GUESS WHAT, YOU ARE THE EXPERT

You are a funeral professional. If you are in a position at a funeral home as a funeral director, embalmer, transfer specialist, family service counselor, pre-need specialist, cemeterian, grounds crew, administrative, receptionist, ambassador, etc. you ARE a funeral professional.

There is an often spoken saying that as funeral professionals we “are not counselors.” This is no longer the case today and can no longer be the case for how we serve our families in the future. There is no argument that the funeral profession has changed since the days of yesteryear. There is also another saying that proposes that “anyone who is working with a grieving person is, in some ways, a counselor.”

When we meet with families we are not only “directing” them, but we are also “counseling” them… in grief. As funeral professionals we are assumed to be the experts in the fields of death, dying, and grief. You may feel that this may be a huge misunderstanding, but in fact you are more likely to be much more of an expert than the person sitting across from you. You do this every day. You walk through the door of a funeral home every day. Some people may never have to walk through those doors and if they do, it is never for a good reason. These conversations, situations, and decisions are something you deal with every day; they are part of your vernacular. However, to the person sitting across from you, they are going through a very dramatic learning curve. *Understatement of the year.* And you are their guide.

To further this line of counselor/guide/director path, there is also the concept of talking about death as taboo. When someone dies, no one knows what to do. No one knows what to say. No one knows how to act. Friends and family often do not know how to help or support those experiencing a loss. For those who have experienced a traumatic loss, it is even more so. It is very common in grief support groups for grievers to continually lament that people are afraid to “say their name.” Those around them are afraid to say the name of the deceased for fear of “making them sad” when, in truth, the very fact that people are avoiding the deceased’s name makes the griever feel angrier, lonelier, even more sad because it as if their loved one is no longer remembered. If those closest to them are not approaching them about their loss, then who is? To this end, it is often the funeral professionals who may be the only people in that person’s life who are talking to them about the deceased and the new realities of walking the path of grief, healing, and of learning to live a life with a huge hole where their loved one once was.

The challenge here is if we are “not counselors” to those freshly bereaved, who will be?

TERMINOLOGY

The terms bereavement, grief, and mourning are typically used interchangeably in common culture and are assumed to have the same meaning. In general, this can be true without creating too much damage, but there are distinctions between the three terms. It is important for those of us in the deathcare field to understand the difference in these terms so that we can begin to provide an emotionally and physically safe and supportive environment for our grieving families.

Bereavement.
            Bereavement can be thought of as the most generalized term of those listed here. The simplistic meaning of bereavement is that it is a state, or fact, that someone has suffered a loss. The meaning of a bereaved loss can extend to things that are physical or symbolic, such as the loss of a job or a divorce.

Grief.
            Grief takes the concept of bereavement to a deeper level. Simply put, grief is the response to loss. This response involves the emotional, psychological, physical, behavioral, social, and spiritual reactions that occur within a person. The process of grief has been widely researched, most famously in Kubler-Ross’s 1969 groundbreaking work On Death and Dyingwhich described the stages a person may go through in the grief process. She describes the process as not being linear but instead as more of a rotation of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. This theoretical process has since evolved in academia, most notably Stroebe and Schut’s dual process model that describes an oscillation between a grieving person’s focus on the past and what they have lost and their focus on the future and what they have to rebuild. Life experiences, relationships, coping skills, the circumstances surrounding the death, and cultural beliefs are but a number of things that may affect the patterns of grief. 
            A note on Complicated Grief: Grief can become complicated or maladaptive when there is a breakdown in the grief process. Rando explains that this can occur when the “six R’s” of grieving are disrupted or exaggerated. The six R’s involve: 1) the recognition of one’s loss, 2) the reaction to the separation with the deceased, 3) the recollection and memory of the deceased, 4) a relinquishment of old attachments to the deceased, 5) being able to readjust into the world without having to forget the memory of the deceased, and 6) the ability to reinvest in the future of one’s self. Perreault shows us that possible ways this disruption or exaggeration can a occur is through avoidance coping measures. These include 1) postponing the reality of dealing with the grief, 2) displacing the grief onto some external thing in a way that isn’t connected to the reality of the loss, 3) replacing grief with something else (like a relationship or work), 4) minimizing the thoughts and feelings of grief, and 5) manifesting the effects of the grief into real physical symptoms. It is helpful for funeral professionals to understand and recognize these avoidance patterns so they can be used as a guide for possible resources to provide.

Trauma.
            Closely linked to grief is trauma. Trauma is also a reaction/response to loss, but there are specific distinctions between the two. Trauma can be defined as “any event that an individual has directly or indirectly experienced or perceived as instilling a sense of helplessness, powerlessness, fear, hopelessness, and/or a loss of safety, whether physical or emotional… a psychological wound”. Trauma can further be described as having three aspects related to the traumatic incident: the circumstances that led to the incident, the incident itself, and the circumstances that followed the incident (both long-term and short-term). Because the experience of trauma consists of continuous thoughts of the event, it must be dealt with before the grief process can begin or it may run the risk of inhibiting or stopping the process grief process altogether.
            A note on Shock: The short answer is that shock, or traumatic shock, is a bodily defense mechanism. It is a way that our bodies respond to an event that is outside the realm of normal comprehension in order to protect ourselves and ensure our survival. Specifically discussing the emotional shock of the loss of a loved one, this is something that we can unknowingly come across in our families during the removal process or during the arrangement conference. Shock can come across as an emotional or physical response, or both. It comes in many forms and its duration, although most commonly short-lived, can still be present days or weeks later. It is important to consider when dealing with a family that is walking in to the funeral home or when on-scene doing the transfer of the deceased into our care.

Mourning.
            *Perhaps the most important concept for the funeral professional.* Mourning is generally thought of as a part of the grieving processes where the outward (public) expression of grief is displayed. This can include the funeral or memorial service. It can include acts of interpersonal or intrapersonal rituals, such as candle lighting ceremonies. Acts of mourning include a person’s thoughts, emotions, and even behaviors related to the deceased and are typically socially and culturally distinct. Part of our job as funeral professionals is to help our families go from trauma to grief to mourning. We can say we have truly done our job if we have helped guide those we help: 1) in a healthy way, 2) in a way that fulfills the emotional and psychological needs of the living, and 3) in a way that honors the deceased.

The FIVE Emotional First Aid Skills
(“The Art of Presence”)

REACH OUT

Provide a caring presence. Don’t try to “fix” the survivor or help them “look at the bright side.” Get by the survivor’s side at their level, listen, and gently ask: “Can you tell me what happened?” Don’t hesitate to say, “I’m so sorry.”

PROTECT

Serve as a protector. If necessary, protect the survivor from unhelpful helpers, from the media, from carnage, or from the consequences of the survivor’s own behavior.

REASSURE

Be an information advocate. Acknowledge the survivor’s need for information: “I know what you really want right now is information about __________.” Ask emergency responders to provide the survivor the information they are requesting.

ORGANIZE

Help the survivor develop a simple plan that will guide them through the horrible hours ahead of them. Focus the survivor on “what is most important right now.” Encourage them to “take it one step at a time.”

REINFORCE

Listen for the survivor’s source of strength. The source of strength may be family, God, an animal, a piece of clothing, or a positive thought. Once you have identified the survivor’s source of strength do what you can to help them hold onto it. Help the survivor do the special personal things they may want to do. For example, the survivor may want a lock of hair from the deceased, or they may want to reminisce about the life they had together with the deceased.

Bringing EFA into the Funeral Home

In your role in the funeral home (funeral director, embalmer, transfer specialist, family service counselor, pre-need specialist, cemeterian, grounds crew, administrative, receptionist, ambassador, etc.), think about how you can incorporate each emotional first aid skill into your interactions with families.

For each skill:
(To promote cognitive learning and memory, be as descriptive in your answers as possible.)

  1. Provide one instance where you can imagine this skill being helpful
  2. Provide two ways you might demonstrate the skill through communication in the instance

REACH OUT

An Instance: _______________________________________________

VERBAL Response: _________________________________________

NONVERBAL Response: _____________________________________

PROTECT

An Instance: _______________________________________________

VERBAL Response: _________________________________________

NONVERBAL Response: _____________________________________

REASSURE

An Instance: _______________________________________________

VERBAL Response: _________________________________________

NONVERBAL Response: _____________________________________ 

ORGANIZE

An Instance: _______________________________________________

VERBAL Response: _________________________________________

NONVERBAL Response: _____________________________________ 

REINFORCE

An Instance: _______________________________________________

VERBAL Response: _________________________________________ 

NONVERBAL Response: _____________________________________

The SoylentGrief Monster

Grief is a monster. I think about grief a lot with my job. I worry that I’m not helping my families grieve, that I’m not providing the right space for them, that I’m not giving them all the tools to work with, that I’m not doing enough. Mainly that I’m not doing enough. This leads me to thinking about my own grief, which in turn leads me to thinking about the time I mailed three huge cases (a hundred bottles) of Soylent to my funeral home.

Let me take a step back and explain a few things…

We have SHOCK (this is when the event is currently occurring, when we’re in the midst of “the shit”).
We have TRAUMA (this can be a physiological and psychological response and can occur throughout, we can have reoccurring traumas and added secondary traumas, etc.).
We have GRIEF (this is a very broad term that encompasses all mental and physical anguish over a loss).
We have MOURNING (this is the outward expression of grief).

(Think of it like a big circle called Grief. You have Shock and Trauma floating around inside. Sometimes there may be multiple Traumas bumping into everything in there. Then think of Mourning as the exit sign. It isn’t the door to say that you’re done grieving, it is just showing you the way to the next step.)

As a Funeral Director it is my job to take someone (or many someones) who have just experienced a loss and walk them through the trauma, into the grief, and then into the mourning phase (the funeral). Pre-pandemic I could have told you that I felt that I was pretty darn good at this. But post-pandemic… it’s hard to say. Sometimes, lately, I really feel at a loss.

We regularly hold grief support meetings at our funeral home and it has been a huge success in the past. It has created lasting friendships, saved more than a few from taking their own life, and in a few instances it has created “more than friendships.” We haven’t been able to hold these support groups for the past year. This year, I had the honor of taking over the esteemed Bob Ross’s legacy and continuing the grief support groups. I had already been researching and studying grief and its many forms for years, but I wasn’t prepared for what I was in for. At the first meeting, Bob gives the history, introduces me and Kristin (the licensed grief counselor) and we dive in. After the break Kristin and Bob pull me aside and say, “Heather, we really think you should tell your story and share with the group.” Now all of the people who came to this group happen to be families that I’ve served in the past year. I am their Funeral Director. Telling them my personal story of grief felt very personal. But I did. I talked about losing four family members in three months. I talked about losing my childhood best friend when I was young, Abby. And then I talked about losing my best friend Tina, the most devastating of all. This is where Soylent comes in and this is the story I told.

Tina St. Claire (whew! that’s hard to write) or TFail as she was often known in our circles, was diagnosed at age 31 with a very large glioblastoma (a gigantic tumor) in her brain on Christmas Eve of 2015. She died three months later on March 9th of 2016. It was absolutely life-shattering for me.

A couple days after Tina died I was on Facebook and I got a notification that Tina St. Claire had “liked” this product called Soylent. About this time we had discovered that she had “go bags” in her closet for all kinds of scenarios. In hindsight this makes sense, she was very big into conspiracy theories. She had a bag for a zombie apocalypse, she had one for earthquakes, and on and on. She was well prepared. So when I got this notification that she would like this new drink called Soylent my first response was, “Well no she doesn’t, she’s dead. Fuck you Facebook.” But then I clicked on the link and yes, oh yes, she would have definitely liked Soylent. Soylent is NOT Soylent Green, however the name is not lost on the creators. The creators of this drink researched the basic needs of the human body down to essential minerals and nutrients and created a substance that one could technically survive off of solely without the need for food. Absolutely brilliant, right up Tina’s lane. So what does one do who is grieving but doesn’t have time to grieve because she’s working 24/7 and helping others grieve and also really good at compartmentalizing her emotions (*psst, I’m talking about me*). 

I did it. I started the 30-day Soylent Challenge. I thought, I’m going to go 30 days and only drink Soylent and this will somehow be a bond between me and Tina and this is how I am going to honor her… I had three huge cases with the word “SOYLENT” written and nothing else delivered to my funeral home. In hindsight this wasn’t the best idea and led to more than a few questions by families and my boss. 

I made it about 17 days. After 17 days I was like, what am I doing? This is ridiculous. But I also had some kind of clarity to make the realization that this was grief. This was me grieving. This is what grief LOOKS LIKE on me. Weird right?

Remember when I said that grief is a monster? Yeah? Well, monsters come in all shapes and sizes. I feel that as someone who has the honor of helping people wrestle this monster it is important to know the monster personally. My grief monster looks like going on weird crazy diets that subconsciously allow me to feel like I’m in control of something (my body) because nothing else is controllable and I was spinning. Your grief monster might look like something different.

You may not have a SoylentGrief Monster, but I bet you know what I’m talking about. Think about it, sometimes it may be something that we think is completely unrelated to the person or the death or anything. 

What does your Grief Monster look like?