“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
The Professional Death System
In 1977, the late, great psychologist Robert Kastenbaum first introduced the concept of the “death system,” arguing that every society develops an “interpersonal, sociocultural, and symbolic network through which an individual’s relationship to mortality is mediated by his or her society.”
Each death system, he observed, is made up of specific places (such as hospitals and funeral homes); times (like Memorial Day in American culture, the Day of the Dead in Mexican culture, or the anniversary of a death); objects (such as traditional mourning clothes, cremains urns, and caskets); and symbols (including the language we use to talk about death).
Importantly, Kastenbaum identified people as a primary component of the death system, from those who are affected personally by the deaths of others to, more regularly, those of us whose professional lives revolve around death, dying, and bereavement.
Over the last two months of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been thinking increasingly of the professional death system. For the last fifteen years, my working life has revolved entirely around death, dying, and bereavement, both in my scholarly work and through my teaching at a public university. As a “death educator,” I am often asked to consult for organizations and groups who occupy other positions in the death system. However, I’ve observed that most of the time, most of us – whether we are health care staff, first responders, clergy, funeral directors, or educators – tend to live and work within the boundaries of our respective titles in this system.
Professional Collaboration in Pandemic
In ordinary times, professional separation within the death system makes some sense. All those who serve people who are dying or who are bereaved are equipped with different educational backgrounds and skill sets. We have chosen occupations that have varying expectations and limitations. However, I have learned over the last two months that we have far more to learn from one another – and far more potential to support one another – than we may have previously understood. And I have come to believe that each of us can best serve the individuals and families most affected by the losses of this pandemic by embracing professional collaboration over professional isolation.
None of us could have anticipated the sudden disorientation, collective fear, widespread contagion, and rising death tolls with which we now conduct our daily personal and public lives. In a piece published on the Remembering A Life Blog in March, “Loss in a Pandemic: Funeral Planning,” I wrote that “funeral directors are our partners in navigating the loss of a loved one in this pandemic and are similarly navigating ways to best serve you when you experience a loss.” I stand by my strong belief in funeral directors as partners for those who are bereaved, but all of the education, training, and years of practice could not have prepared anyone for the lived reality of serving grieving families within this pandemic.
“Grieving Alone & Together”
I was glad to have the opportunity to write “Grieving Alone & Together: Responding to the Loss of Your Loved One during the COVID-19 Pandemic” for the National Funeral Directors Association and the Funeral Service Foundation because I believe wholeheartedly that experts in bereavement must be supporting funeral directors as they support grieving families.
This 12-page booklet is a free resource for all professionals who work with grieving persons and for consumers. Within it, I offer information and guidance on:
- The nature of grief, including the significant ways in which grief responses are complicated by traumatic loss during this pandemic
- Ambiguous, non-death losses and how they impact and are impacted by grief experiences
- Risks of disenfranchised grief within a pandemic, both for those who are grieving the loss of a loved one who died of complications of COVID-19 and those who are bereaved through other means
- Children and grief, including communications strategies and opportunities to include them in memorialization during and after this crisis
- Coming to terms with a loss for those who are separated from a loved one at the time of their death
- Planning funeral and memorial services, now and in the future, with attention to legal restrictions, safety guidelines, and incorporation of technology
- Supporting one’s physical and emotional health while grieving
“Grieving Alone & Together” additionally includes a thoughtful and reflective foreword by noted author and grief educator, Alan D. Wolfelt, PhD, of whom I am appreciative for this contribution.
In writing this booklet and collaborating with NFDA and the Funeral Service Foundation, I am grateful to be of service to the funeral directors who are helping families tirelessly through this pandemic, often without the public recognition given to other members of the professional death system.
Accessing and Ordering the Booklet
The Funeral Service Foundation and NFDA, with the generous support of donors to the Funeral Service Foundation’s COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund, are demonstrating their deep commitment to helping those most affected by this pandemic in making this resource free and available through a variety of means:
- Funeral service professionals and others who serve grieving families can order free print copies (pay only shipping) from the Funeral Service Foundation's website.
- An e-book version is also available and can be embedded on a funeral home and organizational websites by using the link above.
- Consumers can read a digital version of the booklet or request a free print copy at www.rememberingalife.com/griefguide.
- The booklet will also be shared with consumers through Remembering A Life social media channels.
This pandemic will end, but our work in serving the bereaved will continue. The ways in which we respond to the grief of those who lose a loved one during this time will determine how we are trusted and valued in the future.
Thank you for serving those at their most difficult moments while working under extreme stress and in unpredictable circumstances. Your work is sacred, valued, and integral to our navigation of this crisis.
About the Author
Sara Murphy, PhD, CT, is a death educator, certified thanatologist (Association for Death Education and Counseling), and suicidologist. She is a faculty member at the University of Rhode Island and conducts workshops and seminars on death, dying, and bereavement nationwide for professional organizations, schools, and community groups. Dr. Murphy is the author of the NFDA booklet, “Grieving Alone & Together: Responding to the Loss of your Loved One during the COVID-19 Pandemic.”