Stress is inevitable. It’s been a common theme throughout the course of the pandemic and is certainly felt by those in the funeral and death care industry. Nancy Weil, a leading authority on the relationship between humor and grief, offers advice for funeral directors in her recent webinar with OpusXenta. Nancy is the Membership Director for the Order of the Golden Rule, an Association of Independent Funeral Homes, and is the author of “If Stress Doesn’t Kill You, Your Family Might.” Her monthly column has been featured in Funeral Home and Cemetery News for the past ten years. She has certifications as a Grief Management Specialist, Grief Services Provider, Funeral Celebrant, and Laughter Leader.
Positive and Negative Stress
Nancy points out that there are two types of stress: eustress, or positive stress, and distress, which is negative stress. Eustress is typically short-term and something that we know we can handle. A work deadline or an upcoming vacation could be forms of eustress. Distress is long-term stress that you can’t solve. It’s something that is out of your control, such as the loss of a loved one or the current pandemic. If you don’t face and cope with distress, it could lead to disease or illness.
While COVID-19 has obviously brought a lot of distress, Nancy points out that there has been some positive stress associated with the pandemic. Every plan that was made – family reunions, weddings, and even lunch dates – was canceled due to COVID-19. “The only thing we have certainty of is right now, this moment. And that is one of the best places we can be to avoid stress,” she says.
We look back to the past in regret of things we should have done differently. We look forward to the future in fear and anxiety of what might happen. But the only place for relief is right now in the moment, she says.
During the pandemic, we learned that future dates are an illusion. Nancy points out that those in the death care industry understand this all too well. We regularly watch individuals who’ve passed away and realize all those plans they’ve made have come to an abrupt stop. We live differently because of this realization, she says. We must live right now. We might not have a particular opportunity again, so we must be present in life.
Nancy teaches a stress tool that is three simple steps: You state it, rate it, and obliterate it.
- State it: Notice what is going on. Are you stressed? What is causing it?
- Rate it: Note the level of stress you’re feeling. Do I need to go to the emergency room, or is there something I can do here to fix this?
- Obliterate it: Use tools to eliminate the stress.
Nancy uses these steps and teaches them because they work. “Stress is killing us. It is underlying most of the diseases people have,” she says. “We need to make sure that we’re living in as stress-free of a state as we can.”
Funeral directors take on the stress that families feel during times of loss. They often have trouble dealing with the constant outpouring of compassion. They may be working long days during the pandemic and need help finding the time for self-care when dealing with compassion fatigue.
“Part of it ties into stoicism. We need to be stoic and get our jobs done,” says Nancy. While you can’t fall apart in front of a family, you still need to take the time to process your emotions. Don’t let your emotions get in the way of doing your job, but at the same time, don’t ever shut out your emotions entirely. Don’t swallow your tears to the point that you are feeling the effects of that stress. When you show your emotions in front of families, they’ll be touched by that humanity. “Tears are extremely healing. They are a stress reliever,” Nancy points out.
Chocolate Moments and Your Inner Child
Stress relief is about self-care. “Self-care is not selfish,” Nancy says. “We need to take care of ourselves before we can take care of others.” She refers to those times of self-care as chocolate moments. Maybe you take a walk or meet a friend for coffee. Maybe you stay in bed late and read a book you love. Or maybe you eat a piece of chocolate. Whatever nourishes you is a chocolate moment. She says it “allows me, without guilt… to take care of myself.” She adds that it’s important to have both planned and unplanned chocolate moments so that you can care not only for yourself but for others.
Everyone needs something different in order to have those little moments of self-care. To find out what could be a chocolate moment for you, you must be self-aware and practice mindfulness. Notice what you’re doing that makes you feel a little better. It could be playing with your pets or making a phone call to someone you haven’t talked to in a while. “Get in touch with that by just noticing something you’re doing that makes you feel good. And do more of it,” says Nancy.
When taking care of yourself, you need to be aware of your inner child. “Within us is still this child that this adult grew up around,” Nancy states. “And that child wants to play. That child doesn’t want to work all the time.” Nancy suggests scheduling an inner child outing every week to delight your inner child. “Delight your inner child and reduce stress,” she says.
How? Nancy suggests a joy box or basket that you keep near your work area. Fill it with toys and fun things that your inner child loves. You might have stuffed animals, a slinky, or a big red clown nose. “Do what helps you,” suggests Nancy, who lives what she teaches.
Nancy states that she’s able to sit with people in their grief because the other side of her life is filled with laughter. She uses her joy basket to help her keep her life in balance.
HPOA (Humor Plan of Action)
When we laugh, we reduce the cortisol or stress in our bodies. Laughter boosts our immune system, helps with the upper respiratory system, and reduces pain. Laughter truly is the best medicine. Because of its benefits, you should plan to laugh every day. Nancy recommends having an HPOA, or Humor Plan of Action, to help with stress related to working in the death care industry.
Humor is subjective, so you should plan to add into your day something that makes you laugh. It could be a TV show or YouTube video, hanging out with a group of friends, or chatting with your spouse. Every day, plan to enjoy whatever makes you laugh. “These are not about feeling better tomorrow. These are about feeling better now,” says Nancy.
Even just smiling can have increased health benefits and reduce stress. “People with authentic smiles tend to have greater health; deeper, better relationships; earn more money; greater job satisfaction, because they’re actually, naturally happy,” she says, adding that it’s important to include smiling more as part of your HPOA.
Humor for Funeral Directors
Nancy reminds us that while humor and laughter are important for your daily health, there is still a place for tears and grief. You have to know when it’s appropriate to use humor when working with families who’ve recently lost a loved one.
“Let the family be our guide,” says Nancy. Humor is a great coping tool, and some families readily move towards laughter as a way of dealing with the grief. They may remember the past and laugh about the good times. “We can meet them there, but it’s not our job to cheer them up,” Nancy says.
If the family is in a space of raw grief, then Nancy suggests stepping in that space with them. However, afterward, take a walk, get something to eat, and do whatever you need to do to step away from that sadness. Maintain the balance in your life between happiness and grief. “Working in this profession, we know the value of today,” says Nancy. “We know there is no promise of tomorrow. Today is what we have.”