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April 2024
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Using My Skills to Honor My Family

Memorializing my cousin online allowed me to provide comfort.

By Caren S. Neile, Ph.D.


“That must’ve been hard.” A caring friend said those words to me when I told her I had recently facilitated a cousin’s memorial gathering on Zoom. I knew she was being kind, but the sentiment was nearly as strange to me as if she’d said, “That must’ve been hilarious.” Far from being emotionally draining or depressing, hosting an outpouring of love for Jane, who passed away in September 2020, was one of the most gratifying things I’ve ever done with my Toastmasters training.

When my cousin passed away unexpectedly, I was fortunate to live nearby in south Florida, so I could provide a bit of immediate comfort to her husband, Jeff, and their son, Aaron, in the days that followed. Most members of our family and Jane’s many friends were not so lucky. They were from places as far-flung as Hawaii, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and England. A good number of them would not have been able to attend an in-person funeral or memorial service even under normal circumstances, much less during a pandemic.

That’s why Jeff and his brother Ric asked me to facilitate a Zoom remembrance gathering. They both had watched me emcee public events, and they knew I was doing a lot of that work online these days.

I agreed immediately. And then it made me think: How many of us have sincerely told loved ones to let us know if there is anything we can do to help in a time of crisis? When I attended my first Toastmasters meeting, it never occurred to me that over two decades later, my skills could be put to use at such a difficult time.

By the time the event took place, I had already participated in two online memorial gatherings. Our gathering to remember Jane took place on Zoom about two weeks after her death. In keeping with her wishes and personality, it was extremely simple: no prayers, no recounting of her biographical information, no music or flowers in the background. According to the event invitation, any participant who wished to speak was invited to do so, for about five minutes.

At the appointed time, I greeted everyone warmly, just as I had practiced so often in the Toastmaster of the Day role at club meetings.

“Welcome everyone, and thank you so much for coming,” I said. “We are here to honor the life of our dear wife, mother, cousin, and friend, Jane Schnur. Anyone who wishes to speak, whether to tell a story, to read something, or just to say how you are feeling, can do so, whether or not you’ve already let me know. I will call you in the order that you gave me your name and then ask if anyone else is interested. Remember, please try to limit your remarks to about five minutes, so that everyone has a chance to talk.” (More Toastmasters training there, although I did not use a signal to tell speakers their time was up.)

I greeted everyone warmly, just as I had practiced so often in the Toastmaster of the Day role at club meetings.

Jeff spoke first, and about 20 friends and family members contributed after him. I remembered that an effective meeting Toastmaster does not attract undue attention to herself, especially in a situation like this. For that reason I kept my segues (“Thank you very much; that was beautiful”) and introductions (“And now, we turn to John Smith”) as brief as possible. At the end of the event, I gave my own remarks in tribute. We had planned ahead of time that Jeff himself would have the final word.

As expected, we had tears and laughter—particularly when more than one of us revealed that we had thought it was we who were Jane’s best friends and most trusted confidants. We also had surprises, such as when the son of Jane’s old friends revealed how strongly he had felt about her. Above all, we had each other.

It’s said that the greatest gift is the ability to give. In a time of sorrow, my comfort with public speaking and leadership enabled me to honor my cousin and help support our family and community. And for that, I will always be grateful.

“That must’ve been hard,” my friend said.

Not at all. Thanks to Toastmasters, it was as easy as saying I love you.

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