Winter 2018

Self-Care for Deathcare Professionals

February 4, 2018

I recently posted the following question on a popular Facebook group for funeral industry professionals:

How does the company you work for support you in avoiding burnout or compassion fatigue?

I had no idea that a simple question would spark so much discord among the deathcare community. “What’s support?” a few quipped. “Alcohol and cigarettes,” received a few votes. “Suck it up, buttercup,” and “Man up!” were a couple of my favorite responses, highlighting the gender divide still present in our industry. (Over 70% of funeral directors and embalmers the US are male.) As you can imagine, it went downhill from there. A funeral home owner personally insulted me by saying that I had no idea what hard work was and that I should go work a 9-5 at Walmart in my “Bernie Sanders world”, among a few other nasty things. That comment got flagged and removed and he eventually apologized to me, but one thing was very clear: the funeral industry is in need of an overhaul.

Frazer Consultants recently published Self-Care for the Funeral Director: How to Avoid Compassion Fatigue and Burnout. Downloading the book is actually what initially prompted my question. In an industry where many licensed employees deal with long hours, long workweeks, stressful situations, trauma and violence, and carrying the grief of others, it seems that offering some level of support for self-care would be a no-brainer for companies. Although from the responses it seems that some small privately-owned firms and a handful of corporations offer actionable self-care resources for staff, for the most part, self-care is not high on the list of priorities for deathcare companies. Self-care is left up to the individual front line caregivers who may or may not have healthy coping mechanisms.

If you’ve ever been to a funeral director convention, you’ll notice one thing: funeral directors love to drink. Alcoholism is rampant in this industry. Cori Lou, a funeral home owner, funeral director, and embalmer says, “The only funeral directors who don’t drink are religious people and recovering alcoholics.” And the burnout rate among funeral directors is very high. The majority of new people in the industry will leave within five years. If you can’t cope with the stresses of the job in a healthy way and businesses are doing little to support healthy coping mechanisms, this will be a trend that will continue.

One of the problems is the old-school mentality. More women are entering the industry and as Sheryl Sandberg pointed out in her book Lean In, our work as women doesn’t end when we leave the office. I believe that it’s possible that women are more susceptible to compassion fatigue and burnout, and that is viewed as a weakness by some of the men in the industry. Remember those comments, “Man up,” and “Suck it up, buttercup”? That mentality still exists among some men and even some women in the industry who had to work incredibly hard to establish their foundation and see self-care as a ridiculous notion. But on the flip-side, I’ve seen first-hand the physical manifestation of stress in the body, and I’ve experienced it myself. One thing we can agree on: this profession is not for the lazy. However, self-care should not be equated with laziness. There is room for both in our industry.

Thankfully, there are some companies that currently recognize that self-care must be made a priority, and they are progressively leading the way for others in our industry.

In the meantime, what do we do? The first step, in my opinion, is taking charge of our own self-care: making time to eat right and exercise, using our downtime to fill ourselves up spiritually, spending quality time with the ones we love, and closing the gap between home care and healthcare. Am I doing this perfectly today? Absolutely not. I’m still working on fitting my own self-care into my busy schedule, but it’s certainly something I’m more aware of on a daily basis. I see myself in the funeral business for many years to come, and that means learning to put myself first.

Taking a proactive approach to self-care allows us to serve our families to the best of our ability at all times without compromising our own physical or mental health. We work with death every day so we of all people should know, life is too short to “man up” and do nothing. To do so is a disservice to ourselves and the ones that love us.

Ready for some ideas on how to integrate self-care into your schedule? Start here.

Winter 2018

Your Life Matters

January 20, 2018

On the evening of December 23, 2014, I sat in front of my father at my mother’s favorite restaurant. It was the day before her funeral. As we were discussing the upcoming service, I started weeping. “I’m afraid no one will come,” I said, in between sobs. His lips formed into a soft smile as he said, “They will come.” “But it’ll be Christmas Eve. People are busy. What if no one shows up?” I could barely talk through my tears, but his smile never wavered. “I promise you,” he said, “they will come.” 

The next afternoon, my grandfather, my brother, and I sat in the chapel at the funeral home with our families, waiting for the slow hands of the clock to tell us that it was time to greet visitors. I sat nervously, afraid that when the chapel doors opened, there would be no one behind them. A funeral director walked in five minutes early and asked us if we were ready to see friends as there were already many waiting in the lobby. My heart beat fast. Yes, we’re ready. As the doors opened wide, we saw them come in, slowly, steadily, a room full of them! People I had never met, and people I’ve known my whole life. They filled the chapel with their warmth, their chatter, their hugs, and their stories. My dad was right. They showed up.

I met my mother’s best friend and together we wept at my mother’s side. She was supposed to get lunch with my mother the day after Christmas, but that day would never come. I met her work friends and her neighbors. I even met the Chick-fil-a manager who thought so much of my mother that she spent her Christmas Eve at a funeral. I listened as her friends told me stories about my mother, things I had never known. And they all knew me and my brother instantly because they told us that she had always shared photos with them over the years. In those moments, I knew that my mother was loved.

I delivered a eulogy along with my brother, looking from the podium out to what seemed to be a sea of people. I saw my dad sitting in the pews near the back. Although he and my mother divorced many years ago, he drove 10 hours to be there for us. I spoke through tears with a smile on my face. I even laughed, embracing the relief.

When I told my dad that I was afraid no one would come, what I really meant was that I was afraid that no one thought my mother’s life mattered. It sounds silly now, but you think and worry about silly things when someone you love dies. I desperately needed to know that my mother was important to those around her, and I was afraid that others would find the holiday more important than being there for my mom.

As my mother’s family and friends walked by to say goodbye one last time after the service, I held it together as best I could. I shook hands, I gave hugs, and from my heart, I thanked every person for being there. They will never know what it meant to me that day. Towards the end of the line was my dad. When he reached me, a huge wave of grief and relief hit me all at once. As he held me in a tight hug, I breathed through sobs on his shoulder. He was right. His promise was kept. They came.

What I forgot in my grief is that people matter. We all have a purpose to fulfill. What we do for work and for pleasure and how we raise our children and treat our friends all matter. There is a circle of people around all of us who are influenced by our actions. When we die, our life will have been meaningful to them. It could be your uncle or your brother, your best friend or the girl behind the counter, your Facebook friends or your Twitter followers. Your circle can be intimately small or wide-reaching. You will die one day, and your life does matter to others.

Three years later, I now make funeral arrangements with families who have the same concern I did that cold, heartbreaking Florida evening. Some worry that they won’t schedule it at a time that works for everyone. Some worry that it won’t be a big crowd because of a holiday. Some worry that a myriad of trivial things will stop people from showing up. My response is always the same. Schedule the service at a time that works for you. I promise, they will come. 

Fall 2017

2018 Intentions

December 26, 2017

It’s the time of year when folks start thinking about resolutions, and we all know resolutions are meant to be broken. I have made them for years but once February rolls by, I’ve mostly forgotten about them. That’s because resolutions tend to be outlandish, sometimes unattainable, goals for ourselves instead of potential acts in true alignment with our purpose. This year, I’m setting intentions and for me, these are simply things I have been working on this year that I wish to continue into the next, and perhaps do them a little bigger or better.

While I’ve focused recently on writing about grief and death, one thing that grief shows us is that life is short. Even a long-lived life is short in comparison to the things we can hardly comprehend, like the age of our universe or the span of a century. It is our destiny to create meaning in our short lives. Setting intentions for the year allows us to expand our purpose and better ourselves slowly, with mindfulness and compassion.

In 2018, I will…

  • Turn 40 with grace and clarity. I have promised myself that I will drive to the SC mountains for a morning of sunrise yoga to celebrate my birthday and bring in a new decade with love and peace.
  • Focus on whole body wellness by concentrating on yoga, cardio, and nutrition. While I’ve always loved yoga, I haven’t yet made it a regular practice. This new year, it will become a consistent practice in my life along with the nutrition to support a more rigorous practice.
  • Get outdoors! I love hiking and walking trails but like yoga, I haven’t made it a regular part of my life. Nature brings me happiness; it is a natural mood-lifter and stabilizer for me. Less TV, more nature.
  • Attend one yoga festival. Asheville Yoga Festival, I’m looking at you!
  • Work towards preparation for a potential RYT 200 certification. I believe in callings and training to become a part-time yoga instructor focusing on resilience, grief, and recovery is something that has been tugging on me for a while. My body is not yet in the shape I need it to be to pursue this idea, but 2018 will certainly get me closer to this goal if it is to be.
  • Explore essential oils as part of an overall wellness plan. I’ve always loved working with essential oils, and I’d like to make them an even bigger part of my life next year.

While all of my intentions so far have centered on mind/body wellness, there is one very special to me that supports the next long-term step in my career as a funeral director and embalmer.

  • Work on building my personal financial foundation so that when the right offer to own a funeral home manifests itself in the future, I will be able to accept it. I know I’m still simply an apprentice, until March 2018 at least, but I have big dreams and owning a funeral home with my brother is one of them. I don’t know when or where it will happen but when it does, I will be ready.

Throughout the year, I plan to check in here with the progress of each of my intentions. This is a milestone year for me as I will be entering a new decade in my life while closing a chapter that began with the death of my mother three years ago. It was then that I decided to become a funeral director and embalmer and after earning a degree and apprenticing for two years, I will be fully licensed in March. I am full of hope and gratitude as I close in on 2017 and look forward to the new year.