Burnout and Compassion Fatigue
Hey, guys. If you’re a part of funeral service and you’ve happened upon some embalmer/funeral director groups on Facebook, you’ve probably found that the content can be helpful as it relates to practice, but the emotional/practical/human support is rarely helpful. In fact, it’s often hurtful.
As in many human service professions, there’s a stigma connected to sharing our personal struggles. If we share our struggles, we’re often told:
“Maybe you’re not cut our for this business.”
“Some of us just aren’t called.”
“You need to learn to control yourself.”
“This business is only for the strong.”
“There’s no such thing as burnout.”
And it’s bull shit. All of it. We are humans helping humans.
If we acknowledge the humanity in ourselves, it frees us to acknowledge the humanity of those we serve.
So I created a funeral service support group. It’s for those connected to funeral service (past, present, or future) and I’m hoping it provides a place where we can share our troubles without feeling shamed.
HERE’S THE LINK: FUNERAL SERVICE SUPPORT GROUP
So, guys. You know what’s okay to do . . . even though it’s hard and slightly weird? It’s okay to tell yourself that you’re doing a good job.
Life is hard. Death is hard. Grief is hard. Death care is hard. Getting out of bed, getting dressed, helping the kids get ready for school, and walking out the door to work isn’t easy. Some days, just getting out bed is a victory (especially after a night call [my selfie is a #nightcallselfie].
Let me speak for a minute to those of you in any kind of human service work (including parenting because that shit is the toughest of human services . . . and, lest I forget, the human service of self-care because the mental, physical, and spiritual health of ourselves is an uphill battle everyday, a steeper uphill battle for those of us with any kind of trauma or sickness). SO EVERYONE IS IN SOME FORM OF HUMAN SERVICE!
If you’re caring for the grieving, for the sick, or for the dead and dying, you’re doing a good job. If you’re caring for your family, kids, parents, relatives or the family you’ve chosen, you’re doing a good job. If you’re caring for yourself and your health and trauma, you’re doing a good job. How do I know? Because you’re here. You’ve made it this far.
But, let’s be honest: I don’t know you. I don’t know what you do. I don’t know your faults and struggles. I don’t know the nuances of your life. BUT YOU KNOW MORE OF YOU THAN ANYBODY.
Of course you have your faults. We all do. Faults are part of learning. Sins are chances for growth. Shit can grow flowers. But stop and look at how far you’re come.
I’m NOT an optimist. And I’ve never been a huge fan of positive self-talk, but I’m also a realist who knows that telling yourself good things usually produces better things. Because self-fulfilling prophecy works.
Today, I told myself that I’m doing a good job. I took a minute to look at the good I’ve done over the past five years (and sometimes that good is just surviving). As we head into the weekend, remind yourself the same. You’ve done good, Love.
The following is a fictitious story based on all too real trends in the funeral industry.
I sit down in Larry’s office and do a quick look around before we start. Framed pictures of his three girls, a couple grandchildren and his wife are standing scattered on his desk. Golf clubs lie in the corner. A giant professionally drawn water color of the “Wellington Funeral Home” hangs on the north wall. And directly behind Larry’s desk a certificate is prominently displayed stating, “The State of New York Board of Funeral Directors hereby Licenses LARRY WELLINGTON to Practice as a Funeral Director.”
That photo, and others, are a couple weeks away from being removed. The “Wellington Funeral Home” had been the last of the family owned funeral homes in this town; that is, until Larry sold it to a corporation. And that’s why I was here. To cover the story for our county newspaper. An economically depressed region, Larry’s business represented one of the few success stories in our area. He was well loved by our town, respected by his business peers and his thundering golf swing had become a tall tale at the local courses.
Larry sat behind his dated metal desk and I in front of it, we know each other well enough that I bypassed the bull and got straight to the point, “Why are you selling?”
“I can’t do it any longer. After 30 years of service, it’s become a business. And I’m done with it.”
“Let’s start from the beginning,” I interrupted. “Why does a 20 year old Larry Wellington decide to become a funeral director?”
“Thirty some years ago my mother died.” Larry told me how his mom – a single mother (his dad was absent all throughout his life) – had been his rock. “She was everything to me” were his exact words. Worked two jobs as long as he could remember and sacrificed everything for Larry – her only child.
“When she died suddenly on that warm July evening – God, I can remember that phone call as clear as day — I had absolutely no idea what to do. Someone suggested that I call what used to be “Thomas Funeral Home” up in Hamilton County. So I called Dale Thomas and he guided me through the whole process of arranging the funeral, settling Mom’s accounts and he would even check up on me months after the funeral was over.”
“About six months after Mom’s death, I had her life savings in my name and I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to be like Dale Thomas. I wanted to be a funeral director. And I used Mom’s money to go to the McAllister Institute of Funeral Service. I soon met my wife, I graduated McAllister and we moved here – Joan’s hometown – and I started a funeral home with the heart of an angel.”
At this point, Larry became reflective, his face relaxed in a pensive stare. He had been telling me his story like he was reading it out of a book … the facts of his life. And we had reached the point in his story where the facts began to blend with his current reality.
“I started this business with angel’s wings.” He waited, looking at nothing as though he was looking at a vision of himself that only he could see. “After years of being too generous, I’m tired.”
Slowing moving back to a fact teller, Larry explained how his lower prices both helped the success of the start up funeral home and laid the foundation for its demise.
“No professional service charge for children.
If they didn’t have money, I’d work with them.
If there was no insurance policy, I’d trust them.
Before I knew, I had a target on my back, “If you can’t pay, go to Wellingtons.”
At first, I didn’t mind getting beat out of a funeral. Over time — with nearly 7 percent of my customers not paying their bills — it started to wear on me. So, if I didn’t know the family, I’d ask them a litany of questions about payment and money. I then started asking people to pay all the cash advances up front. And even with the unpaid bills, I was still making a sustainable living, but my faith in humanity and my ability to tolerate deception was beginning to reach an unsustainable level.
About a year ago I buried a gentleman in his 50s who died in a car accident. Tragic. Very tragic. I didn’t know anyone in the family … they were from this side of Tioga county. The family – in their distress? – looked me in the eye, told me they had the money for the $10,000 funeral they wanted (real nice Maple casket, the best vault, etc. … they could’ve gone A LOT cheaper) and after the burial I never heard from them again.”
“I lost my wings after that” he said. “Oh, I had been beat before, but this was the one that broke me.”
Moving back to the reality that is, Larry looked at me intensely and said, “I came to a place where I’d been beat — unpaid — by so many people that I was going to have to charge them up front for their funeral. And I couldn’t do that. So I sold it to people who could.”
He continued, “I got in this line of work because I wanted to serve people, but I’ve become too jaded. Too many people are taking advantage of me. And I can’t force myself to take advantage of them.”
And with eyes that begged me for an answer, he asked, “What would you do? What would you have done?”
I didn’t have an answer. We looked at each other for a couple seconds and right before it started to feel awkward he continued, “_____ Funeral Corporation offered me enough for an early retirement and I took it.”
And the tragedy is this: It’s hard enough to run a business in this world. It’s nearly impossible to do so when you’re uncompromisingly generous. And yet, it’s the generous business people that we so desperately need.
Larry will be moving out of his funeral home and a new Funeral Corporation will be moving in. The funeral home name won’t change, but you won’t find Larry in his office. Instead, he tells me, you’ll find him on the greens, creating more tall tales on the local golf course with each long drive.
Here’s 10 coping methods I’ve seen funeral directors use.
The first five are coping methods that are negative techniques.
The last five are positive coping methods. One or more of these methods MUST be used if a person is to stay in this profession AND maintain a healthy personal and family life.
NEGATIVE COPING METHODS
Funeral service is a business that is both uncontrollable and unpredictable. Since funeral directors can’t control death and death’s schedule, we attempt to control those things and/or people that we DO have power over. We too often take out our frustrations, fears and anger on those closest to us.
And we often displace those emotions on those closest to us with some kind of aggression. In an attempt to cope and find a sense of control in our uncontrolled and unpredictable world, we will often emotionally and verbally manipulate and control our family, co-workers, employees, associates and those closest to us, making us seem nearly bi-polar as we treat the grieving families that we serve with love and support and yet treat our staff and family with all the emotional turmoil that we’re feeling inside.
Three. Emotional Suppression.
We are paid to be the stable minds in the midst of unstable souls. We withhold and withhold and withhold and then … then the floodgates open, turning our normally stable personality into a blithering, sobbing mess, or creating a monster of seething anger and rage. During different occasions, I have become both the mess and the monster. The difficulty is only compounded by the fact that you just cannot make your spouse or best friend understand how raising the carotid artery of a nine-month old infant disturbs your mind.
We cope with alcohol. I know a number who attempt to waste their troubles away with a bottle.
Sexual callousness. The sexual philandering that occurred in Six Feet Under was not just for higher TV ratings.
Compassion fatigue happens to all of us in funeral service. If we can’t bounce back from the fatigue, we begin a journey down the road to callousness. Once calloused, we tell ourselves that “death isn’t as bad as ‘these people’ are making it seem.” Once we trivialize the grief and death we see, we can easily justify charging the hell out of the families we serve.
POSITIVE COPING METHODS
If this business is wrecking your life and the lives of those around you, then salvage what you have left and quit this business. Quitting doesn’t make you a failure. Quitting doesn’t make you weak. You know more than anyone that you only have one life to life. Live it to its fullest by doing something that breathes life into your soul.
Learn to love serving others. Probably the best means to cope with the funeral business is found in the people we serve. Love them intentionally and don’t be afraid to find joy in meeting their needs. Don’t be afraid to hear their stories and become apart of their family.
Don’t be passive with the burdens you carry. Actively attempt to find positive ways to deal with your burden. Exercise. Eat better. Take a vacation. Go out with your friends. If you can’t shed your burdens on your own, seek counseling. Find a psychologist. Find a psychiatrist. Talk out your problems with someone wiser than you.
Nine. Spiritual Community and Personal Growth.
Using religion as an opiate to ignore reality is something I speak AGAINST on a regular basis. Instead, seek a community where there’s faith authenticity. Find people who can encourage you with their love and support as you worship together and ponder the mysteries and truths of a better world.
Emerson said, “When it is darkest men see the stars.” We try our best to deny the darkness of death; we consciously and unconsciously build our immortality projects, hoping that we can live immortally through them.
And then death. Weeping. Our projects come tumbling down. And it’s in those ashes, in the pain, in the grief, through the tears, we see beauty in the darkness. This is a perspective that funeral directors are privy to view on a constant basis. And, in many cases, the darkness can be beautiful.
Funeral directors can crack anytime of the year, but during the winter, it seems our mental state becomes much more vulnerable to suffering from the occupational hazards of burnout, compassion fatigue and depression. Sure, many of us who live in the colder climates of the world suffer through the winter blues; but for those in funeral service, winter often means more sickness, more death and more stress placed upon our shoulders.
Death runs strong before, during and after the holidays … and then somewhere before the start of spring, it seems he pulls a double shift. And as those who follow Death’s movements, we too start pulling the double shifts.
After a month or so of pulling long days, we reach a point and suddenly we feel like we have nothing left to give. So, we push through our exhaustion and it isn’t too long before we morph into stress induced monsters. Yes, monsters.
Death is wild. It has no desire to be tamed. And it’s a capricious boss. It doesn’t follow a schedule. It doesn’t listen to our cries for reprieve. It doesn’t stop when we’re exhausted. We have no control.
And this lack of control is the problem. Since death doesn’t hear our complaints, since it can’t be fought and subdued, we funeral directors will often displace our aggression onto ourselves and our families. And this is where the monster is made.
Pedersen, Gonzales, & Miller write that,
“Displaced aggression is thought to occur when a person who is initially provoked cannot retaliate directly against the source of that provocation and, instead, subsequently aggresses against a seemingly innocent target.”
This “seemingly innocent target” is usually those around us: our spouses, our children, our friends and ourselves.
It’s in these time of burnout that some of us start to drink more heavily; some of us will see our families fall apart before our eyes; and others (like me) will spiral down into deep dark places of depression. Those in the funeral industry can suffer burnout anytime of the year; but during this time of the year particularly, the road can become very difficult.
Often we don’t realize we’re burnt out until it’s too late. We’ve been working so hard trying to stay on top of the funerals we’re arranging that we simply don’t have time to reflect and take stock of our personal lives. Our schedules become so busy that we stop going to the gym, we stop eating healthy, getting enough sleep; and we let our hobbies fall on the wayside.
And out of nowhere our partner leaves us.
Out of nowhere we’re contemplating suicide.
Out of nowhere we’re using a destructive coping mechanism to get through the stress of Death’s spree.
Maybe I’m wrong, but I’ve noticed that the funeral industry doesn’t offer a good support system when it comes to the personal mental and physical health of its workers. When one of us gets burnt out, there’s rarely someone there to council you. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t see those in funeral service being encouraged to see out professional help from psychologists.
And maybe it’s time to change that. Maybe it’s time we start recognizing that it happens often in this industry. Maybe it’s time to start doing something about it.
So, if you’re burnt out right now, let me encourage you: seek help. It’s not okay for you to be burnt out. In fact, you’re robbing your family and friends, the people you serve and yourself. You are NOT strong enough to do this on your own. It’s time to overcome the monster.