Published in Funeral Service Magazine February 2012
Psychotherapist Phillip Hodson looks at ways to manage stress in the profession
There are some lines of work, I would argue, that impose exceptional psychological pressures. It’s not easy, for instance, being a cancer doctor since a large number of your patients are going to die. It’s also stressful being a paramedic who has to cut down yet another young suicide. But nor has it been plain sailing for funeral directors who live amongst the bereaved, the dying and the dead for a working lifetime.
You may say – But I was born and bred into this business, like my father before me. Are you seriously suggesting there’s something unnatural about the act of burying and cremating the dead? Try NOT doing it!
I take that point. But please take my point, or consider it for a moment. The thoughts are partly based on watching my brother-in-law’s career as a pall-bearer in a busy funeral home.
The fact is that dealing with death is different from dealing with home insurance, groceries, or cars. When you sell a funeral service to members of the public you raise your exposure to high levels of raw feeling. Emotional disturbance is contagious. Your system will react whether you like it or not by increasing the stress chemicals in your own bloodstream, including cortisol and adrenaline. This pressure needs to be managed if you are to remain well.
Not only is it a genuine burden to be unremittingly reminded of your own mortality; it’s an equal burden to have to bottle up and contain your own reactions because the needs of the bereaved family must come before your own. You are the “counsellor on the spot”, so to speak, compelled to hold and absorb feelings of depression with which your customers may decide to swamp you.
I know exactly how this feels because my clients do the same thing with me when they bring their despair to the counselling room. My question is – who helps you manage this pressure? Where do you take these feelings when they fill you up?
Psychotherapists and counsellors have a professional solution in place. We call it supervision – which is compulsory – and all supervisers are supervised. These monthly interview sessions allow us to download the job’s downside with someone perhaps more experienced but not immediately involved in the knottier cases who can separate the wood from the trees and remind us why life is still worth living – however demanding or depressing our clients. They can also discreetly check our social health. Do we get enough time off? Are we developing an alcohol or drug dependency? Or starting to cut corners in the consulting room? The superviser is often the first to notice.
At the risk of inviting a bucket of criticism, have you ever felt something similar might be of benefit in your more ancient profession?
After all, there are only two main ways of coping alone with the oppressive and endless neediness of others, and both are emotionally pricey. The first is to insulate yourself from the reality of it all and retreat into denial, or act as if you don’t have feelings while overdoing the internal gallows humour. This has often been the course adopted by medical practitioners (how else to explain their use of the term “ash cash”, for instance when signing cremation certificates?) I suspect it has sometimes been the path of undertakers too.
The second option is to remain over-exposed to every wave of grief coming through the door because you enjoy drowning.
Emotions need to be used optimally. When we have a difficult feeling we need to express it soon afterwards to be ready for the next buffet that life may bring. One of the best ways of discharging emotion is in the form of a narrative where we make sense of our life in words.
Telling stories, recalling events, describing what we have experienced – whether in the pub or with the family or to a superviser – is the human way to keep a handle on both reality and sanity. Maintaining a “professional silence” and never speaking about the pressures of our work – or recklessly letting anyone infect us with their misery – is a recipe for depression.
To discover more about counselling, or find a therapist where you live, go to www.itsgoodtotalk.org.uk . Phillip Hodson is a Fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapywww.philliphodson.co.uk