The Coronavirus Impacts Mental Health of Last Responders and it is Time to “ACT.”
By Michael Schimmel, CEO of Sympathy Brands, Parent Company to Cemetery.com, eCondolence.com and shiva.com.
“The strongest people are those who win battles we know nothing about.”
The world of death care and end-of-life is essential. Although this is common knowledge in the Funeral Industry, this past year, the general public learned this as more than half a million people lost their lives to COVID-19. During the pandemic, many grieving families also learned that last responders are every bit the heroes that first responders are.
Those last responders—the hospice workers, funeral professionals, cemetery staff—are facing battles that may seem invisible to outsiders. Although grief and stress are part of the job on a good day, the pandemic has only amplified these emotions.
This quote, attributed to author and screenwriter Jonathan Harnisch, may sound like an adage on a bumper sticker, but can serve as a cautionary tale about mental health during, and after, the pandemic. And Harnisch should know—he has documented his own journey through mental illness in his books.
Mental health is much more than a buzzword. Now more than ever, people feel a bit tilted in many regards, leaving many of us with a feeling of unease, uncertainty and high levels of anxiety.
Funeral directors are humans too. Just as families are facing what we consider a “new grief” with its own challenges, death care professionals encounter an abundance of emotional hurdles as well, and must do so with professionalism and empathy.
For last responders, “new grief” is more than just late nights, never-ending weekends and crowded storage facilities.
It means absorbing the weight of increasing numbers of deaths due to the coronavirus. It means finding new ways to serve families—essentially upsetting the apple cart of an entire industry. It means learning and implementing new technologies. It means carrying the load of loss home to their own families. It means hiding behind masks, both visible and invisible.
Just about every media outlet and news service over the past year has chronicled the impact and weight of the pandemic, often from a financial or economic standpoint. But the pandemic’s impact on mental health and its toll is noticeably undercovered or absent.
If it is true that the strongest people are those who win battles we know nothing about, what can we as funeral professionals do to take better care of ourselves? It starts with understanding that this “new grief” is unlike anything we have seen in our lifetime, and the importance of self-care.
In short, it is time to ACT:
Acknowledge what new grief is and how it has impacted both your professional and personal lives. These days, those lives may be seamlessly intertwined. Realize that the grief experienced over the past year is notably different—and in some cases, more potent—than what any of us are used to. Left untreated, new grief can lead to paralyzing depression, substance abuse, decline in family relationships or worse.
Consider ways to counteract the grief. Delegate tasks, if possible. Step away, if only for brief moments, to refresh. Call a friend or family member to vent and tell them you love them. Practice self-care in whatever form makes sense to you.
Try to envision life when the world starts turning again. Create a memory board or journal of things you look forward to doing again. Revisit the promises you have made to your family and your business that had to be shelved during the pandemic.
Against the backdrop of the pandemic, first responders received the well deserved recognition and praise as superheroes by the media and public for serving on the front lines and conducting heroic and heart wrenching work to save so many lives. Last responders are undeniably the silent superheroes, performing essential services and providing families with compassionate care during a time of loss and grief. As funeral professionals, we grieve along with each family we serve. It is important to remember to take care of oneself, and most notably, our own mental health.
Michael Schimmel is founder and CEO of Sympathy Brands, parent company to eCondolence.com, shiva.com and Cemetery.com that connects families and funeral homes through the stages of planning, service, and aftercare with its consumer brands, proprietary Viewneral® technology, and nationwide concierge services. The companies provide a modern approach to end-of-life matters.