On June 24, 2009, Ed Thomas was in the weight room at Aplington-Parkersburg High School, coaching the school’s football team through their summer weight training program. A little before 8 a.m., a former player entered the school and opened fire, shooting and killing his former coach before fleeing the scene.
Coach Thomas was something of a celebrity in Parkersburg. He’d been coaching and teaching in the district for 34 years, leading his team to 19 playoff appearances and two state championships. In a town of fewer than 2,000 people, he had coached four players who later went on to play for the NFL and was himself named an NFL High School Football Coach of the Year. Prior to his death, he was inducted into the Iowa High School Football Hall of Fame and included among other local dignitaries in the Iowa Hall of Pride. He and his wife had two sons and three grandchildren and were very active in their church – Ed even led sermons from time to time when the regular pastor was out of town.
As you can imagine, his death dealt a heavy blow to the small community. Thousands of people attended his funeral, including football players from high schools throughout Iowa as well as a number of NFL players and staff. The service was too large for the local church, and many attendees packed into the local community center to watch a livestream of the funeral.
In the aftermath of tragedies like Ed Thomas’s death, communities look to funeral professionals for support to guide them through the grieving process. Funeral professionals have a wealth of experience and expertise in grief and aftercare as well as a prominent role in the community, which makes them uniquely qualified to help communities in mourning.
Despite that expertise, it can often be overwhelming to know where to start when an entire community requires support. Below, we’ve included some ways you can proactively support your community as they work through their grief.
Identify Those in Need
Depending on the situation, it’s likely a community-wide tragedy will have far-reaching impact. Start by identifying those groups or micro-communities who are most likely be to affected. That list will always include close friends and family, but in situations that have a larger community impact, it will extend to other groups like churches, volunteer organizations and school districts. You don’t need to create an exhaustive list, but having something down on paper can help focus your efforts first on those that are most in need.
Pool Your Resources
When death impacts an entire community, it’s not possible for a single funeral professional to provide sufficient grief support to meet the diversity and volume of needs that will arise. Instead, focus on pooling together a network of community leaders that can mobilize to help provide support. This could include religious leaders, school guidance counselors, teachers, hospice providers and other community leaders. Ask each one to decide what they can offer and how. Then, create a document that lists out all the available resources and how to contact them.
You can provide the document to those groups you’ve identified as most in need of support, send it to the local media or post it on your website or Facebook business page to ensure everyone has access. It’s also a good idea to provide the list of resources at your funeral home and include it in the funeral or memorial folder. In fact, there's no reason you couldn't create this list of resources in advance to save time when the need arises.
Encourage Participation and Access
Providing a time and place for people to gather together to say goodbye is a critical component of helping a community in mourning. When you meet with the family to make arrangements, focus on ways to encourage wide participation and access for those who need to grieve. Consider extending the visitation hours, holding viewings on multiple days, hosting services in a non-traditional location that can house more people (like a school or community center) and offering a way for people to view the funeral over a livestream. Decide with the family whether local media should have access to the funeral and how best to distribute service details.
Note that, while the loss may impact a wider network of people, your primary responsibility is still to the surviving family and friends. When you finalize arrangements, allot some time for private gatherings so the family can spend some time together sharing stories and processing their grief without the overwhelming presence of others in the community.
Talk about Who Will Attend
Who is likely to attend the service? Will they need additional support and information so they know what to expect? Are there certain things you’d like them to refrain from or participate in? Ask those questions and provide resources to different groups of attendees who may need a little extra support. If the death is likely to affect a number of young people, for example, it’s likely they won’t know what to expect at a funeral. In such a situation, you can provide them with resources on funeral etiquette so they feel more comfortable and know what to expect. Tools like the Funeral Service Foundation’s Youth and Funerals guidebook and FAMIC’s Have the Talk of a Lifetime resources can also help.
Focus on Healing
Often, community-wide tragedies will require additional grief support for weeks, months or even years after services conclude. As a funeral professional, you can be a valuable resource for healing and aftercare. Organize grief support groups that meet where those in need are most likely to be. Follow up with the local school administrators to see if you can provide additional support to young people who may have been affected. Plan a memorial event on the anniversary of the loss, and be sure to incorporate something positive that helps people focus on healing – like planting trees, dedicating a park or raising funds for a local charity.
The most important way funeral professionals can support a community in mourning is by being a trusted, reliable and visible resource whenever the need arises. Remain flexible and responsive, and focus on providing resources that help the community come together to process their grief.
Do you have experience offering funeral services and grief support to a community in mourning? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.