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Funeral and Bereavement Volunteers

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The idea of death, of passing away, holds a prominent place in our collective history and imagination.

It has fascinated writers and thinkers of all eras and cultures, from Socrates to Shakespeare to Sartre.

Yet for all that has been written about it, death remains a difficult subject for many. Few speak about it in the open. You may not think about it. You may even think that you are immortal. But nobody is.

And when that moment comes, somebody has to take care of the funeral and its many details. This will often fall into the hands of family members. Sometimes none are available, however. Or they may be unable to take care of everything because they live far away.

That's where funeral volunteers come in. Simply put, they help make sure that everything is in place when the time comes. They may help pick out the right flowers, or they may book the time and location of the funeral or memorial. They may also act as pallbearers.

And when we experience the loss of people who we love and care about, it's not easy to cope. Those who struggle with their loss may need to turn to bereavement volunteers for assistance.

Generally, these volunteers help people deal with the loss of loved ones. They may work with them in a group or individually. They may just talk and listen to them. Or they may lead them in activities that are designed to help them deal with their loss.

Lynne Waller volunteers at a center for grieving children, where she leads a group session. At the start of it, group members can say why they're there. But they don't have to. They can pass if they want to remain silent. That's what one young boy did.

After the opening, Waller and the children started to make bead necklaces. Each necklace included a memory bead -- a piece of rolled up paper with a note about their lost ones on it.

After the children finished making their necklaces, Waller asked them if they wanted to say anything. One boy spoke up. It was the boy who had passed earlier in the evening.

He suggested that they should share what they wrote on their memory beads with the rest of the group.

"I thought that was pretty profound that he came from not even wanting to say why he was there to suggesting this," says Waller.

For the last two and a half years, Maxine Atkinson has been at the side of a woman who is terminally ill. They have developed a close relationship and the woman has asked Atkinson to help her with some of the funeral and memorial arrangements because her closest relatives reside out of town.

"When the time comes, I will be the one who phones the family and tells them that it has happened," says Atkinson. She also helped the woman take care of her correspondence and photo albums.

"We are certainly close," says Atkinson. "I think she trusts me with a lot of things because these are the last things in her life that are important to her."

Shirley Libby once worked with a man who had lost his wife to lung cancer.

Libby had actually visited the woman several times before she passed away, so she knew the man. But Libby was not comfortable at first because she really didn't know him well. A language barrier also existed between them.

"Sometimes, I wasn't sure that he totally understood me," she says. To make matters worse, he was not coping well.

"He was always sort of down for the first four, five months that I had phoned him," she says. But things eventually worked out.

"He still missed her a lot, but he sounded better," she says. "And he was thankful that I called. He felt that he didn't need any more help, and I didn't think he'd need any, either. He had really come along well."

Michael Healy also relied on bereavement and grief volunteers to help him deal with the loss of loved ones.

He lost his father when he was 14 and his mother passed away when he was 29. That eventually led him to a support group. He says the group was such a good experience that he decided to volunteer.

During one session, he met a young woman who had gone through an experience that reminded him of his own past.

"I remember when we went around [the group] telling our stories, she started to tell what had happened to her mother, and it was so similar to what happened to my mother. There was a connection there, and I thought I could help her," says Healy.

"I kind of felt like this is why I was here."

How to Get Involved

Bereavement volunteering can be emotionally draining, says Kathleen O'Brien. She is the program director of a center that helps grieving children.

"If it is not a world that you ever [have] been a part of before, it can really be emotionally taxing and draining," she says. "And I think that is something to always be aware of."

You must also be aware of why you want to become a bereavement volunteer, says Waller. "And if it's because you have a need, and you want that need met, I'm not sure that that is the right motivation. I think the reason needs to be that you truly would like to help someone else."

And helping someone else deal with the loss of loved ones is not easy. Completion of a training program is often necessary if you become a bereavement volunteer.

"The training helps the volunteers, and it also helps us to determine whether or not that is something that they can do," says O'Brien. You may also have to provide references and undergo a criminal background check.

So where you can volunteer? Hospices, churches and other grieving support groups need volunteers.

Physical requirements for this volunteer activity are minimal. It is accessible to those with special physical conditions.

O'Brien says her volunteers come from a wide range of backgrounds and ages. Yet they also share some common characteristics.

"They are very compassionate people," she says. "Some of them have experienced losses in their lives that have made them want to reach out to people who are experiencing something that they experienced a long time ago."

They also know how to maintain a healthy emotional distance. "You really do have to maintain a healthy sense of boundary, so that you don't get too involved," says O'Brien. If you can't do that, this volunteer activity may not be for you.

Waller says she wouldn't volunteer if she couldn't remove herself from the group and its stories. "Because I have a life, and I have a husband and a family. I don't walk around carrying those burdens."


Association for Death Education and Counseling


Contra Costa Crisis Center
A nonprofit group that offers grief counseling, among other services

Bereaved Families Ontario
A nonprofit group that helps families grieve

Hospice Net
Lots of help for teenagers

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