that again?
When I hear my writing, I take my mind right back to the setting of the funeral home itself. One of the things that an undertaker does, and will be referred to by funeral directors, is when they meet with a family. They make arrangements. During that time, when the family comes into the funeral home to meet with the funeral director, it’s the funeral director’s opportunity to get to know the family and would like their wake to be. What atmosphere do they want to have? What setting is it going to be? Dad and Lawrence, and I know I’m pretty sure that other undertakers do the same thing. They tailor that family’s thinking about how they want to set the atmosphere.
If you go back in time, I explained this a little bit in the book when my uncle was starting his venture into the profession in 1930. It was at about that time that funeral homes and funeral homes were making the transition of being in the family home and moving into the funeral home. The thinking in the ‘20s and ‘30s was that families didn’t necessarily want to have that wake or funeral in their own house because the feeling of that grief would become part of the house.
That’s part of where funeral homes came into play because that became a way for families to experience, the atmosphere that they would need to have the funeral, the wake, and the funeral, but that they could go back to their own house and not know that the those final moments of the services weren’t in the walls of their own house.
Going back to what I said in the book, I know you have probably been to a fair amount of funeral homes and funeral homes yourself, and you know that pretty much the feeling is with couches and chair arrangements. Chairs sitting along the wall, maybe. The atmosphere of a funeral home is usually flexible. You will see if you go to a number of funerals at the same location, you will notice that the setting changes. That’s because the funeral director is adapting the family’s thinking.
I talked in the book about how when it came time to have a wake service or a funeral service, that was a little more formal. Then you would have chairs and rows, and dad was pretty, based on the family. Dad was pretty astute at letting my brother and how many chairs to set up. I realized this later, not so much as a ten-year-old setting up chairs but the idea being that if you put too many chairs up and people didn’t come to fill those chairs, the people, the family, nobody might come.
On the other hand, if he set fewer chairs up than he thought might be needed, then as more people came, our assignment was to go get more chairs and set them up. It was a way to accommodate that grief. Setting too many chairs up and people didn’t come to film may have intensified the grief. If you did it the other way, it helped the family to breathe a little differently and say, “Look who came. They came, too.”
It’s physiological, emotional, and psychological. I will go to my mom’s funeral in 2010, we had it at the house there and the old part of the house and the sliding doors were open to the stairway that led up to the apartments. When the people came to her wake there, the people moved around freely and someone went into that outer area, the parlor vestibule area, where there were a lot of chairs and couches and stuff, too. They started to spread their conversations to the stairs that led up to where Mom raised her family and where she lived for over 40 years.
Those are ways that a funeral home can adapt itself to a family’s situation. You want to make it comfortable. You want to make it so there’s conversation. I have learned a story from a person who interviewed me for this book for a podcast. He’s an undertaker. He talks about the story and how important the story is.There are ways that a funeral home can adapt itself to a family's situation. Click To Tweet
The way he explained it is when you gather for a wake or a funeral, usually the conversation is, “How did it happen? How did they die?” Whatever the origins of that story were, that gets repeated. It may not be the same every time, but it gets repeated. The story is very important in those days of grief. Not only for the family but it’s important for the people who come to show their respect.
If it comes up intentionally to hold the story or in conversation, that story gets repeated. This particular host of the podcast was saying who an undertaker himself, “How important that is in the ritual.” I had never thought about that until I was engaged with him in this conversation and how much a part of the grieving process this story is. I don’t know if he said it there, but I’m thinking off the top of my head too. Even if a person’s been dead for many years, people will still come back. “How did they die?” That story repeats itself. No matter where a person is in the grief process, the story gets repeated.
It’s the first thing that people ask you. No matter how long it is, when and how, those are instant questions. I would agree.
I don’t know if it’s come up in your show before, but I’m sure you know Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the seven stages of grief.
There used to be five that are changing and evolving, and the concept also is that grief is not this nice little cute one. When that first came out, there was this concept that you would do this and then this step would happen, and then this would happen afterward. The diversity training was not something that you and I experienced in our youth, and as we want to evolve, it’s all over the place. You can have all those in one hour.
I always appreciate her reading Kübler-Ross when she first published and in the years since. A different way of thinking now is, “There’s not a stage of grief.” When you think about a stage, it’s something that has a beginning and an end. There isn’t. You could talk about the seven stages, but the one you thought you never finished might pop up 5 or 6 years later.
If you call them stages, they are moving. They are fluid. They are moving around. I’m embedding that thinking in my head. I’m learning so much since I wrote the book and getting different perspectives, but I think that it isn’t finite. Grief isn’t finite steps. It’s something and from your own experiences, too. This one, you think you have cleared a hurdle in your experience, something will trigger and you go back and revisit it again and there it is.Grief isn't a finite step. It's something you think you've cleared a hurdle in your experience but could be triggered and you go back and revisit it again, and there it is. Click To Tweet
Thank you for reading some of our episodes. I appreciate that. I have covered a few points in the book. Was there anything in the book that you particularly wanted to bring out?
I wanted to since it’s the concept of yours. and I appreciate it. I am so glad you asked me to be your guest. As you and I have talked about before, the theme of your show is based on the concept of widowhood or, in general, loss. I don’t share this story in the book, but when my dad died in ‘84, my mom was 67 or 68 at the time. She had 26 years of widowhood, but I remember, and I probably didn’t talk to her as much about it and how she moved on with her life and things, but I remember an incident at my niece’s wedding in 1992.
That was a reception, the dancing, and the things that had to go on at a wedding. I went over to my mom, “Let’s go dance.” She was, “No, I don’t want to. I don’t want to dance.” I may have asked her a second time and she said, “I do not want to dance.” As soon after that, I said, “Everything okay, mom? What’s going on?”
She said, “Since your dad died.” They were tremendous dancers. I devote a chapter to their dancing because they danced through life. I call that chapter Dancing Through Life because when they got on a dance floor, people would stop and watch them. After all, they were very fluid. You know that dad was leading, but you never felt that way. They were one.
She explained to me and I’m thinking about her experience with widowhood. One of the things she wasn’t ready to do eight years after he died, she said, “I can’t do it. When people dance and I watch people dance, I want your dad to be here, and I can’t do it, even with you, my son,” but she evolved. In 1996, my brothers and I took her on a trip for three days to celebrate her 80th birthday. We went to this one establishment a couple of nights, and there was dancing there. She danced with all three of us at different times.
Whether there was dancing in between that, but then after that time when other family events came up, another wedding, she got up and did the chicken dance with us at another one of her grandchildren’s weddings. We had to keep her up. She fell. She was up participating in doing it. We haven’t talked too much about widowhood because I haven’t had that experience. However, looking at it from my mom and those 26 years that she had, the decisions she made, the times in her widowhood when she might like to go on a date and how she went through different processes. She pretty much surrounded herself with many friends and created this different life for herself without my dad.
The few times I have listened to your broadcast when you focus more on that with your guest, there are as many ways to approach widowhood as there are to approach grief. There is no prescription. There’s no guide. There are plenty of help books and conversations, support groups, but each individual, when they are in that state of life, must take all those resources and figure out how am I going to do this?There's just as many ways to approach widowhood as there are two approaches to grief. There is no prescription, there's no guide. Click To Tweet
When I think about your broadcast and what you are providing for people in terms of their grief journeys, that’s so important and so vital to keep the conversation flowing. The idea we talk about grief now more than we did probably when my dad and uncle first started the funeral home business in the ‘30s. I don’t think people were as comfortable now talking about it as they are now, 90-some years later.
It’s healthy that we have outlets like you or the book I wrote, or all the other books that are out there about grief and support groups. At my high school reunion, I met somebody who runs some support groups near our hometown for people whose she, herself and husbands lost an adult son. That’s what got her involved, but she said that’s what she’s doing with her life now. She’s facilitating different grief support groups and helping people and that journey. There are other ways that we can help each other.
The word widowhood, we may have spoken before our episode. I chose that word intentionally because oftentimes we are thinking of that widow or widower, but being from Chicago, that hood part is family. The death of their spouse impacts the widow or widower, but everyone around them, encompassing in that community, in that hood, the death of your dad and your mom. Trying to support them who was left or what your life looks like in their absence.
Your friends are impacted by the death of your parents because your friends care about you. Your physician is part of that hood because the grief impacts your health and your well-being. Things you have to do financially and legally, all those things impact our lives when someone dies close to us or sub close to us because we become part of that hood.
In the conversation about Two Floors Above Grief, someone’s reading this and going, “I never thought about the family of the funeral home director, and they are human too, and what that perspective. That’s why I thought having this conversation with the show brings it from a different angle.
No, it’s not a self-help on how to deal with grief, but it’s seeing those people supporting you in that very difficult time, what their family perspective looked like, and how to see it from a different angle. I have not seen this type of discussion that you present in this book from someone else bringing it from this. As you said, it’s someone who is talking about the business of a funeral home, not so much about the family dynamics and everything involved in that. I thought that was unique.
Thanks for bringing that up. One of the things I have become more attuned to is not so much in writing the book or even living that life but becoming more aware of the discussions I have had with people in the funeral home industry. What is an undertaker, a funeral director, or an embalmer? What do they do with their grief?
After the profession is one of the servitude. When you are there to serve the people who are directly involved in the loss, and you take a part of yourself to help, to help their journey. In that, you become an undertaker. This is likely true of my dad and uncle. They become emotionally involved. How can you not be you, when you get acquainted with a family who’s experiencing this? What do they do with that grief?
They have tried to take on the burden for the family to make the arrangements, to arrange the cars, limousines, and anything else you need. The minister. The cemetery arrangement. The undertaker, that’s their job undertake. All that from the family. Where do they put that when they are feeling all those emotions?
My dad was a piano player and music. He loved music and playing cards. That was one of his ways to do it. My uncle, as I have unpacked this more lately, used to take sometimes announced, sometimes unannounced, 2 or 3-day trips, and he would go, and now that I look back at it, maybe that was a coping mechanism or some way that he needed. He would say, “I need to get away.”
He would say that now that I come to think of it. I need to get it. I’m getting away, and so that idea, he didn’t need a whole vacation or maybe he did, but within the element of the timing, I need to get away. I think he couldn’t process the grief of the client’s family, especially if it was a family that he knew. How do you process that?
He gets away. I have had this discussion with others in the industry that say, “Maybe there’s an idea. We need to address our own needs as undertakers and as funeral directors. How do we take care of our mental health? They are not talking about situations in their own family where there’s a death they are talking about. That’s another issue, but talking about what you do in your profession to take care of yourself. That’s the subject I’m pursuing with some of the others in the industry right now to see what things are going on or what help can be provided. Is there a way that the stories in the book might help in that area?
They need to take their self-care. You cannot pour out of an empty cup. Needing to be there and taking that weight from other people, you have to have someplace to dispense it. That is very logical.
You cannot pour out of an empty cup. That’s beautiful.You cannot pour out of an empty cup. Click To Tweet
I know you have been able to give us a lot of your time now. Any questions you have of me?
I will comment first. I appreciate how you prepared for this. I know I was happy to send you a copy of the book and how you got into it and framed so much of our discussion on things that are right in the book and that led it. Another comment I give you as a host is how you engaged and talked to me not just about the book, but the other part.
This is only one part of me. It’s similar to when I’m doing the work with LGBTQ families. Sometimes, people will want to make your whole identity that you are gay or that you are lesbian, or any one of those labels. I always like to say, “That’s his part. I’m like this type of person and I happen to be gay. It’s the same thing.
I’m the author of the book Two Floors Above the Grief, but I happen to have had 50 years in education and 50 years of teaching, being a principal, and being a curriculum coordinator and other things. The older I get and when I talk to people like yourself, we all have a lot to bring to the table. I think that’s very appreciated. You said you have a couple of other podcasts. What’s one of your other what’s one of your other focuses in this work that you are going to be interviewing people?
My first episode was from Naomi. I spoke with her and she shared about how she used her art skills to manage grief. She also talked about how music was beneficial for her and shared some of her grief journey. I wanted to talk with Naomi because oftentimes, in the loss of a spouse or someone close to you, life no longer looks the same, and you have to create a new life in some.
In this virtual platform that we are living in now, people are changing what they are doing with life. Hearing how someone restructured their life in the midst of COVID can be helpful for someone who has a spouse who has died, and may have to reenter the workplace. They may have fears and anxiety as they are dealing with the death of their spouse and now need to reenter the workplace. Having a conversation with her prove beneficial to that.
I’m the guest on someone else’s podcast. A couple of other conversations, talking to someone for the first time. I’m done with doing episodes for 2023. I’m now trying to see what 2024 looks like and where to take this. This show is the episode 1 portion of our organization. We are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with the mission of supporting people who are grieving, and we have a goal for 2023 to connect with 2 million people because our world is coming out of a pandemic.
We have a cultural way of grieving that many people were not able to honor. They have lost loved ones privately. They have had to figure out how to keep going but may not have had an opportunity to have the community support them in their grief. In this show, we support people in three different ways. One is through social content, which is putting inspirational, encouraging information on six different social media platforms and also with our weekly episodes. That podcast you mentioned can be a conversation with someone sharing their grief journey or someone who may be a therapist.
Someone that may be a supervisor talking about how you manage grief in the workplace or a financial person. Going back to that hood concept, it’s not that family dynamics or the people community involved impacts grief in different ways. The second thing that we do is we try to connect people with good resources. People have to find a therapist online. We have some therapists that work with people, throughout the world in different locations, or somebody may be in a particular state.
We also have an author, and we work with them to have their book to give to people who have lost a loved one because of navigating that. Like you said, we don’t always talk about grief and how do I deal with this? Having a book that can be helpful is impactful. The third item in that making of community is that we try to have events that help people know they are not alone.
In August, we are having a Walk for Love where we are asking people to walk for one mile. At the end of that, take a picture of yourself, the scenery, and your shoes, and put #WalkForLove, #WRTWT. When you are grieving, it’s hard to do the simplest tasks. Just knowing that other people are walking with you may encourage somebody else to leave their house and go for a walk and know that I’m not alone in pressing in doing this. We are having days of inspiration where we are asking people for three days to put up their favorite quote, put #DaysOfInspiration because people need to be inspired. They need to know that they are not alone in this journey.
Please let me know how I can be a part of that.
We are having a mental health webinar where we are talking about how to manage grief during the holidays because when you are grieving, everybody is all, “Hi,” and it double-downs on how you feel about the death of your loved one. We have four mental health professionals who are making themselves available to be on Zoom.
That is a $20 fee because there are a lot of costs involved in that, but that is very small compared to the information that you are getting. It’s jam-packed in one hour to some breakout rooms. We are asking people to submit questions in advance. The ticket sale starts for that to be available. Trying to think of all those different things to continually do to help people know that they are not alone in this process is very complicated.
That’s quite an endeavor you have got going. That’s going to be helpful to a lot of people.
I am excited. The board members are very supportive. A lot of people think it’s a show. I also forgot to mention we do have a private Facebook group where we have peer support, meetings once a month, and we also have a book club where we talk about a book about grief, asking questions and encouraging each other to be able to have a safe space to talk about what this looks like for them.
I knew parts. I’m glad I asked that question because I learned a lot myself, and I hope the readers of this particular show will take some of that or will take that information with them to be on their grief. We are all on a grief journey. Sometimes, it’s more immediate. It’s all on a grief journey.
I have two more questions for you. What gives you joy these days?
What gives me joy is spending time with my husband, Leon. We have a very excellent relationship and spending time together. We never run out of things to do together, even if it’s being quiet together. That certainly gives me joy. The other part that gives me joy is a couple of things. It’s the joy I feel in watching them and being part of my granddaughter’s lives, just how they are experiencing life.
Leon’s six granddaughters have welcomed me. They call me da, which is a derivative of an Irish name for grandfather. They are very inclusive of me and that brings me joy. The other thing that brings me joy is continuing to be a part of the communication and the connection with people that I have known my whole life.
The last class reunion will be at one point in time. Knowing that I still have the ability physically, yes, and still have the wherewithal and the desire to be with people to reacquaint myself. I take a lot of pleasure and enjoyment in the students I have had the opportunity to be a teacher for and the students I have had the opportunity to be a principal for. One of the things I want to do is further connect with them to learn from them about what was it. I want to help other teachers and principals with this and give and provide some joy for me and others.
I started student teaching over 50 years ago. Some of my students and I talked about how we didn’t have social media. That’s part of the premise of the book. With the gift of social media, I want to see how many of those former students I can get in contact with from a teacher’s point of view or from when I was a principal. What is it that they take away from those experiences? I like to think of the concept of “You throw oatmeal against a wall.” This was an analogy. I have heard it, but it was a gift from one of my superintendents when he set us out one year and said, “Throw this oatmeal against the wall to start the school year. What’s going to stick by the end?”
What idea, what technique, and what relationship? I want to explore the joy of what those former students still have or don’t have. Even if they don’t have a memory, or even if they come across a memory that may be less than positive, I want to be able to use that information to inform teachers now and to say, “Here are some things that I experienced starting in 1978 and here’s the feedback from the actual people that I was able to assemble. What do they remember?” I want to translate that into new teachers to say, “What can you do now that will make a difference for your students 50 years from now? What are they going to carry with them?”
There’s joy in teaching. There’s joy in learning. There are also people who have had difficulty with it or have had difficult school experiences, either from a teacher’s point of view or from a student’s point of view. I want to build on that and this book was is more what do we do with family documents? How do we make those come alive? From an education and professional point of view, I want to leave something for teachers and principals to say, “Based on what we know about this one person’s experience and the students that wrote back to them, what can we learn from that to incorporate into our teaching nowadays?”
You are trying to shape education in the future and what that looks like based on what you recall.
Schools and classrooms certainly look a lot different now than when I started in 1974. On the other hand, there are still constants that run through that that are still impactful. I am in the process now of contacting some of my former advisors when I was getting my Master’s and Doctorate degrees to help me formulate a couple of essential questions that I want to be able to ask in this survey. That’s what’s been spurring me on. That’s what’s given me joy and what I talked about was family and friends. Joy and being able to have the capacity still and maybe help impact future generations as well.
The second question and I will make this my final. If you could pick any age range to talk to younger Kevin, what would it be and what would you tell him?
One that comes to mind, I would go back to 11, 12, 13, and 14-year-old Kevin. In the book, I talk about some of the things that kept me from participating with my peers and part of that was I didn’t think that I was athletically inclined. I was very self-conscious whether it be baseball, basketball, golf, or whatever my peers were doing. I would find ways to stay away.
I would use other skills to be a friend to these people, to these guys and girls and things. I would tell my younger self not to be afraid of it, to participate more and to have some more resilience in terms of what comments I might hear or perceive I’m hearing about my ability. I would do more getting on the basketball and playing.
To this day, I’m uncomfortable dribbling a basketball. If I’d only allowed myself those experiences with peers at the time and hadn’t made myself so self-conscious or insecure about it at the time, I’d feel better about that. Things play out for a reason, but when you asked that question, that was one thing. If I was sitting on my 13, 14, 15, 16, or 17-year-old shoulder, I’d say, “Get in there. Go do it. What have you got to lose?” That’s the attitude I have now, but I would say, “What have you got to lose? Just do it. These people are still going to be your friends.”
I have the benefit of time to look back and say those people that I’m talking about, I’m still friendly with. At the time, I was thinking that if you get in there and show that you don’t have those skills, they are not going to be your friends anymore. I don’t think that’s going to be true. I would say now to kids of that age, if they asked, I wouldn’t intrude unless they asked, but I would say to kids that age, “Get in there.” If you are asking me, “What would you do, Kev?” “I’d get in there and I’d play. Let myself have fun.” That’s what I’m thinking.
Thank you so much for this conversation. Thank you for joining the show. I will let you wrap up with any final thoughts or comments that you’d like to make.
This has been a wonderful show. Very thorough and easy. You said that it was very informal and very comfortable, and you certainly made it that way. I enjoyed spending the time with you. We could go on and on. You have got to get onto your things and I’m going on with my day as well. Closing thoughts, I encourage people to take an interest in the book. You can do it on Kindle or do it on a paperback at the Audible. The Audible version is coming out. I have been going through the process now of working with a narrator to get it all set and ready to go and I’m excited about that.
Based on conversations I have had with you, I have learned so much since I wrote the book and since I published it. The book has a lot of potential for not just kids who grew up in a funeral home. There are not that many of us, but for other people and families and family with family stories. I keep encouraging people to explore it and give themselves the opportunity to pick up the book. It’s available on Amazon or at my website and bookstores. If you can walk into any bookstore and ask for it, they have a way to order it. They can do that. That’s my closing thought.
Thanks a lot.
Thank you for being a part of our hood. Thank you for allowing me and my guests to be with you on this journey. I know it is hard. Every day comes up with different challenges, but I want to say thank you for showing up. Thank you for believing and trying. I hope that this conversation has been insightful for you. I appreciate Kevin talking about his life, his experiences, how you maybe can normalize and see the people who have helped you on the funeral service side and see life from a different perspective. Thank you for being here. I will talk to you soon.
- Kevin O’Connor
- Two Floors Above Grief
About Kevin O’Connor
Kevin O’Connor enjoys chronicling the stories of families and friends through tracing genealogical histories, writing and picture collections. His prior writing includes personal letters, articles in professional publications, dissertation, anthologies and presentations delivered at conferences, seminars and webinars.
He brings people together personally and professionally. Collaborating with friends and relatives, he plans family and class reunions. He sings and performs in theaters. He is active with SMART Ride, a bicycling group that rides annually from Miami to Key West, raising funds for HIV awareness, treatments and education.
He was an elementary teacher, principal, professor and curriculum coordinator in California, Illinois and Florida from 1973-2020. In his final educational position, he authored content and provided training in areas including support for substitute teachers, LGBTQ advocacy, and Sexual Health/Family Life.
He resides in Ft. Lauderdale with his husband, Leon. Their family includes five sons and seven granddaughters. He references further connections to this book, continues his stories, and highlights perspectives about his interests at www.kevinoconnorauthor.com