Austin's Blog

 

Looking Back on 2020

December 22nd, 2020    Author:

As 2020 draws to a close, it’s a good time to sit and reflect on everything that has happened. No one could have predicted how this year would play out. No one could have been prepared for the loss, the heartache, the grief.

Here at Austin’s we have done our utmost to assure you of our continued support and compassion throughout this pandemic, despite the ever changing rules and restrictions. We’ve been caring for bereaved Hertfordshire families for over 300 years; here’s our story of 2020…

We started the year on a high, reporting on Claire’s epic arctic survival challenge in aid of Home-Start Hertfordshire who help support struggling families in our community. Thanks to everyone who supported her, Claire raised a brilliant £5,000 after a week of -10 degree temperatures 150km south of the Arctic Circle in Sweden!

Back at home, the team were busy taking in people’s Christmas trees at Harwood Park to recycle into new coffins.

It was at this time that we also introduced Cruse Bereavement Care as our 2020 charity of the year. Cruse exists to enable anyone suffering bereavement caused by death to understand their grief and cope with their loss. Little did we know back then just how many people would need additional support this year in these most challenging of circumstances.

Then, in March, as the cherry blossom was in full bloom and looking beautiful at Harwood Park, the UK went into its first lockdown.

It was a difficult time for everyone. We stayed open with all funeral arrangements being made over the phone to begin with, as we asked people not to come into branch for the time being. Only close family members were allowed to attend funerals, hugs were no longer safe or allowed, and mourners had to stay six feet away from each other. Coronavirus had changed funerals beyond recognition, but we supported everyone as much as possible and shared information on how to grieve for a loved one when you can’t say goodbye in the ‘normal’ way.

Despite difficult times, we received some lovely feedback from people. One lady talked of her late husband’s funeral in April: “It was different, special and intimate with just the Reverend 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.”

Behind the scenes we were also helping to move PPE supplies to colleagues around the country and supporting the Hertfordshire Coronavirus Disaster Relief Fund, which had already raised over £20,000 by early April.

By the end of the month, Stevenage Community Trust’s ‘Stevenage Helps’ appeal had attracted donations of £26,966; £10,000 of which was specifically to support the over 60s. It had also approved 46 grants totalling £14,870 for local charities, voluntary organisations and directly to families in crisis, helping many hundreds of local people directly affected by the COVID-19 crisis.

In May it was more important than ever for us to help promote Dying Matters Awareness Week and Mental Health Awareness Week. Thankfully by June, the number of mourners allowed to attend a funeral were slowly increased and by mid-summer this number hit 30, where it has since remained.

Acutely aware of the negative impact of these restricted numbers, we started to offer a streaming service at Harwood Park where families can have a loved one’s funeral service streamed to their wider family and friends, or those unable to travel. Harwood Park itself has also stayed open throughout for individuals to visit for quiet reflection.

Another family who organised a funeral with us in July said: “Given the restrictions and life-changing circumstances we find ourselves in you all went the ‘extra mile’ and the family can’t thank you enough for leading us through all the decisions and practicalities.”

From early August our branches and Chapels of Rest reopened via appointment only. Whilst our staff offered a heartfelt service over the phone in earlier months, we know some people much prefer to talk through arrangements for funerals in person, so it was good to be able to reopen with all Covid secure measures in place.

When the second lockdown hit in November, funerals were not hugely affected. A lady who’s mother passed away in late October just before lockdown said: “Though there was a lot to deal with before the funeral could go ahead at such a difficult time. Austin’s staff in all areas of the process were very professional and respectful at all times and nothing was too much trouble… We have used Austin’s before for family funerals, but during this difficult year, the staff have all gone above and beyond what was required of them, which made the situation for us a lot easier.”

Now, as we near the end of the year, we’re pleased to say our new Funeral Arrangement office in Hoddesdon High Street will be opening in January and are delighted to confirm that we have now taken ownership of 74A High Street, Stevenage. Over the coming months, we will be working to transform this building into an exceptional Bereavement Centre for Stevenage and the surrounding communities.

We’re sure you’ll agree that 2020 has reminded us of the value of community, love and support – as well as what we can achieve when we all pull together. Merry Christmas to you all and we wish you the very best for 2021.

Funeral customs from around the world

October 20th, 2020    Author:

The way we view death is often influenced by the society and culture in which we are brought up. Here in the UK, death remains quite a taboo subject in many communities, with fairly traditional customs surrounding it. We’ve talked about this taboo lots of times on our blog, as well as how to tackle it through various initiatives to get people talking and thinking about death. Not as something to fear, but as a natural part of life.

We’ve also talked about how funerals don’t have to follow the usual ‘format’ if you don’t want them to; that they can be personalised and include contemporary elements alongside the more traditional. Many of the traditions and customs that are still alive today date back to the Victorian era; a time when society followed strict ways as to how to mourn someone. They’ve shaped how many of us picture a traditional church funeral today: a somber affair; everyone dressed in black; a slow procession behind the hearse; and a wake following the burial or cremation.

In cultures where death is seen very much as a natural part of life, or a continuation into the afterlife, there tends to be a more celebratory feel. Does this perhaps make it easier to accept, and maybe even not so painful, for those left behind? Is the fact that we are so ‘shielded’ from death partly to blame for the taboo around it?

Take the Mexican Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos, as an example. Festivities take place over two days in a literal explosion of colour! It is a celebration of the life of deceased family members and a way to show their love and respect for them. All over the country there are parades and parties, costumes and face painting, as well as singing, dancing and offerings made to deceased loved ones.

Day of the Dead originated several thousand years ago, initiated by people who considered mourning the dead disrespectful. It showed that the dead were still part of the community, kept alive in memory and spirit and temporarily returning to Earth during the festival.

Here are some more stories from around the world that show how different cultures view death and how they approach funerals.

 

Indonesia

In Tana Toraja in eastern Indonesia, the deceased person’s body is kept in the family home. They are laid out in special rooms where they are seen as simply ‘asleep’. They are cared for and taken out, remaining part of family life, until the family has saved up enough money for a big, lavish funeral. These funerals will involve the whole community and are a real celebration of life, during which sacrificial water buffalo will carry the deceased’s soul to the afterlife.

Ghana

In Ghana, people often work on their own coffins, or have them made, before they pass away. They aspire to be buried in coffins that represent something special in their life – a hobby, their work or something symbolic to them. If you’re a fan of Karl Pilkington, you’ll remember him trying out a giant Twix as a coffin! There are also fish, cars, cameras – anything and everything!

 Madagascar

Once every five or seven years, the Malagasy people go to their family ancestral crypt where the bodies of their loved ones lie wrapped in cloth. They exhume the bodies and spray them with wine or perfume. It’s a lively event with music and dancing, where they talk to the deceased, tell them their news or ask for their blessings. The ritual is called ‘famadihana’ or ‘the turning of the bones’ and keeps them connected to their loved ones.

Mongolia and Tibet

Many Vajrayana Buddhists in Mongolia and Tibet believe that the soul moves out of the body after death, leaving the body as an empty vessel that is no longer needed. The body is therefore placed on a mountaintop and exposed to the elements and wildlife, including vultures, so that it can be returned to Earth. This practice has been around for thousands of years and is still widely done.

Louisiana, USA

In New Orleans, Louisiana, you’ll find the jazz-tinged funeral procession. Mourners are led by a marching jazz band. The music starts quite sorrowful and slow and then moves upbeat after the body is buried and the celebration of life begins.

Customs and traditions aside, wherever you’re from and whatever your beliefs, you can create the funeral you want. Whether that’s to have your coffin ride alongside a Harley Davison or have everyone wear something yellow! Talking and being open about death and funerals makes it easier for everyone when the time comes. 

Read the blog about personalising your funeral HERE

Overcoming your fear of funerals

September 22nd, 2020    Author:

If you’ve ever felt anxious at a funeral, you’re not alone. There are many different reasons why people might feel stressed or nervous in the lead up to the funeral of a loved one, friend or acquaintance.

Necrophobia is a specific phobia of death, or things associated with it, such as funerals, coffins and graveyards. Most of the time, however, our worries and nerves are linked to other things such as social anxiety or difficulty expressing emotion. It’s important to remember that anxiety is among the many emotional and physical symptoms of grief, and nothing to be ashamed of.


Why do I feel anxious about funerals? 

Any one of the below reasons could apply to you. By understanding what it is that is making you feel anxious, you can find ways to help yourself feel better.

The feeling of sadness: Attending a funeral is like facing your grief head-on. Whether it takes place days or weeks after the person has passed away, it is always on your mind as you move through the early stages of the grieving process. You may feel anxious about being surrounded by sadness and mourning on the day and worry how you’ll cope. Or you may be concerned about feeling awkward around other people’s sadness and not knowing how to react to them.

Fear of death: You may be worried about specific elements of the funeral, such as an open coffin (not particularly common in the UK) or the coffin being lowered into the ground or taken to the crematorium.

Public speaking: If you have been asked to do a reading at a funeral, or are putting pressure on yourself to read the eulogy, then your stress levels might be quite high. Funerals can (in normal times) have hundreds of mourners, so it’s no mean feat if you’re not a confident speaker.

Social anxieties: They say some families only meet up for weddings and funerals, so it’s possible people you haven’t seen for quite some years will be at the funeral. Knowing how to approach them, what to say and how to keep the conversation going can all be reasonable fears after time apart.

Fear of regret: Of course there’s also the worry that we avoid things to reduce anxiety on the day and then regret it later. Many people choose not to speak at a loved one’s funeral and then wish they had a few months down the line. Try not to be hard on yourself and never feel that you are letting anyone down.

Saying goodbye (again): If someone’s death has been quite long due to illness, or you’ve had to wait a long time for the funeral, it can feel like you’re saying goodbye all over again. Attending the funeral can feel like digging up lots of emotion for a second time.

Ways to cope with funeral anxiety

If any of the above sound familiar to you then there are things you can do to help combat the anxiety.

First off it may help to remember that everyone at the funeral is in the same boat, and many will probably have similar emotions and concerns. This also means that they’re going to be preoccupied with their own grief and not, as your anxieties may lead you to believe, focused on others’ and how they’re coping with the day.

Here are some simple steps to stop your anxiety taking over:

  1. Find someone to support you – Having a shoulder to cry on really does do the world of good. Try and sit with someone who you can share your feelings with and let them help support you through the day.
  2. Don’t pile the pressure on – Even if you have a role on the day, such as reading the eulogy or a pallbearer, remember that it’s OK not to be OK. Everyone will completely understand if you have a few tears, or need to pause for a bit to collect your thoughts.
  3. Break the day down in your mind – If you’re struggling to see through all the ‘brain fog’ then think through what the day might look like in your head and see yourself moving through each of the parts. If you notice something feels particularly uncomfortable then pause for a bit until you feel calmer about the situation. This will help to have a clearer mind and make your anxieties feel more manageable.
  4. Look after yourself – Practice mindfulness techniques to help you soothe your thoughts and breathing. Run a hot bath or light a candle and try and relieve the stress and tension you have been feeling.
  5. Do what works for you – There’s no ‘one size fits all’ here. Do what you need to do to understand and accept your feelings and find coping strategies that work for you.

You needn’t let nerves and fear stop you from paying your respects or saying goodbye to someone who’s played an important part in your life. Open up to people, talk about your anxiety and let them help you find ways to cope.

Coping with grief around anniversaries

July 28th, 2020    Author:

While there are certain recognised stages of grief, there is no right or wrong way to grieve the loss of a loved one; everyone is different. There are lots of resources online for bereavement support, which some of us may reach for soon after losing a loved one. However, we can of course experience feelings of loss many months down the line – and for years to come. Grief never really leaves us, but we find ways of accepting and coping.

Feelings of grief can be triggered by events and anniversaries, such as Christmas, birthdays and wedding anniversaries, but also by things we might not so readily expect – a piece of music being played, a TV programme or even a particular type of food. We can see anniversaries and events coming, which means we can prepare ourselves for how we might feel. The smaller triggers tend to come over us when we least suspect it.

 

Triggers for grief

Last month the country celebrated Father’s Day. It’s events like this that can cause both dread and pain for those who have lost a loved one. For weeks before they might avoid card shops, switch off adverts on TV and spam the ill-timed marketing emails. These are all things that can help them cope.

There are also plenty of positive actions we can take in this situation. You might like to:

  • Light a candle in memory of your loved one
  • Visit their grave or memorial place and lay some flowers
  • Spend the day going through old photos or videos and sharing memories with other members of your family
  • Continue to write them a card telling them how you’re feeling
  • Do something for the day that takes our mind off of it entirely

Other days like this are, of course, Mother’s Day and Christmas. At Christmas time you might find yourself thinking about what presents he/she would like, picturing where they would sit around the table, or what special role they’d have on the day and who is doing that now.

Birthdays and wedding anniversaries aren’t as commercialised, but friends and family may find it difficult to know how to react around you or how best to help, which can also trigger different emotions.

And then of course, there is the anniversary of their death to cope with. Here you might find yourself reflecting on what happened, how and why.

 

Reactions to reawakened grief

The reactions we can feel on anniversaries can feel very similar to when we first lose our loved one – whether that was months or years ago. They include;

  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Disbelief
  • Guilt
  • Loneliness
  • Pain
  • Sadness
  • Tears
  • Trouble sleeping

Let’s take guilt as an example. Coco Chanel once said: “Guilt is perhaps the most painful companion of death”.

Guilt is something that can be suppressed around the time of a loved one’s death, as it can be a very painful emotion. Later down the line, anniversaries can throw up feelings of guilt about things that were said, guilt that life’s events are continuing without the deceased, or guilt that the bereaved haven’t thought about the deceased for a while.

It’s important to talk to someone about guilt. Talking really helps us to address our feelings and get them out in the open so that we can start to heal.

 

Moving on

Gradually, these anniversaries and events can become happier times showered in wonderful memories. Here are five ways to cope with your grief around these times and start to turn them into something more positive.

  • Accept how you feel: It’s normal for anniversaries to throw up lots of old emotions. Accepting this and knowing your triggers can help you to stay in control, lessening any anxiety and stress, and enable you to make sense of them and let them help with the healing process.
  • Plan something: If you’ve got a birthday anniversary coming up, for example, why not organise something nice to do with friends or family so you won’t feel alone?
  • Create a memory: You could mark an anniversary by donating to charity or planting a new rose in your garden. It can help to do something physical to mark the occasion – perhaps something that you can repeat each year?
  • Keep talking: Despite things getting much better in recent years, we know death and grief are sometimes still thought of as taboo subjects, which is why it’s even more important to draw upon your support network. Keep talking and open up about how you’re feeling at regular intervals. Don’t let things get bottled up from one anniversary to the next.
  • Feel your emotions: As we said earlier, it’s normal and natural to feel a range of different emotions at different times. Don’t feel guilty for laughing and joking, and don’t feel as if you shouldn’t have a good cry. Feel your emotions and let yourself heal.

Our Charity of the Year, Cruse Bereavement Care, has lots of information to help with all the various stages of grief. Visit: https://www.cruse.org.uk/