PTSD: The Slow Leak in Funeral Service’ Tire

stressed-man-620jt081512As we enter our 3rd month following the Newtown disaster our nation has long since settled back into its routine fighting over symptoms and ignoring causes. I find myself reflecting on a hidden issue.  A secret only occasionally mentioned and then quickly dismissed.

No doubt those directly involved following this latest trauma are still affected (afflicted seems a better word).  The public would agree but in their minds they are thinking of the parents coworkers, friends and then first responders.  Nothing is likely to be said for the funeral directors who cared for the bodies. Not that it needs to be. Except…perhaps…by us.

Some thirty years ago I sat with a friend from Indiana still suffering from nightmares incurred from aiding on a D-Mort team cleaning up after a commercial airline crash.  Another friend still has flashbacks about having to remove the charred bodies of a family killed in a home fire while others refused to help.  Still another friend who suppressed his own needs while ministering to the needs of the surviving family of his two best friends murdered in their beds.  (Yes, I used that non-secular word “minister”.  I can really think of no better) Others who aided in the Columbine disaster and 9/11 who still carry emotional wounds. Our own “Walking Wounded.” I imagine that one cannot serve in this profession a lifetime without scars. But somehow they are to be borne secretly.

I don’t think that’s healthy. I have always had a deep respect for people like Alan Wolfelt and John Canine who devote their careers to helping the deeply grieved. Maybe this is something the Funeral Service Foundation should consider researching and NFDA should consider providing support resources for.  I don’t know.

Am I making a mountain out of a molehill?  What do you think?

Comments

  1. Hi Ed,
    I agree 100% with your thoughts. I have written a couple of articles in The Director and sent an idea about doing an issue regarding this topic. I also wanted to tie it in with substance abuse in the funeral profession which I believe plays a large role. I didn’t hear anything back as of yet. I realize that the issue of “Post Traumatic Stress” and substance abuse are considered negative issues in our profession. But, nonetheless, it does need to be discussed in some type of format and addressed. Post Traumatic Stress and Substance Abuse is a “Mammoth in the Room” of Funeral Service.

  2. Alan, I am not surprised that our colleagues who cared for these children and these families are traumatized. From our experience of signifcant, though lesser, tragedies in Denver, it is important to acknowledge and provide support for those who are afflicted (I like your word). We try to be conscious in such situations to divide the exposure so as to avoid overwhelming a few individuals with too much. I would recommend a combination of counseling and EMDR (www.emdr.com) to help these people cope. As we know, it is important for those afflicted to acknowledge and go toward the pain.

    • Alan Creedy says:

      John, you are one “who knows”. thank you for the links and the encouragement. The first step in any process is to acknowledge the problem. People don’t “self-identify for reasons I can’t relate to because I haven’t walked in those shoes. But several have mentioned substance abuse and I am aware of that as a problem in all of our society.

  3. Alan, It seems that the world is just becoming more difficult for everyone. It was just pointed out to me that 80% of those who complete seminary with a Masters or doctorate soon leave the ministry due to stress and increasingly difficult assignment of serving the public. Working in health care as I also do, I know the medical professsion also has a high atrophy rate…as well as a high rate of alcoholism and other addictions relating to dealing with continual difficult circumstances. We all chose to cope in different ways, but I agree that we need a professional support system (specific to death care) to deal with the likely “more” complex societal issues of the future.

  4. Their is no doubt that we in the biz need a little help. As the Beatles said what better place to get a little help than from your friends. Funeral directors should make a better effort to be sure to spend routine times with close friends. I have seen all too many funeral directors with many acqaintances and not enough close friends. The life style can make it hard to develop good supportive friends and that’s why we need to try harder. Join a club (not just for PR) Get a new hobbie. For me just playing horseshoes on Monday nights with my buds has helped derail many a stressful week. Be a good friend, its comes back ten fold!

  5. Alan Creedy says:

    To this day, some 25 yrs. later, I still can’t stand the smell of “blackened” or “charred” meats after, as a young funeral director in my 20’s, I handled the case of a teen that was burned, over a long period of time, in an auto accident.
    The smell immediately takes me back to how he looked and, how I had to tell his family that , yes, indeed, he was still alive while people tried several times to put out the fire.
    I was absolutely mortified as I learned that his parents were not told how he died. It was up to me to do so. All they knew was that he was died in an accident.
    To make this story even more heart breaking, his best friend was the 1st responder from the sheriff’s department. Imagine how terribly horrific it must have been for him to have his friend beg to be shot dead before the fire flared up again. And the first responder had to tell him that he couldn’t do that.
    Alan, you’re darn right, and I never thought of it, but we could certainly use some sort of avenue for expression.

    Anonymous
    reprinted with permission

  6. Bill Joyner, CFSP says:

    Alan,
    I certainly agree with you on funeral professionals getting support resources. Ours is a profession that is very demanding. Most funeral professionals are reluctant to share their feelings and experiences. We at The Academy of Professional Funeral Service Practice reached out to the Connecticut Funeral Directors Association and their President, Pasquale S. Folino, CFSP was so gracious in sharing the experiences of funeral professionals serving in Newtown. His article will appear in the upcoming Spring 2013 edition of our Compass magazine. I will forward you a copy.
    Bill Joyner, CFSP

  7. Mike Owens says:

    Alan;
    So very coincendental that this was your topic this week as I expressed my sentiment regarding our professional mental health and /or the lack thereof just this week in a blog on Embalmers Who Care. Some time back I attended a workship with Dr. Sandra Graves of American Grief Academy entitled “Making Difficult Funeral Arrangements.” It’s purpose was to teach skills in handling suicides, homicides and so many of the traumatic circumstances surrounding death that we encounter on a daily basis. However, Dr. Graves and Sherry Williams first started by teaching us some self-help skills including finding a mental “place” where I could find peace and solace. However, the most impactful moments came when we had to tell the group of our most difficult funeral arrangement we had to make. I told about Molly. Molly was the little 6 yr old dark curly haired sweetheart who was the daughter of a classmate and also a classmate of my son in kindergarten. When Christmas break came, everyone went home, Molly never came back because of an unknown birth defect that took her life. For the sake of time and space, I will just mention that was one of the largest and most emotional services we have ever handled. When I walked back in from the cemetery service for Molly, I turned around and made a removal for a 91 year old at the local nursing home. One of our major issues is that we put on our funeral director mask and go on to the next thing without processing what we just experienced. Where did we get this mindset that we don’t hurt and that what we get involved in on a daily basis doesn;t take an emotional toll. It had been 2 years from Molly’s death until I told her story to the group, needless to say I bawled like a baby. I cannot express to you how theraputic and cathartic this was. When I was president of IFDA and tried to get a program started for lack of a better name called Telecare, where any practitioner could feel free to call designated licensees outside of their competitive market and just simply “vent” about anything, It never got of the ground, few saw the need. My comic strip friend, Pogo the swamp muskrat said “We have met the enemy, and it r us!”
    Thanks for listening…
    Mike Owens

  8. I love that you wrote about this. I have experienced trauma as well as day-to-day grief working at a funeral home over the last decade. It’s an unspoken rule that funeral directors are supposed to be stoic, seemingly unharmed or unaffected by anything. I’ve struggled with not having anyone to talk to about this for two reasons: I don’t want to betray our clients’ privacy, and those who don’t work in this industry don’t have an understanding of the emotional toll it takes.

    I was able to cope this long because I adopted the “don’t think about it” mentality, which I realize now is an unhealthy way to deal with this.

    I am working on a wellness program for our funeral home now, to include regular therapy and “processing” sessions for our staff.

    Thanks so much for bringing this “hidden issue” to light- there should be no shame in acknowledging how difficult this line of work is for all of us. What we do is important and profound. In order to help our customers the most, we need to be emotionally healthy.

    • Alan Creedy says:

      While not everyone in any profession is noble, funeral service is a noble profession. It provides a needed service to society even if society doesn’t always appreciate it. I am glad I could encourage you and I hope to encourage others to begin networking on this topic. Talking releases. I think this explains why reunions are so important for combat veterans. No one can really understand the pain who hasn’t been there.

  9. As a counselor as well as an ex funeral director, and someone who trains people in all aspects of death and bereavement I think the problem is that we are expected to ‘cope’ after all we knew when we weare letting ourselves in for when we took on the role. People don’t have sympathy for how we feel, no matter how traumatic the death. Having dealt with suicides, death by murder, fire, road accidents, we and the family’s we help expect it of us. We are there to help not have emotions, hold it together not cry. As was mentioned one minute its a child the next a 90 year old. PTSD part of the job description… Maybe but we put on a fake face when dealing our families.

  10. I have been a licensed funeral director since 1999 started in 1994. I now have PTSD. I’m not saying every undertaker does? however I worked in a very violent city
    In California….

  11. Well I just wrote a long comment but I accidentally deleted it haha. I’ll make this short. I agree 100% with you. I’m 25 and I live in Nevada. My oldest sister has said she thinks I have some form of PTSD but I’ve tried to deny that because I feel that can only be for soldier or first responders, heroes. I used to work at a very busy funeral home and I’ve seen just about every type of death out there. Things never bothered me, until I left the business. We would alway say we had a switch we would turn off when we would arrive on a scene to turn off feelings. For a while it felt as if my switch was stuck off but now it has snapped back on and I feel it all. There are things I’ve seen I havnt told anyone. I can’t look at orange extension cord without thinking of the people I’ve picked up hanging from the ceiling with it. My fiancé says I’ve sat up in my sleep on several occasions searching for a deceased baby. Or one time she said I sat up sobbing in my sleep trying to finger print a baby that had been strangled. As an “undertaker” we aren’t supposed to show emotions. I remember recently seeing a jar of red sauce break on the floor and I was instantly brought back to a scene my partner and I went to where a young girl had been shot by her brother and my partner and I were slipping around in blood trying to gently place her in a body bag while the parents are hysterically sobbing. I guess some thing you don’t forget. At times I’ve felt disconnected from others because of the things I’ve seen. I’d look around at people happy and laughing after I had just pulled a charred body out of a house or shell of a car and just think, they have no idea what just happened. I don’t know if you’d say I have PTSD or not but I do believe it’s something that needs to be addressed. Thank you.

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