An Event for an Absent Host

Three years ago, I was standing in line waiting for my son to get his hockey photos taken.  As you can imagine, there were a ton of young kids in their hockey gear practicing their “tough hockey player” look and partaking in the usual game of hallway hockey that inevitably happens when a group of hockey players gather around each other.  When my phone rang, I saw my Aunt’s name come across my iPhone. I answered it, despite the chaos, because I knew if she were calling, there must be something she needed.  We always chatted in person, never via phone.

When I answered, I heard her shaky but controlled voice.  There was a little fear in her normally happy, cheerful demeanor.  “Carrie,” she said with determination “As you know, I am sick, and I want you to plan my funeral luncheon following the service.”

She had recently been diagnosed with cancer and the doctors had given her one year to live.  This initial news to our family was a blow we weren’t expecting.  She had just retired, was young by most standards and had a long life of travel and grandkids planned.  We were all shocked.

In event management, we all talk about our events, the challenges, the highs, the lows and everything in between.  But, I’ve never had a conversation with my peers regarding planning an event for someone who would not be in attendance.  I remember standing in the hallway with all the little hockey players, trying not to break down and cry.  I had never expected to be in this situation, but my immediate answer was “No problem, you have no worries, I will take care of it all.”  As I said those words, I realized this was going to be one of the hardest jobs I would ever take.

We were blessed to have three years with her, instead of the one year the doctor gave her.  The Friday before Mother’s Day, of this year, the doctor gave her the news we had all been dreading to hear: The chemo was no longer working and causing more harm than good.  It was time to stop the chemo and start preparing for her passing. 

The Sunday of Mother’s Day, we all met at her house for pizza.  The get-together was a happy celebration with a thick layer of sadness over the whole room. We all knew this was likely our last time to come together as a family prior to her death.  Initially, to my surprise, my 25 years of professional experience kicked in and I went into “event production mode” which could otherwise be known as “survival mode.”  I knew this was my opportunity to speak with her about the luncheon she wanted to host.  I was determined to “detail” the event just like I have done for countless events before. We discussed location and food. I dug for details. What type of food? What did she love? What did she want the luncheon to feel like?  As, I have asked so many clients in the past, I asked her what her favorite dessert was.  “Warm Cherry Cobbler with Vanilla Ice Cream and New York Cheesecake with Strawberry Sauce,” was her quick answer.  “Do you think you could have that there?” she asked me.  “Of course, that would be no issue at all,” I assured her.  And true to the way my family entertains, she wanted a hosted bar.  Easy peasy.

As we continued talking about the event, she stopped and looked at me in the eyes and said “Do you realize how surreal this is? I am planning a party I won’t be attending.” A lump in my throat grew and I realized I have never heard a client say those words.  And, my “survival mode/event production” tactic crashed and burned.  This wasn’t “just” an event; this was an event honoring the life of a person I loved dearly. Who wouldn’t see the celebration I was creating for her.  At that moment when I saw the fear in her eyes, I knew I had to look her in the eyes and be calm and assured.  While my insides were falling apart, I had to show her peace and confidence. I needed her to know that while she was scared, I was going to make this part easy.

When I speak at industry functions, I speak about how special our jobs as event planners are. How we get to see families at their best and worst. We get to make magic and everything we do has to come from the heart. I always say, “if your heart isn’t in it, please find a new profession.”  These words never rang truer for me than this past week.  Naturally, I had my partners on stand-by, a budget was written and approved, all the plans were in place.  All that was needed was a phone call from my family telling me it was time to launch the process I have done so many times before. However, this time it felt different.  When I got the call, instead of “cool, calm, level-headed” Carrie, I just wanted to break down and cry.  “Cry” is a bad description, I wanted to SOB hysterically. Like snot dripping from my nose onto my shirt, whaling, swollen eyes sob. I felt like a small part of my world was gone and I was disoriented.  I kept thinking to myself pull it together; you’ve known this was coming for three years; there’s no crying in event management; and I’ve executed events for hundreds of people, this should be a walk in the park. None of these thoughts helped me. Bottom line, I was gutted. 

This where having “heart” and twenty plus years of experience is a benefit. While my heart was broken, and my eyes were swollen, deep inside I knew that at that moment, it didn’t matter how upset I was. I had a job to do. One that couldn’t be taken lightly. I promised her she would be proud of what she saw from heaven, I had a job to do.  There would be time to breakdown and cry later.  Depression? It had to wait.

This experience taught me that as event planners we should NEVER take our clients feelings, emotions or thoughts lightly. After so many events, we can become immune to the emotion, fear and possible anxiety our clients may have.  But, our clients need us to be the “calm in the storm” for them. We need to project confidence, compassion and peace.  When our own personal lives are a mess, we need to honor ourselves and allow time to heal.  However, we must always put our client’s (the people who trust us to deliver) needs in front of ours when executing the event. When it is over, that is then OUR time and we need to take it.

To be honest, as I type the above words, I wonder when I will take “my” time to heal after the loss of my Aunt.  I think looking someone in the eyes who is dying and planning their last celebration has done a number on me.  I will continue to put one foot in front of the other and I know as time goes own, the pain will lessen.  I have a wedding this weekend and I have already begun to mentally prepare to push this aside for a bit.  I am actually looking forward to the joy, love and happiness that will surround this couple.  It is a beautiful juxtaposition and believe it or not, I am thankful for it.  How blessed am I to have the opportunity to see true joy, love and happiness on a regular basis?  And, this time, it is going to help me heal.  I can’t wait. And, I know my Aunt will be watching from Heaven celebrating one of the most joyous moments we have in our lives.

I love you Aunt Shirley, I miss you and I can’t wait to see you some day.  Rest in peace.

 Shirley Yvonne Hicks

Shirley Yvonne Hicks