October 18, 2009 in Features

Support for a dying caregiver

A man who has spent a lifetime helping others through heartbreak now faces his own death
Margaret Ramirez I Chicago Tribune
 
McClatchy-Tribune photo

Bruce Conley lights candles with people who are grappling with the loss of loved ones during a recent “Fire and Rain” remembrance event in Elburn, Ill. McClatchy-Tribune
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

ELBURN, Ill. – The mother called Conley Funeral Home to tell them her 17-year-old son was dead. Michael had been found miles from this rural town, dumped frostbitten and bruised on Chicago’s West Side. Minutes after the phone call ended, funeral director Bruce Conley was at Cathy Reinert’s house. With tears on her face, she told him, “Your kid is not supposed to die before you.” “I know,” Conley whispered, hugging her. Recalling that dark December, Reinert said: “I knew right there, this was a man who cared.”

In this tight-knit farm town, Conley is known as the soft voice of compassion and strong hand that has guided others through heartbreaking loss for 37 years.

Whether lives ended by old age or tragic accident; suicide or murder; car crash or house fire, the third-generation funeral director cried with hundreds of families in Elburn, Sugar Grove, Batavia and surrounding communities.

He prayed with them, prepared loved ones’ bodies and buried their dead. Then, he paved hope to move forward.

Now Conley, 59, is facing death himself.

Last January, after he suffered symptoms of a heart attack, doctors found a malignant tumor had wrapped itself around Conley’s inferior vena cava, one of the body’s largest veins. Doctors told him the tumor was inoperable.

Although initially devastated, he soon discovered that the same faith that pulled him through so many deaths as a funeral director and grief counselor would carry him.

“It’s hard to separate who I am from what I do. So, when something like cancer enters my life, it impacts both,” Conley says.

“Now I realize … my cancer is now part of the life and ministry that God gave me to live as long as I’m here. … This illness is part of my mission. How could it not be?”

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Conley’s relationship with survivors often lasted years beyond burial, continuing with birthday cards, counseling, support groups, and grief programs at the Conley Farm – pioneering one of the state’s most comprehensive after-care bereavement programs.

Confronting his own diagnosis of bile duct cancer, Conley started an online journal to update family and friends on his treatments. But, in recent months, his journal evolved into something deeper, offering reflections on life and death, recalling childhood memories of being raised in the funeral home, tracing his work with grieving families, and even finding blessings in his cancer.

Those blessings only crystallized as his body became more ravaged by the brutal disease. So far, more than 16,000 comments from across the nation have been posted to the journal.

News of Conley’s cancer shook Elburn to its core, taking a heavy toll on his family and also the scores of others he had comforted.

Local churches formed prayer groups. One former firefighter who leaned on Conley after three deaths in his family created 1,000 blue wristbands that read: “For Bruce, Can Do.”

Conley’s son, Ben, who struggled with the decision to take over the family business, searched for a way to reconcile his dreams with his father’s legacy. His daughter, Sarah, a Seattle police officer, decided to move up her wedding date and have the ceremony last weekend at the Conley Farm.

And, Reinert, the grieving mother who lost her son in 2007, grew so close to Conley that she now works part-time at the funeral home.

“Bruce has a gift. This is what God put him on the earth to do,” she says. “He helped me so much.

“So, the thought of losing this man who brought me so far, it just hurts. To hear that he might be lost, that’s traumatic.”

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Conley Funeral Home was founded in Elburn, Ill., in 1922 by Burdette Conley and his wife, Carrie, one of the first women in the state to earn a funeral director and embalmer’s license.

After Burdette’s death, the business passed to son Chuck Conley and his wife, Winnie. Chuck Conley started the Conley Ambulance Service, which along with the funeral business operated out of the family’s dining room.

The younger Conley soon became legend, not only for his compassion to grieving families, but also for his advances in emergency medical services. As the primary ambulance for Kane County, Conley raced the injured through country roads to local hospitals and transported those needing more specialized care to Chicago or Rockford medical centers.

With his father’s reputation looming, Bruce Conley was at first reluctant to take on the family business. He started studying mortuary science, then switched colleges and majored in radio broadcasting and psychology.

On Christmas Eve in 1972, two months after getting married, Conley told his wife he felt a calling to the funeral home.

“He was so worried about taking after his father,” said Kris Conley. “But he had his own talents and it finally got to the point where he didn’t feel like he was less than his dad.”

Conley immersed himself in the psychology of funeral service and grief to better understand what methods work to help people cope. He wrote pamphlets and a children’s book and eventually founded three nonprofit organizations that offered bereavement and other counseling services.

However, Conley’s deepest impact came through his consolation to families, several friends say.

“It’s the way he talks to you. He gets you through it,” says Willie King, who endured deaths of his son, sister and mother in a nine-month stretch. “Now, we’re all trying to come up with a way to help him.”

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Beyond the funeral home, his writings and his nonprofit work, Conley’s grandest vision was to establish a comprehensive center for grieving families.

In 1997, he purchased a 9-acre farm where his dream would take root. But, those plans were soon placed on hold, first due to financial difficulties and then the emergence of cancer.

As he underwent grueling high-intensity radiation treatments and chemotherapy, the farm that Conley planned to transform into a spiritual retreat for others became a healing place for him. He walked under the silver maples, beside the creek to gather his thoughts and later wrote them in the journal.

On April 4, days before radiation treatments at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, he confessed of struggling with his faith in the past when people called on him for help and compared his own apprehension about death with the Biblical account of Jesus before the crucifixion.

“Today, I can see that when Jesus prayed in the garden and ‘heaven was silent,’ his Father did not say ‘no,’ ” says Conley.

“I think he said ‘watch.’ I think he said ‘wait and see.’ I think he said, ‘Stay the course, my son, and trust me.’ ”

As treatment progressed, Conley says, the biggest blessing to come from cancer was how it changed his perspective. On May 5, the eve of his departure for his first chemotherapy treatment, he wrote:

“I remembered tonight that, shortly after surgery, my surgeon remarked that the largest tumor … may have been growing there for the last three to five years! Wow!

“I didn’t look or feel or think any different then – but what a difference now. Now, because I know it’s there, I think and feel differently about just about everything. God is good. All the time …”

• 

While Conley shuttled in and out of hospitals, his son, Ben, managed the funeral home’s activities on his own for the first time. His father’s illness had triggered a mix of emotions inside him; at one time, he was unsure about devoting his life to funeral service.

Ben Conley graduated from Southern Illinois University with a degree in mortuary science in 1997 and immediately began working with his father.

After a few years, he felt overwhelmed and burned out. At the same time, Conley was trying to break away and develop the farm. The conflict caused tension between father and son that sometimes escalated into arguments.

At one point, Conley told his son, “You know, you should probably think about getting someone in here to help you.”

His son shot back, “Well, Dad, maybe you should think about getting someone to help you, because I don’t know if I can handle it.”

“I felt horrible …” Ben Conley says, breaking down in tears at the memory. “It was so hard to not know who I was or what I wanted to do, feeling unable to live up to his expectations. …

“It was definitely a weight with the history and not wanting to be the one to screw everything up.”

After about three years of soul-searching, the younger Conley returned to the funeral home full-time in 2004, fully embracing his passion for the funeral business.

Now with the onset of his father’s cancer, he spends quiet moments being thankful for their time working together.

“What a gift … to be in a place where you can appreciate what you’ve been given,” he says. “I know what I have, and there isn’t anything else that I would trade in the world for it.”

• 

Among the many bereavement programs Conley created, one of the most powerful is the “Fire and Rain Remembrance Event” where families gather at the farm to talk about their losses.

Under a chilly night sky late last month, they wrote letters to their loved ones and burned them in a crackling bonfire set to one of Conley’s favorite songs, James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain.”

Conley, who had recently been hospitalized for an intestinal infection, was not expected to show. But toward the end, he emerged from the farmhouse and spoke.

“All my life, I had a hard time accepting help. I was always the caregiver,” he said. “Now, through all this, I finally realize how good that feels when someone helps you.”

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