A new language for death?

words: Dr Bill Webster, Grief Journey
Dr Bill Webster

The cry of most grieving people is “Where can I get help?”

Of course, there are lots of websites which point to where you can get advice, whether for at-need funerals, pre-need arrangements, aftercare or grief counselling. God bless everyone who provides guidance to those struggling to keep their heads above the deep waters of bereavement.

Individuals experiencing grief are often in shock, confused and unable to comprehend the reality of what has happened; it falls to funeral professionals to effectively “make it easy” for those struggling to cope.

Whatever product or service is on offer, every business has two main objectives: to attract new customers and serve them so well they will keep doing business with you. If a business fails at either, it will struggle to survive.

Funeral professionals work hard to support families through some of their most emotionally draining days. Pre-planning can ease many stresses of organising a funeral, but for most people, grieving continues well after the service is over, ranging from weeks to months – and even years.

While people will undoubtedly remember what you say and do for them before and during the funeral, I have come to believe that people most appreciate the ways you understand, help and support them afterwards.

The bottom line is this: what will bring people back to you and the services you offer? At a time when client loyalty cannot be taken for granted, the answer may affect your entire future.

To stand out and adapt in an undoubtedly changing profession, you need to ask what really matters to your families in their time of loss. (Hint: only they know the answer to that question!)

Consumers today, especially baby boomers planning funerals for their parents (and increasingly for themselves), are looking for value-added services that make them feel better and validate their decision to use your business in the first place.

Aftercare lets the funeral profession continue caring for families, to ensure they have as much help and support as possible through their unique experience of grief. Such ongoing care and concern establishes trust and an enduring relationship, which only enhances your reputation as the caring company and individuals. This is what will encourage them to return in the future.

So far, this is pretty standard stuff about the importance of aftercare, right?

You’ve heard all this before. The trouble is it isn’t working. Admittedly, there has been a proliferation of services in terms of websites, chat lines, counselling services etc, which is good, but there remains one glaring issue.

Think about it. A generation ago, people did not want to discuss cancer. They referred to it as ‘the C word’. No one wanted to talk or think about it, because it almost represented a death sentence.

Nowadays, people generally talk about cancer much more openly and are actively involved in the fight against it through social media, fundraising and walks. Mental health issues also traditionally brought a stigma which people tried to avoid by dealing with them in secret. We have come a long way.

Grief, I believe, is the new taboo. People have no vocabulary or structured way to talk about loss. We don’t know what to say to someone in grief, and the grieving person has no clue how or to whom they can communicate their experience.

Confronted by “fix it” statements like “you are so strong” or “it’s been three months, you ought to be over it by now”, people respond by saying “I’m fine” and retreating into their own shell of grief, wondering how and if they are going to survive it.

We need to begin not with more programmes and initiatives, but by creating a vocabulary that will enable more effective communication.

There are, of course, no words that can take away the pain of a loss. But how many people wish there were.

This article launches a series on ‘communicating with the bereaved’ – watch this space.

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