Funeral professionals have a challenging job under normal circumstances; these are not normal circumstances. Covid-19 has simply turned the world upside down. As a psychologist who works with funeral homes and also works in one, I want to offer several suggestions for dealing with the additional stress created by the current epidemic. Many of these ideas come from my work on the Finding Resilience program sponsored by Homesteaders. You can download free materials here.
Professionals in a wide variety of fields consider it a badge of honor to wear many hats in their business. However, I don’t know of any professionals who wear more hats than funeral directors.
Within a single week, you might be expected to demonstrate knowledge of:
- Event Planning
- Funding Options
- Infectious Disease
- Workplace Regulations
- Grief Support
- Religious Traditions
- Reconstruction, Cosmetology, & Hair Dressing
- …and countless other tasks.
In the last few months, you have also had to add “remote videographer,” “social distancing expert,” “Covid-19 expert,” and “creative rituals coordinator”. Not only are all of these duties happening under significant time pressure, but also in the midst of continually changing state and local regulations. It’s no wonder that funeral directors are feeling the effects of compassion fatigue and/or burnout.
Ideally it is best to make relatively small changes to reduce feelings of burnout before it becomes overwhelming. These changes may include hiring additional staff, delegating responsibilities to others, or finding a colleague to cover during much-needed time off. Funeral professionals experiencing profound burnout, anxiety or depression may seek professional help from their physician or a therapist. Hopefully, you may only need a few “course adjustments” to keep you on a productive, lower-stress path. Here are my suggestions for reducing stress under normal circumstances as well as during the current crisis.
SAY “NO” TO NON-ESSENTIAL TASKS
Especially now, there are going to be some tasks that should be postponed. There may be certain types of long-range planning or reviewing production options that are best left to another time. Even better, it is an ideal time to eliminate some of your daily and weekly tasks that don’t impact your business operations or your quality of service to families. I call this process “smart subtraction”. By reviewing your daily and weekly schedule, you may find tasks that can be eliminated, automated, or outsourced.
MAKE SLEEP A PRIORITY
My work schedule has shifted. I have tried to have “fun nights” with my wife and three daughters, and I have had to adjust to extended family living with us for the last two months. This has destroyed my regular sleep schedule (and I don’t even have to go on middle-of-the-night death calls). When you add the economic stress and uncertainty to changes in daily habits, it is difficult to stay on a regular schedule and get quality sleep. Here are a few tips to help make it more likely that you can fall asleep.
- Avoid drinking too much before bedtime.
Alcohol may initially help you fall asleep, but you may be more likely to wake up in the middle of the night.
- Try to reduce your use of screens in the hour or two before bedtime.
This includes phones, tablets, computers, and televisions. There is a considerable amount of research that suggests certain wavelengths of light emitted from screens that mimic daylight – which is exactly what you don’t want to be viewing just before bed.
- If possible where you live, try to get some light exercise.
Even walking a mile or two can help reduce stress.
Practicing your personal spiritual rituals (and especially gratitude) are ideal just before bed to put you in the right mindset.
WRITE IT DOWN
Recording thoughts and experiences – especially about things that inspire gratitude – can be helpful for people who routinely experience stressful workplace situations. This does not have to be a regular journal or even complete sentences. Doodling and writing short bulleted lists of your thoughts and feelings can work just as well.
DON’T JUST DO SOMETHING, SIT THERE
Practicing meditation and mindful activities can often seem so counter-intuitive. When my thoughts are racing around my brain at record speed, it can be difficult to be still and try to not think of anything. Thankfully, there are many different forms of mindfulness and meditation. It can help to try a meditation app or focus on slow, deep breathing. Mindfulness can also come from your religious practices such as focusing on meaningful scripture. Establishing a regular time to practice mindfulness can train your brain to transition more quickly.
LISTEN TO MUSIC
I am “old school” when it comes to music. I still have a large pack of CDs in my car and I actually listen to them. I have one CD with “In Case of Spiritual Emergency” written on it. It’s a personal compilation of Eric Clapton, Paul Simon, John Hiatt, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and other favorites. I never cease to be amazed at how the right songs can lift my mood, refocus my mind, and give me a more balanced perspective. I’m not sure what should be on your “In Case of Spiritual Emergency” CD, but I encourage you to create that playlist.
KNOW YOU ARE NEEDED
I have been talking with many funeral professionals across the country and the most consistent reactions I hear include sadness. Funeral professionals are feeling sad that they are not able to provide the full range of funeral rituals and events to bereaved families. They are sad that people are dying alone. And they are sad that families are not receiving the benefits of funeral rituals including support and healing.
I know you can’t do your job the way you would like, but please know that you continue to provide an invaluable service. You may not be able to give someone a hug, but your simple presence and compassion (even if expressed through a video chat) are still a vital service to grieving families. Thank you for the sacrifices of your own potential safety to serve others. Thank you for the innovative ways you have created to meet the needs of the bereaved. Do your best to care for yourself. The world needs you more than ever.
Jason Troyer, PhD., specializes in helping death care professionals serve their families better. Additional resources unique to death care are available in his Finding Resilience program.
Circumstances like a pandemic require extra care for yourself and your colleagues. "Stress prevention and management is critical for responders to stay well and to continue to help in the situation." Use the support resources from the CDC available by both call and text, and work together to stay healthy.
Dr. Jason Troyer is a grief expert, author, former psychology professor, and therapist. He provides grief support newsletters, Facebook content, and informational videos at www.GriefPlan.com/funeral. He also provides community presentations, professional workshops, and trainings on behalf of funeral homes and cemeteries. Dr. Troyer can be reached at DrJasonTroyer@gmail.com.