While everyone reacts differently to grief, and for different periods of time, Buckner took the time to share his growth as a funeral director and a father still coping with the loss of a child with whom he shared a special bond.
Establishing the Shipley Buckner Memorial Scholarship Fund, for example, has been a twofold blessing, both for Buckner and its recipients, according to the Cleveland native.
“I think in the past six months I’ve gotten better,” Buckner admits. “I still have good days and bad days. It helps me to memorialize her. That’s my way of reaching out. Hopefully, helping and doing for other people helps them, but it also helps me.”
Motioning toward a stack of books in his living room, Buckner revealed, “Every morning I read for about an hour — Billy Graham, Oswald Chambers and, of course, the Bible. It helps me get going in the morning. I leave here, maybe at 9 a.m., knowing I have three funerals to conduct that day or maybe three families to meet. This definitely helps me get going — knowing I’ve put everything in God’s hands. He’ll never give you more than you can handle.”
What may make it difficult for Buckner to move forward at times is the fact that, being in the funeral business and having experienced such a widely reported loss, he continually encounters well-wishers who inadvertently bring up his source of grief.
“Being in the business, I have people ask me about it all the time,” he said. “Usually, even when I’m waiting on a family that I don’t know very well — they’ll mention something to me — how sorry they are about my daughter — even to this day, over three years later.
“But I think I’m making strides. I’m never going to be OK. My life changed forever that night. But I really feel in my heart if I can help benefit or ease the pain for someone else — that they know I’m the guy who deals with death daily, that it brought me to my knees, and I came back from it — then there’s some hope out there for them.”
Hope arrived for Buckner some two years after the tragedy while he desperately sought some form of peace or closure to his grieving. He said he found his answer in God.
“The sad part is that it took me almost two years to get to God,” he admits. “I traveled to Louisville (Ky.) to be treated by one of the best grief psychiatrists in the United States. I counseled with my ministers and spoke to groups to discuss my healing process, albeit extremely slow. All I really wanted to do was withdraw and be alone. I felt like I was a burden to other people. I continued to search. I would do this for another 18 months to two years.
“God had come to me many times during my months of desperate grief, but I had turned away, choosing to suffer the pain alone. God finally revealed what I needed to do and how good could be derived from this tragedy. First I had to change. Depression had kept me from my family and friends.”
As hard as it was, Buckner did what he needed to do to change his attitude and actions in order to take a more positive approach to life. Happiness in the form of giving took on greater meaning in his life.
“I have given several scholarships in Shipley’s name from our family foundation (the Ralph Buckner Foundation) and dedicated our annual Ralph Buckner Memorial Golf Tournament in her honor,” he said.
Buckner, 57, also did what many experts say is helpful in letting go of the pain — he started keeping a journal of his experience and writing down his feelings at the request of several friends who were touched by his sentiments, especially by how, as a funeral director, he is coping.
“This way I could let them read what it’s like for someone who thinks this (being a funeral director) is an everyday job to go through. It’s not — anymore. It’s not the easiest thing to do,” Buckner said. “Obviously I don’t like to go to cemeteries very often and I don’t go a lot of the times. But I’ll do the whole funeral. I throw myself more into the business part.”
His journal became the basis for an article he penned that appeared in The Director, a national publication geared to those involved in the funeral business. After its publication in June, Buckner said he received calls from people around the country about how the message has helped them.
Locally, he said, families who have read it said it helped them through times of suffering knowing those on the “other side” knew their pain.
Buckner admits, “I can only say for sure this tragedy has made me better as a funeral director. Now, when I say I can sympathize with their loss, they know it’s sincere; I hurt with them. I discuss our respective losses with every family I meet with and then we comfort one another. I cry with them and we work through the process of arrangements, which is very difficult for me but I believe has therapeutic value. I leave the appointments mentally exhausted, but from testimonies and numerous cards I receive, they convey that I am helping them ... much more than before. Why? Because I have been where they are, I have been on the other side.”
Buckner offered this advice to those in his profession: “As funeral directors, we must be sensitive to an individual’s delicate state of mind at a time of loss, especially those facing a sudden, tragic loss of a child. When assisting a family with arrangements, it may not occur to us that a family [member who is distraught] may be considering suicide at the same time. Certainly, that would have been my state of mind had my staff not stepped in and made the arrangements for me.”
Taking one day at a time, reading the Word of God, praying for help and helping others, Ralph Buckner Jr. is coping with his loss the best way he knows how. It is a way millions of grieving parents find relief. It is a way that is making him a better person and a better funeral director to the benefit of those needing sympathy, comfort and understanding.
“I know everyone goes through loss, pain and suffering. I’m not unique in that. I know other people have lost their children before and after birth — 5- and 6-year-olds to cancer, accidents — all of that happens,” he said. “Shipley and I were very close, we were a lot alike. We were like best friends. It’s not easy for anyone.”