As a radio host, Jolene James has made a career connecting with people from all walks of life. For the past five years, she has been the voice that wakes Tauranga up as the local Breeze breakfast host and has built a caring community of listeners.
Now, Jolene is using her gift of the gab and her big heart to help families through one of the most difficult times in life as a funeral celebrant.
"I absolutely love it and it's made me realise that a lot of people don't want to talk about death. It's still quite a taboo subject."
It was a series of sad losses in Jolene's own life that made her realise her desire to become a funeral celebrant.
Jolene's mum Thelma was only in her 70s when she passed away unexpectedly in 2016 after developing blood clots. While Jolene describes it as a blessing after watching her battle with dementia for years, it was still a very difficult time.
Despite her grief, Jolene knew she wanted to represent her family and perform the eulogy, and says she ended up speaking for almost 30 minutes as she paid tribute to her beloved mum.
"I got my husband to film it because I wanted to look at it afterwards. When I watched it back, I thought I did a really good job at not getting really upset."
A year later, tragedy struck again when her uncle died after a short illness. When the family was searching for a celebrant, Jolene thought, who better to perform his final farewell than someone who knew and loved him so much?
"I found that there is no legal requirement, anybody can take a funeral, and to have a family member do it is really special.
"I think a lot of people worry that they're going to be upset. Even though it was my uncle and I was close to him, I just knew I could do it – and I wanted to do it."
And it's not that the emotion of a funeral doesn't affect her, Jolene says there are many occasions where she has become misty-eyed, especially if bagpipes are playing. But she adds that it's the responsibility of the job that helps keep her emotions in check.
"People always ask me, 'How do you not get upset?' And a lot of it is because it's such a privilege to be holding that space and be there for that moment. I'm one of those people who will always do whatever I do to the utmost. I have really high standards."
Jolene has worked as a celebrant for five years now, and says being involved in so many funerals and seeing what happens after a person dies has made her feel more relaxed about her own eventual end one day.
"I hadn't seen a dead body until Mum passed away and I think a lot of people haven't seen that," tells Jolene. "Working with funeral directors and embalmers, I feel way more comfortable with the idea of what happens to your body once you pass away. I see the dignity and the care they take, and it's just incredible."
While Jolene is passionate about her work as a funeral celebrant, her first love is radio. The mum-of-two was fresh out of high school when she landed a job at New Plymouth's hot new radio station at the time, Energy FM, where she met her now-husband Chris, 58, with whom she shares two sons, aged 21 and 19.
"I got a part-time on-air show in the middle of the night," recalls the 52-year-old. "People were ringing up from their factory work and you feel like you're making a difference to them.
"That's something that's always been with me in radio is the sense that you are actually connecting with people and helping them."
To this day, it remains Jolene's favourite part of her job. She says the past two years as the country has faced numerous lockdowns and the uncertainty of life with Covid, have only reinforced how special her work really is to her.
"When we had that very first lockdown two years ago, that was the big revelation I had about myself – how much people matter to me and how much having contact with people matters," she enthuses.
"We're entertaining people, but we're also helping.
"It's incredibly powerful I have this platform where I can hopefully make an impact on people."
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