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Uvalde funeral directors, confronted with grief, say they’ll never ‘be the same’

Kat Caulderwood/ABC News

(UVALDE, Texas) -- The day of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School was funeral director June Ybarra's scheduled day off. When he got the call about the incident, it was nothing he could have prepared for.

Nineteen children and two teachers died in the May 24 tragedy at the school in Uvalde, Texas -- the city Ybarra has called home for about 50 years. Ybarra, 58, was in some way connected to many of those who died. So were many of his colleagues at Rushing-Estes-Knowles Mortuary.

"I don't think Uvalde or any of us will ever be the same," Ybarra said.

Taylor Michelle Massey, the manager of Rushing-Estes-Knowles, was at the funeral home on the day of the tragedy. She quickly made calls to get "extra boots on the ground," knowing immediately that it would be too big a challenge for the small crew.

"We were going to have to be taking care of these families – not just [until] the last child had their funeral. We were going to be taking care of them for years because they are our families," she said. "Our services don't stop when final disposition is done. Our services are for a lifetime."

The Uvalde funeral home planned 16 of the 21 funerals.

The funeral directors and morticians in Uvalde have ushered the city into a long, grueling phase of grieving, anger and sadness. It's a task that funeral directors have learned how to do well.

But this time, the task was much heavier for the crew at the quaint mortuary. The grief is personal. They say helping the community heal is helping themselves heal as well.

Ybarra has learned a lot about grief throughout his 30 years as a funeral director.

"Before becoming a funeral director, I didn't think much of life. It was like a fast lane, just get up and go," he said. "Dealing with death, it just makes you not take life for granted. Because we can be here one day, and we can be gone the next day. I try to live every moment every day, with a lot of joy, peace and love."

Ybarra still chokes up when talking about his cousin Joe Garcia, who passed away in the midst of planning his wife's funeral at Rushing-Estes-Knowles. Garcia was married to the Robb Elementary teacher Irma Garcia, a victim of the shooting. Ybarra helped plan the joint funeral for the couple.

He says the job has made him embrace his relationships with people much tighter. He's "more of a family man, grandfather, a friend, a coworker" than ever – making the most of his connections.

Ybarra is deeply involved in his community – as a head of the Catholic service group Knights of Columbus, a leader in his community at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church and as a coach for school sports teams. As school begins for his students who he coaches in softball, he hopes he can coach them through these tough, new beginnings as well.

After years of planning funerals, he says he no longer finds time for grudges or hate. He urges others to look for a more positive view on the world when things seem bleak.

Throughout Massey's career, she says she's found that no one mourns in the same way, and that's OK.

She said it's not always a linear progression through the stages of grief: "You can be angry and then have acceptance and then go back to denial. And people need to understand that everybody grieves differently."

Massey and Ybarra also found that it's important to lean on one another during times of such great loss, finding solace in those offering help within your circles or seeking out help.

"We're here for the victims and their families. We're here for the survivors as well," Ybarra said. "Because they're going through some grief and some hard times and they're traumatized."

Massey learned much about being a funeral director from Ybarra. In fact, she became a funeral director because of him.

Ybarra helped plan the funeral for Massey's father when he passed away in a tragic event. His compassion and grace during such a traumatic experience inspired her.

"The way he took care of us and my family – I wanted to do the same thing," said Massey. "When I switched to the mortuary field, I realized that there's something that I can do that a lot of people can't do. And that's guiding these families and making sure that these loved ones get the proper farewell that they deserve."

Funeral directors are in the position of not only comforting families during the services, but being around for the long ups and downs of the grieving process.

Massey and Ybarra are now hosting world-renowned grief counselor Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt to speak with Uvalde residents about "tending to your broken heart" following the loss. They are also planning an event for Dia de los Muertos, a Mexican holiday that celebrates the lives of those who have passed.

Massey says the community is going through a vulnerable period – with the tragedy in constant view, a spectacle that others are watching closely. But if Uvalde knows anything, it's resilience.

"Uvalde is filled with strong people with strong roots and strong heritage. This was something that could have shattered many communities, but it's not going to shatter us," said Massey.

She continued, "Whatever we need to do to help keep Uvalde strong, we're going to keep doing it. Whether it be grief counseling, whether it be just going to have a cup of coffee with you and sit down and talk about your child or talk about your loved one. That's what we're here for."

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