Need to know, ought to know?

Charles 9 Comments

By Woody

So many questions!

When is it appropriate for people who work with the bereaved, be they funeral directors, celebrants, (long list of others) to give advice which they suspect might prove helpful even when they are not directly asked for it?  How can you be sure that your gut instinct is right?  To what extent should you have confidence in both your professional and life experience and just go for it?

I’ll try to give an example so that you get the gist without my betraying any confidences or identities.  There are many I could think of but this seems a good one for the purpose of illustration ….

Imagine if the fathers of two young men who died just under a year apart both in their early twenties and in similarly tragic but slightly different circumstances were to meet.  The Dads are from the same town and the boys are buried within one hundred yards of each other.  Is it possible that should these Dads happen to meet and get chatting that one might help the other?  Common ground is why organisations such as Widowed and Young, Survivors of Suicide, The Laura Centre, and similar groups exist but there isn’t a group for everyone and groups are not for everyone.

I am just an average human being working in the funeral business (but not the traditional variety).  I have a large family both biological and logical and a vast number of engaging things to do which amuse me which have nothing to do with my work.  In other words I have a life.  But, here’s the thing.  If anything keeps me awake at night it’s not the fact that I work in the death trade and know too much about the ways in which individuals cease to exist.  It’s this.  Bizarre sets of circumstances frequently come up when I think to myself “if only they (the person or people most affected by someone’s death) knew such and such, I’m sure it would help”.  But how can I be sure and is it any of my business?

Situations like this come up often and sometimes I go with my instinct.  I might just keep doing that until someone tells me I’m wrong.



  1. Charles

    You can’t be sure, and it isn’t any of your business. But would you prefer to lie on your own deathbed and think, “glad I didn’t get involved” or think “wish I’d gone with my instinct”? Sounds like you know the answer, but here’s my pennyworth.

    In the example you give, you could consider both sides:


    • The two men could find enough in common to help each other in an understanding only they can share.
    • It could save a lot of pain of isolation.
    • It could even give rise to a useful friendship.
    • (Other advantages, anyone?)


    • One or both could consider your intervention an intrusion on their private grief and be cross with you.
    • One may be keen but the other not.
    • After meeting, one may try to persist in contact undesirable to the other.
    • They may both think it’s a good idea but dislike each other when they meet.

    You could write to them both and suggest they meet, with the assurance you won’t put them in contact unless they both like the idea, and leave it to them to take responsibility for their own decision. It’s a risk either way, but being born is a bit of a risk, and you’ve already done that so what more is there to lose?

  2. Charles

    I think you’ve put your finger on a crucial question for everyone who works in the death industry, Woody. Very well, too.

    Shying away from offering suggestions by undertakers denies the bereaved the full range of choices open to them. How many FDs ask clients at the arrangement interview if they’d like to come and wash and dress their dead person? If you ask FDs why not, they say they don’t feel it would be appropriate – would be distasteful, would muddle clients, upset them; would make them think perhaps that they ought to even though they absolutely don’t want to.

    But to deny bereaved people choices on the grounds that you feel you know what’s best for them disempowers them. It also accounts for why almost all funerals are more or less exactly the same. Knowing best is patronising, and self-importance is the abiding vice of FDs.

    But your uncertainty is of a different order. Brilliant thoughts above from Jonathan. I think his compromise solution is excellent. Make them aware of the existence of each other, then leave it to them. Grief is a bit like the first fortnight at a new school. The first friends you make are often the first you ditch. No matter: you see each other through a rocky period.

    To be sure, it’s a fine line between helpfulness and meddling. I guess it’s all about identifying the etiquette and finding a way of taking a judicious risk.

    And I rather think Jonathan’s done that. So I’ll shut up!

  3. Charles

    Great question! I’m still kicking myself for omitting to mention Winston’s Wish to one particular family . . .

    I’m wondering whether there may be a danger in our attachment to notions of being right/wrong. Surely the great thing would be to adopt the mores of transformative mediation, and focus on empowerment and recognition rather than directive problem-solving? Making a suggestion tentatively, and with a clear rationale, would enable the recipient to work with it as s/he would wish.

    Just a thought . . .

  4. Charles

    I volunteer for Tenovus with their bereavement group. Obviously the members are all grieving the loss of their loved one (husband/wife/parent/child) to cancer in this instance BUT every one of them says that to talk to others who are “in the same boat” is of enormous importance to them and helps them far more than their extended family and friends who mean well when they say “you will get over it in time” etc. They want/need to talk about it – all the time and feel they cannot do this to their family and friends so by talking about it to each other, find more comfort and understanding. So go for it I say!

  5. Charles

    I must admit my initial thought on reading the first sentence was “When is it inappropriate…” because I am very much in favour of bringing people together as soon as they have something in common, unless I really thought it would be counter-productive. But perhaps that is indicative of my generally impetuous nature.

    My business premises is located right at the entrance to our main Town Cemetery, so I often see people visiting graves and think “if only they were talking to each other.” There have been occasions when people have come and spoken to me, and they have had much in common (both negative and positive) with other people, and I have suggested that they talk to each other. No betrayal of confidence, just a gentle bringing together of two people. It’s up to them if they follow it up. I’ve seen the results of those who do, and it’s wonderful.

    However, having read this article and the comments which follow, maybe I’ll think twice before doing it again. No, I probably won’t, to be honest.

    Is it perhaps indicative of the society in which we live, that we worry about the possibility of repercussions before we think of the positives that may come out of something?

  6. Charles

    What makes this issue complex is that what Woody is (very discretely) saying is that these two young men took their own lives. No other bereavement is as complex and life changing as suicide. There is never any ‘closure’. The circumstance that led to these deaths may have no similarities at all, except the age demographic and the fact that they are buried near each other.

    While both fathers will share feelings of guilt and anger, one may be justified in their feelings while the other may be entirely blameless. Putting them together could make a horrendous situation much much worse.

    It occurs to me that knowing both families and both situations, Woody, you are best placed to know what to do. Trust yourself. Keep doing it until someone says you’re wrong.

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