I was recently asked to write an article for the Association of Christian counsellor’s magazine on the subject of caring for people in the immediate aftermath of a death by suicide.
I concluded the article with a paragraph devoted to the way in which a death by suicide frequently affects funeral staff who are supporting the grieving family.
This has led me to consider the other ways in which those who work in the funeral sector become vulnerable in terms of their own mental health. The general public rarely perceive funeral directors and their staff to be first responders, nevertheless that is is exactly what they are, first on scene to move human remains to mortuary or chapel of rest in myriad circumstances. This activity alone would test the mental health of most people. Many funeral directors are providing Coroner and Procurator fiscal services, moving remains from crash sites, crime scenes and house fires to name just a few of the more horrific scenarios. Emergency services personnel, attending the same incident, will immediately be referred to occupational health for counselling services to avert any negative psychological effects. Only in a few businesses will the same care be given to funeral staff.
Sadly, these are not the only significant tensions inherent in a funeral director’s daily work. There are others which are, quite possibly, never considered as an issue. Top of my list is the stressful time sensitive nature of the work. Funerals today have become elaborate affairs, with the funeral director’s staff at the centre, spinning plates in order to have a host of people in the right place at the right time. The organisation of clergy, celebrants, organists, vergers, flowers, catering, cars, and music is all akin to the organisation of a wedding. The difference is, of course, that a wedding is planned over months or years, whilst a funeral is planned and executed, usually, within a couple of weeks. The stress of chasing late delivery of clothing, certificates or music choices: the vicar who leaves everything to the last minute: the doctor who fails to arrive to complete cremation certificates and the family who want to change absolutely everything at the eleventh hour. It’s a wonder we all survive it.
Surrounded daily by extreme sadness and grief is another of the psychological challenges. We have all, from time to time, found ourselves completely immersed in a client’s grief. That is often when we are called to deal with a child or young person, or a death in particularly tragic circumstances. It may also be because we can identify with the family in some way. I remember becoming very sad when I took care of a grief-stricken lady whose eighty-year-old mother had died. That may seem strange to you the reader. Surely the death of a lady of that age might not be considered to be unusual, or out of the expected order of things. The fact was, that, at that time, my own Mother was that age and like the deceased, an ex-patriot Scot who had lived in England for almost all of her married life. The similarities resonated with me so strongly that I physically experienced my client’s grief.
We have all had experience of the client whose grief translates as anger, anger very often directed at the funeral director and their staff. Our desires, as professionals, to give every family the best experience and to try, in some small way, to mitigate their pain can be tested to the extreme by the angry client for whom nothing is right, whatever we do. These situations cause us frustration and disappointment that we have failed to achieve our objectives and leave us questioning our abilities.
Sadly, all of these challenges affect our own mental health, lead some to addictive life choices and relationships to fail. Mental Health at work is something I feel very strongly about. My own son was diagnosed with complex PTSD after his army and police service and I have long been aware of the adverse effects of funeral service on those who work in this field. Thankfully, those funeral directors who are members of the National Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors (www.Saif.org.uk) now have professional counselling available to both themselves and their staff. SaifSupport was set up just over a year ago and has already proved its worth. At last the Funeral sector is catching up and giving care to the care givers.