Death is the touchstone from which conversations about Patricia Wojnar start. She’s buried an inordinate number of loved ones: her first husband in her 20s, a second in her 40s. She also lost a sister along the way, writes Catherine Shanahan.
Instead of buckling, Patricia got busy living, in line with that memorable piece of advice from Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption.
It’s probably safe to say that unexpected departures are her hallmark, in terms of career and personal loss. For instance, when her first husband, Peter Berry died, just three years into their marriage, she overnight took on the challenge of running a commercial interior design company, with no prior experience, and kept it going for 30 years.
More recently, she achieved an MSc in loss and bereavement and now works as a civil celebrant, helping those not keen on a religious sendoff to create funeral ceremonies of substance and meaning that ‘celebrate’ their loved one’s life.
Patricia’s first husband died in 1976.
“He was playing squash on a Tuesday, took ill on the Thursday and he was dead by the following Sunday,” she says.
“It was one of those rare, horrible, things, a form of acute leukaemia.”
Peter and Patricia got married three years after they met in the early 1970s. She had studied psychology but was interested in becoming a career guidance teacher and returned to college for another two years to get a teaching diploma.
Upon completing her studies, she took a job in a Dublin school. The school broke for holidays on the Whit weekend, June 4, 1976. Peter died two days later.
“We were together six years. I was 25, he was 28. It was pretty awful,” she says.
Instead of going to pieces, Patricia picked up her late husband’s appointments diary for the commerical interior design business he had started a month before he died and contacted the clients he had booked in.
“I took the meetings instead of him. I told clients Peter had died. I think people were so surprised that they gave me a chance.”
She made a success of the company and it kept her busy until 2008. About a year after Peter’s death, she met another man.
Patricia’s second husband, Austrian Burschi Wojnar, had done business with Peter, so you could say she met him, in a round-about-way, through her late husband. They moved from Dublin to the Sugar Loaf in Wicklow and had a son, also Burschi, in 1987. Burschi Snr passed away six years later, aged 63, of cancer.
Patricia was in her mid-40s, with a five-year-old son, and widowed for a second time. In between losing the loves of her life, her sister, Sheila Duddy, died, also of leukaemia. She was 48.
“It wasn’t as random as Peter,” Patricia says. “She was sick for a year before she died.”
So where did she find the strength to go on beset by so much tragedy?
“This is the kind of question that interests me,” she says. “How did I survive when others don’t?”
“It’s got to do with your ability to cope,” she says, “your coping mechanism, your locus of control.
“If you’ve a good strong central core, a good sturdy personality, that can get you through. I think I get a lot of it from my mother. She lost her eldest daughter when she was in her 70s. She coped very well and lived another 20 years.”
Patricia is with her current partner for the past 17 years. Unbelievably, she also met him through her first husband.
“He was Peter’s best friend,” she says. “It was very good of Peter to arrange two really nice partners for me.”
Patricia’s segue from interior design to civil celebrant started in the noughties.
“In 2007, I did the Camino. I took a bit of time to take stock. I had loved my business, but I was tired of selling stuff, of hawking my ass around. I wanted to square the circle I had started all those years ago when I did a psychology degree.
“I decided it was time to retire, but before I did that, I started a diploma, a postgraduate course in bereavement and loss run by the Irish Hospice Foundation, delivered by the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland.
“When I closed the business in 2008, I continued on to do a masters (Msc) in bereavement and loss.”
For her thesis, she decided to concentrate on funeral directors and their cultural competence vis-a-vis the funeral rights of other religions.
“I wanted to examine their empathy level with the family of the deceased and see how well they could facilitate the ceremony for completely different religions,” she says.
As her MSc was quite academic and as she was far from ready to hang up her working boots, Patricia started to think about how she could put her learning to practical use. She spotted details of a civil celebrancy course in Britain.
Patricia focused on the funeral side of civil celebrancy and returned to Ireland and started cold-calling funeral directors, contacts she had built up during her MSc.
“I had spent my career cold calling, so that wasn’t a problem for me,” she says.
Now, aged 67, Patricia is very much enjoying her second, part-time, career. She gets referrals from funeral directors where families aren’t keen on the traditional religious funeral.
She generally meets people on the day their loved one has died or the day after, so sensitivity is a requirement of the job. She spends up to two hours with them, teasing out what they want and piecing together a picture of the deceased.
She later emails them an outline of the proposed service, including suggestions for reading and music. “My main philosophy is that you honour the wishes of the deceased,” she says.
There have been a few hairy moments particularly when families argue about how to pay their final respects, or, when the ceremony is mid-flight in a crematorium, and someone accidentally hits the button to close the curtains around the coffin.
There have been a few unusual moments like when a woman’s corset was held up as part of the memorabilia honouring the person’s life as the deceased had been a corsetiere to the stars. And there have been moments of hilarity, such as the choice of Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire in the crematorium.
Through it all, Patrica has maintained her sense of humour, despite her own substantial losses.