At the most difficult time

Every death brings sadness to someone.

As human beings we struggle with the knowledge that all of us will die at a time probably not of our choosing, and often we find the experience of bereavement more painful than we perhaps had expected.

Even at the end of a long life well lived, there is grief at the finality of death, at the realisation that we will miss that person, a process of having to emotionally relocate them from our present to our past; to change the narrative from “they are” to “they were”.

Some deaths are a relief, possibly an end to a long period of illness or suffering. Yet even those who have become resigned to the inevitability of the death may find themselves shaken when it actually happens; during my time working with bereavement organisations I often heard people talk about the experience of bereavement after a long illness such as dementia using words like “I lost my mum a long time before I actually lost her” – yet they were still acutely shocked, upset and saddened when death finally arrived.

Some deaths are made all the more painful for being untimely, unexpected or traumatic and some are incomprehensible; the death of a child perhaps – for those of us that have children, the prospect of that kind of bereavement is completely unthinkable and would certainly feel almost unbearable.

We lose many things when someone dies; even if that someone was a person with whom we had a complicated or difficult relationship. We might lose the person that we wished they were, the relationship that we might have had, the hopes and dreams that may one day have come true.

Most of us cannot imagine what people go through after a particularly tragic or traumatic bereavement. Funeral professionals on the other hand don’t have to imagine it, they see it. Repeatedly. And yet we expect our funeral professionals to be exactly that: professional – stoic and resilient. Families look to you, as a member of the funeral industry, to not only care for the body of their loved one and make appropriate arrangements for the rituals associated with saying goodbye, but also to provide them with emotional first aid – to comfort, calm, reassure and provide guidance and direction. They expect you to be understanding, to be sympathetic, to be caring and to be human.

Many of the individuals that I know personally who work in the profession would say that they have grown accustomed to seeing families at the most difficult time. They might argue that they have developed a special resilience to pain and grief that is needed to work in this industry, an ability to protect yourself from the sorrow that is in plain sight.

Yet few of them would not be able to identify a particular story, a particular person, who had touched them deeply and who had tested this emotional resilience to the core. Some have told me about a time that they shared with a family when it became too difficult to maintain their professional stoicism. Many have shared their experiences of not being able to leave their work ‘at the office’ and explained their own particular strategies for coping with this.

So how do you maintain your professional façade, while at the same time retaining your empathy?

Being empathetic is one of the great qualities that we often look for from those in the helping professions. Recent research shows that those who are able to be truly empathetic and to emotionally involve themselves directly with others at stressful times actually recover from the experience more quickly and easily. That said, can someone who deals with people in difficult circumstances seven days a week afford to be constantly empathetic and emotionally involved with clients?

The sensible answer would of course be no. We would suffer from emotional burnout very quickly if we were to take on board the grief felt by every family after bereavement. Yet we must be able to support and guide highly distressed people caringly and effectively and also look after our own mental and physical health if we are to do our job well.

It is of course only natural for people who have had a particularly difficult bereavement to be especially sad. Grief is absolutely unique to the individual, and with no blueprint for how grieving people might express their feelings it can be difficult to know what to say, what to do to help them navigate the early days after the death.

I have often wondered about the ‘best’ way of working with bereaved people. What is most effective in terms of delivering the right support at the right time? How can we ensure that we are offering the very highest quality of service in a manner which suits each individual? How do we make people feel better? I wonder about these things because by nature I am a ‘fixer’. I want to solve problems, I like to make people feel good, especially when they are hurting. The sad truth is that in these circumstances there is relatively little you can do to ‘fix’ it; what you can do however is be professional, be patient, be kind, be you.

There are many places where you can find ‘top tips’ for supporting bereaved people. My favourite one is to really ‘be with’ people when they need you. Use your professional skills, your listening skills and your empathy to let them know that you are there, you are involved and you care and you will execute your role to the best of your ability. Funeral professionals don’t need to be bereavement counsellors (although a few of the skills would never go amiss) but they do need to provide excellent, appropriate, time-limited support to the people who need their services.

The best way of working with those who are highly distressed by their bereavement is hopefully the same way as you would any other bereaved individual. By being caring, patient and calm and by providing privacy, space and time. Think about how you respond to someone crying – practice staying calm and relaxed, offering a tissue but otherwise staying quiet for a few minutes and letting the person cry. Don’t rush in and try to distract them, offer platitudes or make them feel that they are taking up more of your time than you can afford.

Helping someone who is distressed involves keeping it simple – make sure they know you are there and listening but don’t talk too much, keep your language simple and clear and don’t overpromise – you can’t fix the situation and in the circumstances you can’t reassure by saying “it will be OK”, but by your actions you can make sure that they know you understand and are there for them at that moment.

It is extremely important to look after yourself. One of the ways to do this is to make sure that you are able to reflect on the positive and supportive role you play and be assured that the bereaved individual or family will be able to move forward and find other sources of support once they are out of your care.

Often I have heard funeral directors express frustration with the bereavement care services (or lack of them) out in the community. It is important in terms of your own boundaries and peace of mind to be able to refer people on to extra support if you feel that they need it, and finding good, reliable local or national services or even developing your own aftercare service can be helpful with this. Be mindful of your limitations and don’t beat yourself up for not being able to do more than you can.

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