Funeral workers like me are used to caring for people who have died, and supporting their loved ones through funeral arrangements. But this year, there has not only been so many more people to care for – everything we know about how we do our job has had to change, almost overnight.
We’ve had to get used to working very differently. Ours is normally a very hands-on, caring role – but now we’re using full PPE when we visit a family home to collect someone who has died and we’re very aware of the impact this can have on grieving loved ones. We’ve had to have very difficult and distressing conversations with next-of-kin about whether they can visit their loved one in the chapel of rest, or how many of their family and friends can support them at the funeral service – and we’ve had to find ways to make very restricted funerals still feel meaningful.
Like all key workers, we’ve also been managing our own concerns about keeping ourselves, each other and families safe as the pandemic has unfolded too. Offerings like Samaritans’ Our Frontline provide free, 24/7 mental health support, resources and guides all in one place for all key workers to get access to the specific support they need in response to the pandemic.
The pandemic has put a huge amount of pressure on our teams and everyone is exhausted. Not only physically, but mentally too. Focusing on both my own and my employees’ wellbeing is something I’ve needed to pay more and more time to as the year has gone on.
If we have a cut finger or sore throat, we don’t think twice about going to the medicine cabinet. Why should our mental health be any different?
Being a funeral director is, of course, not an easy job. You deal with death and grief every single day, and so we make sure we give staff chances to decompress and talk about their experiences. But my goodness, 2020 has been something different altogether. We’ve had to manage the pressure of so many funerals to arrange, under challenging restrictions – and, certainly in the early days, there’s been genuine fear too.
I’ve tried to impress the importance of staff taking care of their own mental health. If we have a cut finger or sore throat, we don’t think twice about going to the medicine cabinet and looking for something that we know will help us. Why should our mental health be any different?
For me, it’s been getting outside regularly, in the fresh air, for a walk, or an early night, because I know that for me the hours before midnight are worth twice as much as the ones after. I have also cut down on alcohol this year, because although it makes me relax in that moment, I know that it impacts on my sleep and the symptoms of the menopause.
For members of my team, I know some turn to music to help them relax and feel good, phone a friend or snuggle up with a good book or movie. We are all different, and different things will help us all, so I’ve also focused on helping them to recognise the warning signs and have access to a range of healthy and helpful coping mechanisms.
As a funeral profession, we have pulled together and proved just how resilient we are this year. But we do need to care for ourselves and each other as well.
We’ll need teamwork and support to pull together through the challenging months that still lie ahead.
In a book I was reading, by Rob Parsons, I learned something about migrating geese that struck a chord with me. When geese migrate, they fly in a V-shaped formation and, in doing so, they add at least 70% more to their flying range than if flying alone. When each bird flaps its wings, it creates an uplift for the bird immediately following behind.
When a bird falls out of the formation, they feel the wind resistance of trying to go it alone and so quickly get back in formation to take advantage of the lift from the bird in front. They all take turns in being the lead, knowing innately that no individual can lead the whole time, so they really do work as a team. And when a goose gets sick or wounded and falls out of formation, two or three others also fall out of the formation and stay with it to lend help and protection.
These birds show us the ultimate in teamwork, and we can learn a lot from their example. People who share a common direction and sense of community can get where they are going much more quickly and easily, as they travel on the thrust of each other’s efforts.
We’ll need teamwork and support like this to pull together through the challenging months that still lie ahead.
Anne Beckett Allen is funeral director at Rosedale Funeral Home in Norfolk
Key workers can access free, round the clock, one to one mental health support provided by Samaritans, Shout85258, Hospice UK and Mind through Our Frontline.
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