All so-called caring professions suffer from it. The difference is that they talk about it. If the British stiff upper lip is making its last stand, it’s down among the undertakers where resistance is mutely fiercest.
We’re talking about Can’t-Take-It-Anymore Syndrome, aka compassion fatigue, burnout, depression, nervous breakdown. Read all the symptoms here.
How could undertakers possibly be exempt from burnout? After all, they deal, day after remorseless day, with grief and trauma. It’s not just that they see things they can never forget, they are the ones who have pick up the pieces — literally. Everyone else at a disaster scene, the police and the paramedics, has counsellors on hand to tend to their emotional health. Not the undertakers.
Burnout happens to undertakers too, of course, but mostly in a quietly desperate and deeply lonely way. Support networks in the industry, where they exist, tend to consist of friendly fellow undertakers or close family. This is an industry where there’s an expectation on you to grin and bear it – dammit, we’re funeral people, this is what we do — as soldiers say to a wounded comrade, you shouldn’t have joined the army if you can’t take a joke. The trade associations, NAFD and Saif, offer no formal emotional support or counselling services to their members. The predicament of those who work outside supportive family businesses – in the big chains, for example – looks perilous.
Some burnout sufferers manage to maintain a mask of professionalism behind which they grow jaded and despairing. Vengeful, even. Remember that horrible old kids-hating teacher when you were at school? Like that. Remember that FSO who stole the purse of the dead woman from her bedside? He said: “For six-and-a-half years I have been in this job and have seen some very vile, nasty and horrible things. Decomposed bodies, people that have been run over, things like that. I saw the purse, I did take it and I thought it was the way out. I have never done anything like this before and I’m sorry.” We should be sorry, too – sorry for him.
Other uncharacteristic behaviours include being horrible to dead people, partners, children. A lot of innocent people get caught up in the crash-and-burn. One way out for a business owner is to ignominiously sell up, which is why Funeral Service Partners temptingly target crash-and-burn undertakers: ‘A funeral director’s profession requires total commitment and over the years this can cause exhaustion and burnout. With FSP’s investment, you can retain your commitment to your company, but begin to breathe again too.’
British undertakers don’t talk about this much, not publicly anyway – nowhere googlable. No surprise there; they’re not a pen-to-paper species. But the American undertaker Caleb Wilde has talked about it quite a lot, bravely and from his own experience:
I take 40 mg of antidepressants each day. I’ve done so since my last dangerous bout with burnout some five years ago. Life loses its value. I lose empathy. And the boundaries that stand between me and self-harm become very thin … You think about leaving your wife because you see just how awful you’ve become and you don’t want that person to be near the ones you love.
Given what to many looks like the most unhealthy emotional diet in the labour market, dealing with death all day, it’s amazing to me (once an outsider, always an outsider) just how emotionally healthy most undertakers are. Sure, there are some who are protected by their lack of emotional intelligence, but the good ones, of whom there are far more than people think, are men and women of deep sensibility and an extraordinary ability to throw themselves fresh into the fray, new every morning. It’s astonishing and moving.
Which isn’t to say that there probably isn’t more they can and ought to do to promote healthymindedness. I wonder, for example, whether all this talk about service is such a good thing, as in: I didn’t choose the profession, the profession chose me. The highest and most fulfilling experience in life can be that feeling and recognition of following your calling … Funeral service is one of the few professions or vocations where doing your job equates to “dispensing mercy.” [Source]
Is that a bit overegged? Sanctimonious, even? As for selflessness, it can be taken to extremes. Too much of it, and you’re left without any self at all. Mightn’t a better relationship with the bereaved be defined as a more collaborative one – for the emotional benefit of both parties?
In the same way, I have to confess to wincing every time I hear an undertaker or arranger talking in that possessive way about ‘my families’.
Again, it’s an American who talks about this most articulately. This time, it’s deathbiz guru Alan Creedy:
Are you addicted to helping others or are your customer relationships creating unhealthy responses? Perhaps you’ve fallen victim to the Rescuer Syndrome. One of the common threads I am discovering as I get deeper into the study of culture within the funeral profession is the belief that one must be a “suffering servant” doing what we are told and working long hard hours for low pay. This belief often becomes a badge of honor for some. Funeral Directors are supposed to be caregivers. But too many take it too far. They hate confrontation, preferring encounters that result in gratitude if not downright worship. They begin to define themselves by their ability to generate effusive gratitude on the part of those they serve.
Whatever the truth of that, and you’ll probably say that most Brit undertakers take a more down to earth view of their work than this, there is clearly more that undertakers ought to be doing to look after themselves and each other when they encounter emotional bad weather.
UPDATE: 07-11-2013 @ 11.52. I have just received the following response from the NAFD:
“Funeral Directing is first and foremost a caring profession, with funeral directors and arrangers looking after the bereaved in often difficult and distressing circumstances. Like the emergency services and other caring professions, this means employees within the funeral service sector can sometimes suffer as a result of the stresses of caring for both the living and the dead.
“The NAFD has discussed the impact of compassion fatigue within the funeral profession and provided advice to members to make sure they take proactive steps to look after their employees’ emotional wellbeing – as part of their duty of care as employers. Individual employers within the profession offer differing levels of support, with some offering access to outsourced counselling support for their employees and others actively encouraging staff to share the details of particularly stressful or upsetting experiences so to encourage peer support – making it easier for staff, who may be feeling low, to speak up.
“The NAFD has also had discussions with a couple of organisations which provide counselling and psychotherapy support to discuss this issue and member firms are signposted to these organisations through the members section of the NAFD website.”