Professionals don’t grieve – do they?

words: Dr Bill Webster, Grief Journey
Dr Bill Webster

I could hardly believe my ears.

I attended the funeral service of the wife of a funeral director I have known and respected for years. It was, as you would expect, a beautiful tribute and an expertly conducted ceremony. My friend directed the service with grace and dignity that rose above the grief we all knew he was experiencing.

I commended him on how well the service had gone and he bravely and professionally thanked me. But as I stood among the large crowd in attendance, I overheard something that shocked me.

“Well,” someone was saying, “he’s really handling this so well. But there again, he’s a funeral director, right, so he’s used to it.”

There seems to be a perception ‘out there’ that funeral professionals, first responders, police and fire officers, medical people, and others who ‘see this all the time’ are somehow going to maintain professional composure and deal with personal situations in the same way they handle professional responsibilities.

So, how’s that working for you?

Some weeks later, at lunch with my friend, it was obvious that it wasn’t working and he was struggling through, as he described it, “that dark place”. I could relate. After the death of my son, many felt that as a grief counsellor who understood the theory, I would be better equipped to deal with my personal grief and just get on.

Why does this perception exist? I think there are several reasons:

1. People are impressed when, in some of their own most difficult moments, someone can ‘take charge’ and ‘pull things together’ when they are falling apart. We could give countless illustrations of situations involving those trained to respond with strength and objectivity as they assist people at critical times. That, after all, is their job.

So when tragedy or crisis personally affects that professional, the perception is they will respond with similar fortitude. Obviously, it should go without saying that this is a myth; I hardly need explain why.

But to understand why people buy into it, I suggest they might feel threatened when someone who has always shown strength and composure seemingly ‘loses it’, wondering what hope is there for them if a professional falls apart.

Most people would rather not go there.

2. But flip the coin. I suggest that we as professionals are affected by the same myth. Experience has taught us to maintain composure and objectivity while showing empathetic understanding for our clients.

After all, this is not about us, it is about them. But that is just the point.

When a personal loss occurs, it is about us. But perhaps we quickly dismiss it, thinking to ourselves, “I’ve dealt with this stuff before.” If I have learned one thing in this past year, it is this. Being an expert in grief, crisis or tragedy does not prepare you for when it happens to you. It is one thing to know it in theory, but quite another to experience it.

Most of us understand the difference between grief and mourning. Grief is how we feel after a loss; mourning is how we express those feelings. And there in a nutshell is the problem. After any significant loss, someone can feel their heart is breaking, but when people ask us how we are we say, “I’m doing fine.”

So the dilemma is where the bereaved funeral director, counsellor or other professional goes to express their grief. We are reluctant to go to colleagues, invested in appearing to be ‘doing well’. Besides, we rationalise, what can they tell us that we don’t know already – and that may be so.

So what can you do when concerned about a colleague? Keep it simple. They probably appreciate friendship more than ‘counsel’.

Take them to lunch. Sit face to face and ask them whether they would like talk about it. Reassure them it is okay not to be okay.

Call now and then, let them know you are thinking about them. Be there for them especially on those difficult days, personally or professionally. Offer specific support rather than generalities like ‘if there’s anything I can do’.

Above all, listen. Don’t dispense advice. Remind yourself, as Shakespeare wrote, “Everyone can master a grief that is not his own.”

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