Freeman Brothers has been based in West Sussex since 1855 and this year celebrates 165 years of service to our local communities in Horsham, Billingshurst, Crawley and Hurstpierpoint. For us, the role of a funeral director is not only to help people at their time of bereavement, but also to seek to be a source of information and advice beforehand. We see Dying Matters Awareness Week as an excellent opportunity to do this and always like to engage with the topics they suggest for the different days of that week. Today, Community Co-Ordinator Becky offers another post on mental health.
Mental health is something that we all have, whether we define as experiencing or having lived experience of a specific mental health issue or not. Going through a bereavement is a time during which many people feel a range of emotions, from the expected to the more unexpected. These aren’t often spoken about, and are something that we’d like to address today.
As Funeral Directors, we’re often the first person that someone speaks to in detail about a death. It can be the first time that they mention the death aloud, or talk to someone outside of their closest circle of family and friends about it. This phone call can also take place in the immediate aftermath of the death, for a variety of reasons – it may be that the person has died within the last hour, an incredibly raw point for many.
And yet, a range of emotions are still often displayed. I’ve listened to people struggle to think or speak as they’re overwhelmed. I’ve had people tell me that they’re finding it difficult to communicate. I’ve had people tell me that they’re upset, or shocked. I’ve also experienced the caller being very calm and measured, or certain of what they’d like to ask us. It really is a broad spectrum, and it’s why we avoid saying, ‘I’m sorry to hear that’ when a stranger at the other end of the phone informs us of a death – to do so would be presumptive and judgmental. Instead, we would be more inclined to offer our condolences at a later time, when we have built a relationship with the person contacting us and feel that it is more appropriate to do so.
I have heard from people who are clearly relieved, or whose own life feels a little less burdened following a death. These are feelings I find relatable and understandable, and I’m sure others will too. It’s commonly agreed that death can cause sadness, but what’s less accepted is that this does not have to be the case. For many people, other feelings overtake sadness, or come alongside it, and this can happen for a variety of reasons: it may be that you had responsibility for caring for the person who has died, that they suffered a lengthy and uncomfortable illness; it could be that your relationship with the person was strained at the time of their death, and you subsequently wish that this could have been different; it may be that there is more to worry about after a loved one’s death, such as going through their belongings, arranging a funeral, or informing people of their death; you might be concerned about how their death will impact others, such as grandchildren, or friends and family who live further away.
Two things are important to bear in mind if you are experiencing a range of emotions, or feel bad for not feeling ‘how you’re supposed to feel’. Firstly, as has been publicised throughout the last few years by many charities and advocates: it’s ok to not be ok. Bereavement is a personal circumstance, not one which comes with a prescribed set of emotions, but due to the fact that there are certain tasks relating to a death which must be accomplished, it may feel as though this is the case. Even if you feel that you cannot share this with your friends and family, it is possible to be honest with others who can help you. If you are responsible for making arrangements following a death, there are experts who can guide you, should you let them know that you require some assistance. Whether it’s that you have a question about paperwork with Doctors, or the funeral arranging process, or how to register a death, those such as Funeral Directors can help.
Secondly, and something which has been more relevant recently as we navigate the coronavirus pandemic: feel your feelings. Many of us have recognised that our emotions shift even hour by hour in the present circumstances, and it’s becoming far more acceptable to lean into this, rather than push things down and get on with our day. If we are feeling sad, anxious, overwhelmed, or anything else, it’s important to pause and recognise this feeling, in order to establish how we can help ourselves resolve it. Again, all of these feelings and far more are entirely acceptable, and each bereavement is different due to our relationships with every person we know varying, plus the circumstances around each death are different too.
As challenging as it can be, maintaining a sense of normality and the habits which you know generally support your health are both important things too. For example, if you know that you thrive on a certain amount of sleep, do your best to maintain that schedule – boundary your time so that you can still rest, and know that you won’t answer everyone’s questions and accomplish all tasks in a day, things can be left until you are refreshed in order to deal with them.
In addition, seeking support from other professionals can be valuable. Whether you access your local mental health service – if you’re not sure where to find out about this, your GP would be a good place to start – or have another supplier available (hospices, for example, sometimes provide counselling to family and friends of patients), there are resources on offer. In the digital era, there are also online support groups. You may choose to access these via a search on social media, or through organisations such as The Good Grief Trust, WAY, Winston’s Wish or Cruse. These are all specific bereavement charities. Examples of those who work in the mental health sector are Mind, the Mental Health Foundation and Rethink.
Earlier today, I shared my own experience of the range of emotions I experienced following a friend’s death, and how I made the decisions I made in terms of choosing how to celebrate her life on my own terms. Having written that post, I wanted to provide a more general guide on mental health and death, based more on my experiences having assisted the bereaved through my work at Freeman Brothers.
Mental health impacts us all, whether we regard our own level of resilience as high or low. As with my previous post, the end of this one has led me to the same topic: kindness. We tend to treat our friends who are bereaved with kindness – if we treated ourselves as we do our friends, we may find that the path is smoother. Although nothing will change the fact that we have been bereaved, we can take steps to ensure that we have an easier time of it, rather than a harder one.