My work is about standing-under to hold grieving families

Since I interviewed Angela Ward, we have been in the grip of the Coronavirus outbreak. Therefore, what Angela has to say about her work with Go Simply Funerals is even more poignant for all of us.

Angela Ward and her husband run the award-winning Go Simply Funerals, based in Melksham. Angela also puts on Pushing up the Daisies Festivals in the area. She has worked as a homeopath,  psychotherapist and lecturer, and is passionate about music and singing. She has been a Celebrant and Inter Faith Minister for over 12 years and leads beautiful ceremonies, conducting over 2,000 funerals all over the country. Angela writes articles for magazines including ‘More To Death’ and has presented papers at the CDAS conferences on Death and Dying.

Last year the industry awarded Go Simply Funerals with the top National prize of ‘Green Funeral Director of the Year’ and runner up for ‘Low Cost Funeral Provider’ of the year which they have won for three years running. Angela has also trained over 500 Celebrants with Green Fuse Funeral training in Totnes which offers a professional Level three qualification for Celebrants.

Angela: I don’t look at myself as a funeral director. This idea of being a ‘Director’ puts the funeral director in change, and I believe this is the wrong way around. I prefer to look at myself as being in partnership with the families I work with – I encourage them to take the lead. At the same time, I am conscious that I am holding a position that carries considerable experience. But it’s more about using this experience to gently advise from the rear. Actually, the term Funeral Director is relatively new. Traditionally we were called Undertakers. I find this a more interesting concept.

Sue: Can you explain why.

Angela: It’s about standing underneath a grieving family; to literally stand-under so you are holding them up or holding them like a vessel.

Sue: What a wonderful image. How did you get into this work?

Angela: Primarily through my work in psychotherapy and counselling and also as a meditation teacher. I would say this has informed my work even more than training as a funeral celebrant. I see death as a living process, and grief is part of this living process. So, an essential part of my work is about holding the space for grief to be expressed.

Sue: When you talk about holding grief, can you explain what this actually means.

Angela: The trouble is that these days we have a tendency to medicalise grief and to medicalise uncomfortable emotions without really seeing the purpose of grief. Grief is about naturally expressing our pain. When this healthy and natural process is interrupted, it turns into a more pathological state of mourning, which is a distorted grief state.

When someone dies or experiences a major loss it’s normal and natural to grieve and all we need is to be witnessed and heard.  The grieving process is beautifully illustrated by the Sumerian myth of Inanna which tells of her descent from Earth into the ‘Land of no Return’ – the Underworld ruled by her sister, Ereshkigal, who condemns her to death. Inanna’s corpse is left hanging on a hook but the people on Earth beg for her to be returned. Enki, the God of Wisdom, fashions two sprites from the dirt of his fingernails, and these sprites slink under the gates the Underworld to find Ereshkigal in the process of mourning her dead sister. They take their place on either side of her, and all they do is repeat verbatim her lamentations. They don’t try to make it better. They don’t try to take it away. They don’t say, ‘Why don’t you dance round the room to Abba, that will take your mind off things’ They just keep repeating her words back to her – listening- until finally Ereshikigal feels better and is so grateful that she asks the sprites what they would like as a reward. They request for Inanna’s corpse which is then revived with the special waters and returns to Earth. But someone else must take her place, and so the experience of grief continues. The point of this myth shows us the power of witnessing grief and just allowing it to have its own way and its own process.

Sue: I am curious about the different between grief and mourning. In my understanding there’s a process of grief that we go through and then we enter into a period of mourning. Can you explain more about this?

Angela: Grieving is the very immediate impact following loss, traditionally followed by a time of mourning – but this has gone out of fashion now. However, many religions continue to recognise this time of mourning as important. The Jewish faith allows a whole year of mourning after someone dies. So, for example, after her husband dies, a widow knows she does not have to perform certain tasks at home or within the community during her time of mourning.

It’s similar to how it used to be when we convalesced from an illness – this has gone out of fashion too. But we need time to rebuild ourselves within the context of the memories and the new place that the person who has died then holds within us. Mary Oliver in her poetry speaks about the fires and the black rivers of loss. We are all made of those fires and black rivers of loss – and, those threads need to be woven in to our current experiences – to be lived fully and to be absorbed. That to me is mourning.

Sue:  People who come to the Death Cafes often comment on the fact that they wish there was something in our society that would recognise when a significant loss has happened. It used to be symbolised by a black arm band. Instead there is an expectation that after a few weeks everything should be ‘fine.’ But it isn’t like that and there is something missing in our society because of this.

Angela: I completely agree. We aren’t good at working with our processes that take us out of the busyness of things. I believe this is where so many of the problems we experience in world begin because we don’t honour the web of life in all its shades and shapes. We have created a society where people are shamed into hiding their illness, grief and weakness – they don’t want to be seen like that. After all, this is the Instagram generation. People want to appear their very best as all times, even if they are falling apart.

Sue: Yes, perhaps it’s not about wearing black arm bands, but something subtle, maybe like a tiny black rose pinned on the lapel. I think this would make for a much nicer, kinder world.

Angela: Yes, I think it would. I do fear that we are becoming a much more intolerant society because our manic busyness. This certainly impacts on how people cope with end of life issues. One of the important things that we do with bereaved families is to spend time with them so that they have the space to explore what’s really going on. It’s a bit like a magician pulling hankies out of a match box – the more you pull the more stuff comes to the surface. Many, very deep things happen in the liminal space between the person dying and the funeral date.  I see this liminal space filled with a huge potentiality of what it means when a new beginning has not happened as yet, but somebody has died.

Sue: Can you explain more about this liminal space.

Angela: I look at it as a moment of chance where profound healing within a family can happen, not just around the person who has died, but also between family members. This can be a time when people get back in contact after a very long time.  And other things can happen too. We’ve had missing children and children we never knew existed turning up to funerals.  In fact, I recently held a funeral for someone who never knew their dad was married. His wife suddenly arrived from Thailand. So, this is a time when relatives may have to navigate a completely new family structure.

It always makes me smile when people say to me, ‘I bet you haven’t come across such a difficult, strung-out family before.’  My response is, ‘Don’t worry, 90% of families are like yours!’  So, for me, I think this liminal space is a huge opportunity and potential to bring families together. If this is managed well, it allows everyone to have a voice, however difficult the situation may be. Amazing things can and do happen.

Sue: On the other hand, I know of families who have completely fallen apart – particularly when the final parent dies.

Angela: Yes, when the final parent dies everyone very quickly re-establishes a new hierarchical structure. A family is a system and, however dysfunctional it may be, it will reform and crystallise itself around this new structure, which siblings adopt quite quickly. This is when accusations and rivalries can surface such as, ‘She always loved you more than she loved me.’

Sue: Many people who come to the Death Cafes talk about how difficult things can become between siblings.

Angela: Sadly, aggrieved siblings will get their revenge through the funeral process. I’ve seen cases where two brothers were arguing bitterly over burying their mother or cremating her to the extent, ten minutes before the cremation was due to take place, one brother got a court injunction stop it. I have also experienced a favourite son or daughter, or the opposite – the black sheep of the family – being completely cut out of the funeral process and never mentioned as part of the family. In fact, some siblings try to steal the ashes, which is why they now have to be signed for on collection from the crematorium. I have also experienced the family of LGBTQ couples completely cutting out the surviving partner who they have never accepted. They seem to want to absorb the person who has died back into their view of ‘the perfect family’. This is why I always advise gay people to get married, so they have marital rights at the end of their partner’s life.

I have also seen the second wife refusing to have the first wife at the funeral, and the first wife (who is also the mother of the dead man’s children) not even acknowledged in the eulogy. I held a funeral where the girlfriend had only been with her partner who died for nine months. She and her mother completely took over and I had no idea that his first wife was outside in a car with their children – not welcome at the funeral inside.  Yes, it’s amazing what lengths people will go to for revenge or status.

Sue: Apart from your work as an undertaker, you also put on Pushing up the Daisies Festivals in the area. Can you tell me what inspires you to run these festivals?

Angela: I like to feel these festivals offer three forms of support. I believe people need to know practical things about what happens when someone dies. For example, how do I write a Will? What happens if I die intestate? Where do I go for financial advice when someone dies? People can get really bogged down in this practical stuff if they don’t know what to do. And, we can all find it really intimidating coping with the thought of that trail we may leave behind both financially and these days, digitally.

I also want to provide a safe place for people to talk about grief and loss and what matters to them. So, the festivals offer talks on a range of subjects such as what does death look like? How do I know when someone is dying? How do I memorialise someone’s death? I also think this provides a space for people to become creative within their experience of loss and grief. For example, how to refashion our sense of identity when we move from being a wife to a widow. This can take many amazing forms such as painting, weaving, or even singing.  That’s why I love requiem masses. They pay homage to the universal themes of life and death in such an incredible way.

And, it’s also about the sacred process of what happens when we are pushed to ask those big questions about what happens next: What’s life all about? How do we make sense of it within the context of being part of our incredible Universe? How does God or Spirit – however we understand it – play a part in this? We could have a festival every day for a month and we wouldn’t cover everything.

Sue: Do you see hope for humanity?

Angela: The fact that spring is back is hope! And, I am always filled with hope when I watch Brian Cox’s BBC 2 series on The Planets and listen to him speaking of how the Universe is made up of billions and billions and billions of universes and galaxies. For me this bigger picture – or existential picture – makes us humble again and puts us back in our rightful place within the context of what it means to be a human being. Small….all things must pass…

Sue: Yes, the thought of this bigger picture just strips all the nonsense away, doesn’t it!

Angela: It reminds us that we are mortal human beings on a journey.  I believe that when a funeral service doesn’t address this sense of the bigger picture and how we fit into it, it misses something. What many religious and spiritual services do incredibly well is to put the person back in his or her rightful place as yet another human being who has ended their own chapter in the great book of life. It reminds us we are not the book itself.

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