Davia Boyle had been working as a dental hygienist for 36 years when she saw an advertisement for a bereavement studies course at Maria College in Albany. That was in 2002. A hospice volunteer, Boyle thought she would enjoy the course.
“I loved the program,” recalls Boyle, now 60, who attended classes nights and weekends because she was working full time. “I remember driving home from class one night, and I called my son in Florida and said, ‘I finally found what I’m supposed to be doing. I wish I had taken the course many years ago.’ ”
Once she graduated in 2004, Boyle was hired by Scott & Barbieri Funeral Homes to work with grieving families, one of just a few such bereavement service coordinators in the Capital Region.
Her role includes meeting with families at the time of death, assisting with planning personalized services and planning wakes, funerals and memorial services. She also offers counseling, support groups and education.
“The bereavement program changed the way I look at death, which totally changed the way I look at life,” said Boyle, a Schenectady resident who is divorced and has three adult children. “It gives you insights into yourself. You really have to know who you are and where you are coming from before you can do this kind of work.”
Boyle said her commitment to families doesn’t end when the funeral is over.
“That’s when the process of grieving really starts,” said Boyle. “So part of my job is to support families through the weeks and months following the funeral.”
Boyle said she tries to talk with most families who use funeral homes owned by Scott and Barbieri, including three in Schenectady, one in Scotia, two in Albany and four in Glens Falls. She also sends out books about the grieving process to every family, calls families every few months and sends notes.
One of her support groups for widowed people meets at the Farmer Boy Diner in Colonie on Monday afternoons and has been running for five years.
“These people have gotten to be like a family,” Boyle said of the group, which has been meeting for five years. “We’ve even had a couple of marriages in the group.
“All of these programs are free and available to people in the community,” added Boyle. “You do not have to use our funeral homes to take part.”
Boyle, also a certified funeral celebrant, was trained to design a service that is personal, incorporating unique stories, songs and experiences that defined the loved one.
“I meet with families and tell them to bring everybody who knew the person who died, because I really want to feel like I knew the person,” said Boyle. “Then we talk about what kind of service the person would have wanted.”
For example, she conducted a service for one woman who loved merlot wine and listening to Dave Matthews.
“At the end of the service, we cranked up some Dave Matthews songs and toasted her with tiny glasses of wine,” Boyle recalled.
Although Boyle has worked with ministers and Catholic deacons, she said most of the celebrant services are secular.
“We find that there is a large population of unchurched people who die, and their families will come in and say, ‘What do we do?’ But when I talk to them, I often find they still want some Scripture and prayer,” Boyle said.
Boyle said most people today want a more personal memorial service.
When Robin Gemmett’s father died in 2005 at the age of 95, Gemmett said she met with Boyle and told her all about her father.
“Davia talked about my dad and his life,” said Gemmett, 69, of Burnt Hills. “It was a wonderful service.”
When Gemmett’s mother passed away on Dec. 26, 2008, she again contacted Boyle.
“When I told Davia that mom liked music from the 1930s and 1940s, she played Bing Crosby’s “I’ll Be Seeing You,” at the end of the service,” said Gemmett. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the place. People came up to me after, and said ‘Where did you find her? I want her because she does such a nice job.’ ”
working with clergy
Randy McCullough, spokesperson for the New York State Funeral Directors Association, said he does not know if hiring bereavement service coordinators is a trend.
“I don’t have any statistics on how many funeral homes in the state do this,” he said. “But I know they help families with bereavement issues.”
Boyle said it takes her 10 to 15 hours to put together a service.
“I want people to know I am not in competition with clergy or ministers,” said Boyle. “I like to work together with them.”
Boyle, who has worked with hundreds of families, admitted that burnout could easily become a problem, because her job is so intense.
“You get to know every family really well, and it’s emotionally draining sometimes,” she said. “So I do things like take long walks and teach country western line dancing.”
Funerals for babies and children are the most difficult, she said.
“Sometimes you are so moved by the things being said in a service that it’s hard not to cry yourself,” she said. “But you have to pull it together and be there for the family.”
Terry VanValkenburgh, funeral director for Scott and Barbieri, said Boyle adds a personal touch to funerals.
“Also, the follow-up she does with families after has been a tremendous help to us,” he said. “I also think that many people feel more comfortable talking to Davia about their feelings than they do their own families because they know she will not criticize them.”
Boyle said there is no right or wrong way to grieve.
“You have to let people know that grief is natural and healthy and a normal response to an abnormal situation,” said Boyle. “You don’t get over it. You get used to it and learn to make a new normal.”
Boyle said the best thing people can say at a funeral is, “I’m sorry for what you’re going through.”
Then a few weeks later, when the casseroles stop coming in, give the family a call and ask them how they are doing.
“I tell people life can be good again, but it’s going to be different,” said Boyle. “You have to trust the grieving process. Let it out, and it will get better. I don’t know why, but I see it happen all the time.”