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  • Writer's pictureSusan Carr

National Grief Awareness Week

Death and grief can still be taboo subjects however opening up conversations around grief and loss is one of the aims of National Grief Awareness Week (2-8 December), an annual campaign created by The Good Grief Trust.

As a counsellor, death is a theme that comes up quite often - whether it is anxiety about a person’s own mortality or coming to terms with a bereavement. In his book “Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Dread of Death” the writer and existential psychotherapist Irvin Yalom notes the interdependence of life and death and that “learning to live well is learning to die well and that, conversely, learning to die well is learning to live well”.

These were some of the themes I discussed when I met with Sara Fixter of Full Circle Funeral Partners, starting with how she came to be a Funeral Director …

1. We’ve got a couple of things in common in that we have both previously worked in law, and you are currently training to be a psychotherapist. Can you tell me a little more about your change in career and also what led you to becoming a Funeral Director?

Working within the legal profession wasn’t right for me personally. I left a career in the law as I wanted a role that was more people focused, more geared towards helping people with their mental well-being. Of course, elements of working as a solicitor are people orientated but I wanted a role that required a high level of interaction, it’s that human connection and conversation that I really enjoy.

As you mention, I’m in the process of training to qualify as a psychotherapist and this is a process that’s been on-going for the last four years. It was my husband Jez who discovered Full Circle Funerals and started looking into becoming a Full Circle Funeral Director. As we started discussing the role it became apparent just how person orientated, how caring and supportive the role is; it just ticked so many of my boxes, that I wanted to become involved. Working as a funeral director and listening with empathy and compassion and working with a family to create a meaningful and personalised funeral has real parallels with the practice of therapy.

2. We’ve talked about how the one thing in life that is certain is death, yet it is still considered to be a taboo subject – why do you think that talking about death, dying and bereavement can be difficult and what can we do to normalise these conversations?

I think in today’s society we mostly deal with bereavement and conversations around dying in private. People find these conversations difficult because the thought of someone dying can be painful and worrying.

We believe that by normalising these conversations people will feel better equipped to support themselves and others. People tell us that simple, accessible information about funerals, funeral choices, and grief is helpful. We offer a number of our own resources and also signpost people to other information resources to help raise awareness of the choices available.

We offer free face-to-face training sessions on a number of different topics including “Wellness After Bereavement”, “How to support Children Following Bereavement” and “Bereavement at Work” (support for those who care for others in a professional setting and experience bereavement). I deliver these sessions personally and have found them to be highly interactive, a real sharing of stories and experiences in terms of how to help ourselves and each other following a bereavement.

We offer a free Funeral Wishes service - whereby people are able to talk different choices through with us and document their funeral plans. The process can be really empowering in two different ways – firstly for the person laying down their wishes, to plan and express themselves and to make the funeral arranging process easier for their families. And secondly the family members who arrange the funeral describe fulfilling the wishes as the last gift to the person who has died. It helps to ensure the funeral is meaningful and reflects what is important.

We also run a free webinar series that takes place monthly on zoom. These are regular educational events that are open to everyone, where we and guests share information that can be helpful to those that are needing to or are thinking about planning a funeral. Topics have included “Nutrition after Bereavement”, “A Practical and Legal Guide to Ashes Disputes” and “Nature Grief and Wellbeing.” They are informal in nature and open to all.

We also a have a book called “Funerals Your Way” – designed as an easy to read guide for anyone thinking about arranging a funeral either for themselves or someone else. The book provides suggestions and step-by-step guidance to help create a funeral which truly reflects the person who has died. It will help if someone wants to express their own wishes, or have a meaningful conversation with someone else or if they need to arrange a funeral.

These are just some of the ways we hope to normalise these conversations. The hope is that by having and hosting these conversations word will spread that conversations around death, dying and bereavement can be positive and empowering.

3. In your experience what do you think is the biggest misconception about grief?

I think the biggest misconception is that grief follows a set pattern, or moves through a series of set stages. We know from talking to the people we support and reading accounts of those who have been bereaved that this is not the case. Grief is deeply personal and unique and there is no set way to feel. Everybody experiences bereavement in a very personal way and as we are all different, we all have our own preferences as to the type of support that we find helpful. We believe good support for the bereaved involves being aware of and signposting people to the range of resources available. If people know what is available, they are more likely to find the support that is right for them.

4. What would you like people to know about planning a funeral?

We know from our own experience as funeral directors that being able to personalise a funeral creates an opportunity for people to find more meaning and feel more connected to each other and to the person who has died.

We feel it’s so important to offer a flexible, person-centred and personalised approach to funerals; that with the right support planning a funeral can be a positive and empowering experience. We believe that by offering the people we support a calm and welcoming space and offering our services in a calm and empathetic manner we will hopefully assist them in identifying what is helpful to them. We recognise the importance of post-funeral rituals and bereavement support. We believe that sharing gentle and honest information about funeral choices, grief and bereavement is really important to empower people to receive the support that they need. We share this on our social media and share resources originating from Full Circle Funerals, such as blogs, webinars and podcasts.

5. Are there any resources (e.g. books, podcasts etc) that you would recommend in relation to death and bereavement?

Grief is a truly personal experience so what will work for one person will not necessarily work for another. I believe that if people know about the range of resources available, they are more likely to find the format that works for them. People also tell us that what they find helpful changes over time, so knowing about a range of options becomes important so they can go to a variety of resources in the future.

We have a blog on our website: Books to Help a Grieving Child – Full Circle Funerals. The list presents 10 books that cover a variety of topics including missing someone, saying goodbye and managing difficult emotions. This list is not exhaustive, and there are many books for children on these topics that we haven’t listed that people may also find helpful.

I’m pleased to say there are a great deal of podcasts out there now dealing with the subject of grief and bereavement.

On our website we list a few podcasts for people to consider. People may find that some resonate more than others so I would suggest trying a few different ones before deciding which one they find most helpful:Podcasts.

We have our own podcast offering – the first is a funeral planning podcast, “How to arrange a funeral – actual advice from real people” - it consists of short 20 minute conversations with people who have experience of organising a funeral and want to pass on what they did and did not find helpful. For more information and how to listen, follow the link to our website: Full Circle Funeral Podcast - How to arrange a funeral - Full Circle Funerals

The second is “A Safe Place to Breathe – Conversations about Love, Life, Loss, and Grief” where we speak to individuals who have first-hand experience of bereavement including members of the public, professionals within mental health fields, clinical staff on cancer wards, death doulas, celebrants, and many others. Please follow the link for more information: Full Circle Grief Podcast - A Safe Place to Breathe - Full Circle Funerals.

6. What do you love most about your work?

I envisaged working as a funeral directors would be rewarding but I’ve been truly overwhelmed by just how rewarding and fulfilling it is. We hope to offer families the best level of support that we can. And when families tell us that we’ve made planning the funeral easy for them, that we have provided the right level of support and helped them to create a funeral that is meaningful to them, that means a huge amount to us and means that we are doing what we set out to achieve. Our job is a true privilege and every day is different because every family we support is unique. It’s that personalisation and personalised nature of our service and care that makes it so rewarding.

7. And what are some of the challenges?

I knew before we started that the emotional strength required for the role would be hard at times. We are supporting families during a period of bereavement and grief. We need to be professional in our handling of conversations, of carrying out wishes and respecting the feelings of the family we support. In doing that, you can’t help but be touched by the emotions and experiences of the families you support. We have to be mindful of how we handle this. We receive support from the Full Circle Funerals team and have a large and supportive family and social network. It helps, having both worked in challenging and demanding work environments where we’ve developed both personal insight and resilience. It’s important to us that we look after ourselves so we are able to offer the best support and care that we can.

8. How do you maintain a good work life balance and what do you do for self-care?

Both my husband and I make sure we section off time for our two young daughters so we can spend time as a family. Because we are married and work together, we have to ensure that we reserve certain times in the evening and at the weekend when we don’t talk about work.

I love to exercise, I find it so beneficial for my all round health, well-being and energy levels!

We try to get out in the fresh air as much as possible at lunch time and also at the weekend. I know how beneficial being in nature is for me and all the family. Getting outside can really lift your mood and give you that buzz.

9. What are your goals for the future?

To qualify as a psychotherapist whilst continuing to work as a funeral director supporting others to create meaningful and personalised funerals. Continuing to open up conversations around death, dying and bereavement to help others to become more comfortable with these topics and hopefully well equipped to support themselves and others.

10. Finally, what advice would you give to your younger self?

To stay true to yourself – take the time to examine what is really important to you and immerse yourself in this before deciding on a career path. Don’t forget to spend time in nature and be mindful and live in the moment, don’t rush from one thing to the next - take pleasure from the simple things in life!

Sara Fixter is a Funeral Director at Full Circle Funerals in Altrincham - a small, local and independent funeral service, committed to supporting the wellbeing of every bereaved individual. Funeral Directors Altrincham - Full Circle Funerals

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