Austin's Blog

 

What the month of May has taught us about mental health and talking about death

May 22nd, 2020    Author:

May is the month of both Dying Matters Awareness Week and Mental Health Awareness Week. While we acknowledge these important events every year, this year, of course, is quite different.

Are we closer to talking about death now that we are living through a global pandemic and faced with devastating figures every day? Are we more aware of our mental health now that we are separated from our friends and family? From the way we feel every day to drastic changes such as not being able to attend funerals and not scattering ashes once in a while, how is this all affecting us both now and in the months and years to come?

Awareness is key to helping ourselves and others, so let’s take a look at what both the Dying Matters and Mental Health Awareness campaigns can teach us.

 

Mental Health Awareness – #KindnessMatters

This year’s awareness week has been all about kindness. Here at Austin’s we are very community-focussed and have tried to do as much as we can to support others over recent weeks, including:

  • Supporting ‘The Stevenage Community Food Bank’ by collecting donations of non-perishable food items at our head office for those struggling to feed themselves and their families during the pandemic.
  • Delivering 1,500 face shields to funeral service colleagues throughout the UK thanks to Relton Herron of Avacare in Stevenage.
  • Helping the ‘Stevenage Helps’ appeal to attract donations of over £30,000.

 

How can we all be kinder?

According to YouGov research carried out for ITV, people have been more concerned about their mental health since lockdown began, but 37% have got back in touch with old friends or family and 60% say they’re talking more often to family and friends on the phone than before the lockdown.

These are both really positive things to happen – and many acts of kindness have come out of lockdown too. You only have to take a brief look at social media to see lots of feel-good stories; from people delivering home-cooked meals to neighbours, to Colonel Tom raising millions for the NHS!

Research on the Mental Health Awareness Week website says that “kindness can  help reduce stress and improve our emotional wellbeing.” It really does have genuine health benefits. They also say “kindness is choosing to do something that helps others or yourself, motivated by genuine warm feelings.”

Here are some of our favourite ideas on how to show kindness. You can get more inspiration at mentalhealth.org.uk…

  • Volunteer for a local community organisation - charities are crying out for a helping hand right now, from support with online fundraisers to collecting donations from the local community
  • Check in safely with a neighbour who is isolated or shielding
  • See if there’s anything you can do to support your children’s school or nursery – offer to read stories by video, for example
  • Involve your friends and neighbours in community projects - if you’ve got to know your neighbours better during the Thursday night ‘clap for carers’ then why not get together and make a difference where you live?
  • Post a card or letter to someone you are out of touch with  – a handwritten note can make someone’s day
  • Smile and say hello to people you may pass every day, but have never spoken to – social distancing doesn’t mean we can’t still interact with people (at a safe distance!)

 Dying Matters – #DyingtobeHeard

How can we talk about death more openly, but also make sure we are listening to others? This year’s Dying Matters Awareness Week theme was ‘Dying To Be Heard’. In other words, how many people want to talk about death, but feel they have no one to talk to about it?

Hospice UK recently released new research findings, showing that 72% of those bereaved in the last five years would rather friends and colleagues said the wrong thing than nothing at all, and 62% said that one of the top three most useful things someone could do was to just sit and listen to them.

The fact that we are connecting with people more during lockdown is a good start – but active listening is key. It’s important to ask the other person, ‘what’s important to you?’

 

How can we become better listeners?

Here are some tips from dyingmatters.org on how to be a good listener :

  • Let them know you want to listen – there will probably be a lot going on in the mind of the person speaking, let them know it’s ok to think things through and take their time.
  • Don’t try to be the expert – you don’t need to have answers to their questions – in fact, they’ll probably prefer it if you don’t! Nine times out of 10 they just want to unload their thoughts.
  • Don’t try and steer the conversation – let them work through things in their own way.
  • Do pay attention – it’s really obvious, and off-putting, when the person you are confiding in has their mind elsewhere.
  • Practise your own self care – some of what they say might be upsetting for you to hear. Make sure you have some means to process everything afterwards and have someone to listen to you too.

Coronavirus: Losing a loved one in difficult times

April 29th, 2020    Author:

Losing someone at any time is hard but, in our current situation, attending funerals and coping with grief have become even harder. Life in lockdown is presenting so many challenges, but whether we are recently bereaved and trying to cope in isolation or dealing with the death of a loved one at this time, there are things we can do to help ourselves and those close to us.

Coronavirus has changed funerals beyond recognition. Where we would usually invite friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances to gather together to celebrate the life of a friend or family member, government guidelines now outline some very strict rules:

  • Only a very limited number of mourners are able to attend – close family only
  • Mourners must stay six feet apart at all times, if they are not from the same household
  • No one showing Coronavirus symptoms can attend

While these restrictions can cause anxiety for the recently bereaved, here at Austin’s all funeral arrangements are continuing to be made by telephone and we can assure you of our ongoing support and compassion.

 

A personal farewell

While we can’t make things completely ‘normal’ right now, we’re dedicated to giving your loved ones the funerals they deserve and you the level of support we would at any other time. One of our customers recently sent us this message: “It was different, special and intimate with just the Revd and myself. Nevertheless, it was a special service and I was able to say a very personal farewell, which I am certain would not have been possible with a large congregation. I will treasure this always.”

 

Support when you need it

Cruse Bereavement Care, our charity of the year, says: “The current restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic mean many people are unable to attend funerals, cremations and wakes. This is a very distressing reality for thousands of people at this time. Each month in the UK there are around 50,000 deaths, so many people, maybe like yourself, are unable to say goodbye in the way they expected.”

Cruse have trained experts ready to help you; whether you need support coping with grief during isolation or need advice in another area.

How to make things easier

It’s so hard seeing families not being able to give each other a hug in times of sadness, and for others having to stay away completely. But amongst all the uncertainty, there are things we can do to make life a little easier.

You can:

  • Livestream the ceremony – to allow more friends and family to pay their respects.  We offer this service and can help people feel part of the funeral if they cannot attend in person.
  • Record a message to be played out at the funeral – for those close to the deceased who are unable to attend. Just as you would have a poem or something similar read during the service, this can be pre-recorded by a loved one for that extra personal touch.
  • Create your own memorial at home – both while the funeral is going on and for as long as you would like to in the days following the death. Light a candle next to a photograph of them to bring you closer together, or why not play their favourite music?
  • “Keep talking” – say Cruse Bereavement Care. This is more important than ever during isolation. Utilise technology and connect with friends and family, multiple times a day if you want to. If you have elderly relatives, you could have a rota with family and friends to make sure someone is in contact with them every day.
  • Focus on the life of your loved one – rather than your loss. These are very different times and when we can’t physically be together, or have the funeral services we might have imagined, what we can do is put our energy into focusing on the life of our loved one and the kind of person they were.
  • Plan a memorial event for the future – where more people can join you to celebrate your loved one’s life, share stories and reflect.

Technology has been a lifeline to so many during this pandemic to maintain connections with loved ones, but it is also a crucial link to the numerous support networks for those experiencing loss or grief.

Our phone lines are open as usual if you need any help around funeral planning. You may also find this great resource from Cruse of interest: https://www.cruse.org.uk/get-help/coronavirus-dealing-bereavement-and-grief

 And don’t forget we all still have the beautiful world we are in. Our memorial gardens at Harwood Park Crematorium are still open for families to come and reflect upon their loved ones. We look forward to welcoming you.

 

Austin’s Charitable Fund Update

March 24th, 2020    Author:

As we reflect on another year of Austin’s Charitable Fund we are delighted to share the news of our 2019 success and who we will be supporting throughout 2020.

As a bit of background, our charitable fund was set up in 2002 and has since raised over £130,000 for community-based and local charities including the Samaritans, Stevenage Haven, Cancer Hair Care and Tracks Autism. We’re very grateful to everyone who has helped to raise money for all of our charities.

 

Over £5,000 raised for the Butterfly Volunteers

Back in early March we were delighted to make a donation of £5,169 to the Butterfly Volunteers at the Lister Hospital, following a series of events throughout the year.  Take a look at this video that RewindMedia kindly made explaining what the volunteers do https://player.vimeo.com/video/362540032 

These wonderful, specially-trained volunteers provide companionship for end-of-life patients at the hospital and need to raise £25,000 a year to continue their work. We’d like to thank each and every one of you who helped us in raising a fifth of their annual fundraising target, hopefully taking the pressure off just a little bit!

Our Managing Director Claire Austin visited the Lister to hand over the cheque to Abdellah El Alami, General Manager for Cancer Services at East and North Hertfordshire NHS Trust, and Butterfly Volunteer Service Coordinator Angela Fenn.

Claire Austin presenting cheque to Butterfly Volunteers

 

Introducing Cruse Bereavement Care – our 2020 charity of the year

We’re pleased to announce our 2020 charity of the year is Cruse Bereavement Care Hertfordshire. If you’ve recently visited one of our branches you may have already noticed the Cruse charity boxes inside.

Cruse Bereavement Care exists to promote the well-being of bereaved people and to enable anyone suffering bereavement caused by death to understand their grief and cope with their loss.

Cruse was established as a charity in 1959 and quickly grew across the country with local branches being set up. Each and every Cruse volunteer goes through a nationally accredited training programme in order to ensure that they practise to a consistently high standard and ensure continuous delivery of service.

Cruse Hertfordshire is run as a free service from their office in Hatfield with around 80 volunteers operating the helpline and visiting clients in their own home on a one-to-one basis.

Although volunteers provide their services free of charge, the charity needs to raise funds to pay for administrative and office costs, the telephone helpline and volunteer expenses.

Of course, these are very challenging times during the current pandemic and Cruse are currently having to transfer all of their services over to telephone support.  Although they have many trained volunteers who are able to provide this service, the charity says that they will need to cover the extra costs arising from the telephone sessions.

Once their service resumes and they are able to reinstate training, the team at Cruse would like to provide their volunteers with a number of extra training opportunities, and we very much look forward to being able to support them in doing just this.

Chair, Sue Friend, said: “Cruse Bereavement Care Hertfordshire are delighted to be chosen as Charity of the Year by Austin’s. Their recognition of the help our dedicated volunteers give to bereaved people means a great deal to our organisation.”

To find out more about the Cruse Bereavement Care Hertfordshire, visit: www.cruse-hertfordshire.org.uk/contact

 In the meantime, we’ll be posting updates about the work they do throughout the year on our website and social media channels.

 

Claire’s Arctic Survival Challenge

February 24th, 2020    Author:

During the last week of January, our MD Claire was a long way from Hertfordshire – she was 150km south of the Arctic Circle in Ostersund, Sweden. Not content with the typical wet British winter, Claire was getting ready to take on an Arctic Survival Challenge, heading off into the wilderness to live off the grid, test her survival instinct and learn all about life in this challenging environment.

‘But why’, we hear you ask?! Well, despite Sweden being a very beautiful country with fantastic stargazing opportunities and miles of open space, a few miles closer to home is an amazing charity called Home-Start Hertfordshire.

All for a good cause

They help families in difficulty by putting volunteers into homes for a few hours a week to act as mentors, helping to prevent issues from becoming bigger problems. Claire’s mission was to raise much-needed funds for Home-Start Hertfordshire, setting herself a target of £5,000 to donate to the charity. Thanks to the generous support of friends, family, colleagues and total strangers, she has, to date, raised a whopping £4,665.00, just shy of her target.

One thing’s for sure, Claire never shies away from a challenge. She completed a trek in India back in 2010 and Vietnam in 2015, raising funds for local causes on both occasions and with the same company as her Arctic Challenge, ‘Different Travel’. She’s very grateful to her team of colleagues who continue to “keep the Austin’s ship on course” in her absence, enabling her to embark on these adventures and help so many in the process. In fact, Home-Start Stevenage (as it was called) was Austin’s first ever Charity of the Year back in 2002.

Ready for the off

With an emergency whistle, camping mat, toilet tissue and her “very expensive but very worthwhile” duck-down jacket all safely packed, Claire flew out to Sweden ready for her challenge to start. She met with her fellow adventurers on arrival and had a few days adjusting to life in this environment, from learning how to get around on cross-country skis, to finding food, lighting fires and building shelters.

“There was a real mix of ages,” says Claire, “from 23-67. It was a test of personality because you quickly worked out who you would work well with and who you probably wouldn’t!”

Given the harsh environment, with temperatures dipping to -11 degrees, teamwork was going to be key once the three day survival challenge got underway.

Settling in

“We spent the first few days in a log cabin,” says Claire. “There was no electricity so everything was by torch or candlelight and we spent our time lighting fires and keeping warm!”

“I hadn’t realised how inhibiting the darkness would be,” she says. “It was only light between 9.30am and 3.30pm everyday. Although the skies at night were just spectacular.”

Let the challenge commence

The ‘luxuries’ of the log cabin were soon a distant memory as the team set out into the wilderness with their bare essentials, camping mats and sleeping bags, which would keep them warm down to around -50 degrees!

Day 1

The first night was spent in a traditional Scandi tent with a log burner in the middle. “We had to keep the log burner going, so took it in turns to get up through the night. We also had to melt the snow for water,” explains Claire.

“It was cold that night but I did sleep. I’m lucky that I can sleep anywhere!” And it was a good job Claire did sleep, as the team had spent some of the day starting construction on the ‘quinzee’, or snow hole, that would be the final night’s accommodation.

“We had to start building it two days before to allow the snow structure to freeze solid,” she explains.

Day 2

The second night’s accommodation was a little more rustic than the tent – and took the whole day to build. It was an A-frame shelter made out of the surrounding trees, complete with a trench in the middle for a fire.

“We spent the day collecting, sawing and chopping wood. We had an open fire and a window to the stars!

“This was my best night’s sleep – I got 10 hours and had to be woken up! We didn’t have to keep the fire going that night so we all got a good rest.”

By now, all that fresh air and hard work was starting to take its toll. Claire and the team were living on sachets of food that they just added hot water to. Each one provided around 600-700 calories per person. “They weren’t too bad!” says Claire, “we had all sorts including pasta dishes!”

Day 3

As Friday night came around the snow hole was ready for occupation.

The team had been tunnelling the hole with spades and ice axes to carve a domed ceiling. They then made a couple of entrances and put a ski pole up into the roof for ventilation.

Once inside they had to light a candle to ensure there was enough oxygen present for all eight of them sleeping inside. Of course this meant it was back to ‘candle watch’ with Claire on the 4.30am shift!

Homeward bound

On Saturday morning the team returned to the log cabin where the sauna, hot tub and a proper meal were ready to greet them. And by Monday morning Claire was back in the Austin’s office!

If you’d like to make a donation to Home-Start Hertfordshire you can still do so via Claire’s Virgin Money Giving page at https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/ClaireAustinHope

Thank you so much to everyone who has already donated and offered Claire so many words of support.