What Funeral Professionals Should Know About Grieving Families

Experienced funeral professionals understand that the families they serve are going through some of the most difficult times in their lives. People who are grieving can be under stress from many different causes, which can lead to breakdowns in communication, family conflict and more.

What can funeral professionals do to prevent and manage particularly challenging situations? I believe it’s important to start with an understanding of what people who are grieving the loss of a loved one might really be going through. By being aware of factors like the ones shared here, we can be more empathetic and patient because we have a better appreciation of their struggles.

They may be experiencing fatigue.

Responding to the death of a loved one often involves loss of sleep. If the death is expected (as in a hospice situation), there is often a vigil to be with the patient before and after their death. When an unexpected death occurs, survivors often experience tremendous shock at the news. Bereaved families in these situations often complain of being exhausted, yet they’re unable to “shut off” their brains so they can sleep. Even if the death happened several days ago, you can safely assume the bereaved have had much less sleep than usual, and whatever sleep they got was of poor quality.

What funeral professionals can do:

  • Carefully explain (and when necessary, repeat) options.
  • Recognize when a family may need a break in the planning process.

They face situational stressors.

There are many factors related to the circumstances of the death that can impair a person’s ability to be fully present and active in the arrangement conference. These factors include the added stress of traveling long distances to be present at the funeral home and modifying their usual plans (e.g., taking time off from work, arranging for someone to care for dependents, etc.).

What funeral professionals can do:

  • Offer written checklists and instructions for next steps.
  • Be patient when family members have difficulty concentrating and remembering.

They may experience shock or denial.

At the risk of over-simplifying a complex topic, shock is generally viewed as the adjustment period between the notification and the acceptance of a loss. Shock, in some form, may last minutes, hours or months depending on the bereaved individual and the circumstances of the loss. People experiencing significant shock will have difficulty focusing and making decisions because part of their mind is still wrestling with the idea that these choices even need to be made.

Like shock, denial is a complex topic. For example, the denial may be unintentional and brief – like when your phone rings and you think your loved one is calling you before remembering they have died. In addition, psychologist and author J. William Worden described a form of denial in which a person denies how much the deceased individual meant to them as a way to soften the blow of the loss. In other words, people may try to convince themselves they weren’t really that close to someone who has died as a way to make the death easier to handle.

What funeral professionals can do:

  • Be patient and gently persistent in helping families make decisions about arrangements.
  • Offer to reschedule conferences in cases of extreme shock or denial.

These are just a few of the factors that families may be experiencing as they work with you to coordinate funeral arrangements. I’ll share more of the stressors that can affect grieving families – and what funeral professionals can do when faced with challenging situations – in upcoming blog posts.

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Dr. Jason Troyer is a psychology professor, former counselor, grief researcher and consultant for businesses that want to better serve grieving families. He has written numerous aftercare materials, including the Finding Hope booklet series, and is a frequent presenter at funeral service professional events.

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This information is not intended to replace information from a mental health or medical professional. The reader should consult an appropriate professional in matters related to his or her physical and emotional health.

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