Taking care of clients while they are going through such a delicate moment as the loss of a loved one requires a special sensitivity so that they feel satisfied and well cared for, regardless of the moment of mourning they are going through. When facing death, funeral professionals must transmit serenity, empathy and stability. This control of emotions can lead to overloaded workers, who sometimes have to mediate family conflicts, deal with the lack of resources to pay for a service or condition corpses that have suffered a violent death.
Death and psychology: an inseparable binomial
What is the necessary psychology when facing death at work? Is there a correct way to deal with families who are in the midst of grief?
From naturalness and respect. Death does not have to be a taboo subject because it is part of life. During grief, it is best to work from a position of empathy, trying to accompany these people while also respecting their space. It is necessary to sense when it is time to approach them and talk to them. At that time, it is best to ask what they need and, above all, inform them about the logistics: one must communicate what steps will be taken and what work will be done from the funeral home.
In death related jobs like these, is it better to be close or to keep distance?
There is no manual. I think we need to break down the barriers a bit and ask what they need or if they need to talk. It’s not about going directly into people; it’s about detecting whether that person is minimally receptive. And above all, the best thing is to accompany them at the level of the most physical and logistical needs.
There is no magic formula, but it is important that families can verbalise what they are feeling and give a new direction to their emotions.
And how do we deal with the psychology of grief in the times of covid-19?
The restrictions to prevent contagion have prevented many people from saying goodbye to a deceased relative. This makes grieving and adapting to the loss very complicated. One must try to ensure that people who have not been able to say goodbye can say it, at least symbolically. It is necessary to help these families perform a small ritual to help them move on from the phase of denial of grief in which they cannot face their feelings. Obviously, there is no magic formula and we are not going to work miracles, but it is important that families can verbalise what they are feeling and give a new direction to their emotions.
Grief and depression
Does such an emotional job entail a higher degree of stress?
Yes, it does. In the end, it wears professionals out emotionally. No matter how much they face these situations every day, it doesn’t mean they get used to them. You have to find a way to find a balance between empathising a lot and not empathising at all. People must be helped, but without becoming excessively involved because, in the end, this harms funeral professionals. One must also separate work from personal life because we cannot constantly carry an emotional backpack.
And how do you avoid taking your work home?
It is difficult, but you can learn with training. When you get home after facing death, you can find moments to express how your day has gone, tell your loved ones about it, let those feelings out and even cry if you need to. But that can’t be the focus. You have to learn to keep your distance and keep in mind that it’s OK to help others, but that can’t stop you from taking care of yourself too. It’s a matter of practice and finding moments to distance yourself from the stories that hurt the most. Playing sport and other activities away from that area always helps.
You have to learn to keep your distance and find moments to distance yourself from the stories that hurt the most.
Implications of facing death at work
Is it possible to get used to working with death? Is that good or bad?
If getting used to it means being indifferent to human suffering, it is obviously bad. But if you learn to feel that facing death is part of your work, it is good because it allows you to carry out this profession in a healthy way. The most important thing is to ask for help when you need it. You have to be aware of how your work affects you, check yourself, analyse how a certain situation is affecting you and have a professional to help you manage it, inside or outside the company. If you are having a hard time and accumulating stress, it will end up interfering with your work. It also depends a lot on your personality.
There are funeral workers who even claim that these death related jobs make them value life much more…
Of course. It depends a lot on each person and their vocational level. Professionals who help others can come to value their own personal situation more. If you are seeing a reality that becomes normal and, when you come out of it, you see that there is life beyond it, of course you can enjoy the things around you more.
Can working surrounded by the suffering of death wear professionals out more quickly?
It depends on the way you are and whether you are treating those feelings in therapy and letting yourself be helped. It is true that the time we are living with the covid-19 has intensified everything a lot and sometimes we are not prepared to manage all this in a natural way. Many cases of anxiety are appearing because, in the end, as much as we may like our job, we are not machines or superheroes. We are people with feelings and needs and, obviously, we can get tired out if we don’t know how to ask for help. In the end, if you hang in there and don’t realise how bad you are, one day you won’t even be able to go to work.
It does not have to be scary to go to therapy. It’s a way to help yourself and, at the same time, help the people around you.
There are times when a violent death or a child’s death can significantly affect funeral workers. Is this what is known as secondary post-traumatic stress?
Secondary post-traumatic stress is a disorder that occurs in people who have experienced a particularly traumatic situation and find themselves with insufficient resources to cope with it. This disorder manifests itself with symptoms such as experiencing the event through nightmares, as people cannot stop thinking about it. At a physiological level, they are more anxious and activated, even at a depressive level… It is as if the body and the mind have not been able to assimilate a traumatic event and the affected person cannot overcome it and all this remains recorded.
Is it necessary to see a psychologist?
Yes, of course. You have to see a professional because post-traumatic stress does not go away spontaneously. It must be treated and it does not have to be scary to go to therapy, which is very focused on the person being able to process that event, facing death and reworking the story in a more natural way which the mind can assimilate. Therapy is a way to help yourself and, at the same time, help the people around you because, in the end, you need to be well in order to help others.