A Therapist’s Advice For Dealing With Conflict At Your Funeral Home

No one needs to tell you how people can be deeply affected by the death of a loved one.

Some families find it harder to navigate the process of creating a ceremony that captures the essence of the deceased’s life than others. And sometimes raw emotions can become unmanageable.

We sat down with Jason Troyer, the Founder of Mount Hope Grief Services as he shared his advice on managing those moments when emotions become overwhelming. 

The 4 defense mechanisms to watch out for

Many grieving people use defense mechanisms to get them through the passing of their loved one. These include:

  1. Denial/Repression
  2. Displacement Reactions 
  3.  Projection
  4. Reaction Formation

We’re going to take a few minutes and break them down for you, so that you have the tools you need to create a beautiful space of communication between you and your families:

Mechanism #1: Denial/Repression 

What it is:

Denial / repression is characterized by an attitude of “this is not real” from family members. It can show up during the arrangement process as a lack of urgency. 

How to Disarm it:

    • Encourage the family to view the body. This usually makes it immediately, concretely real for family members who are in denial.
    • Gently using the appropriate terms for death. Speaking of the death matter-of-factly so family members cannot avoid the objective reality helps them move away from denial.
    • Begin the casket selection process. If this is their chosen means of disposal, this is a concrete step that makes the death more “real.”
    • Have the family write the obituary. This begins bringing the deceased’s life into focus. The family remembers what was important to them and that can shape arrangements.

Mechanism #2: Displacement Reactions

What they are:

Displacement reactions manifest as unfair and unexpected anger aimed at you and your staff. Troyer says the family could be angry at the deceased or the situation in general, but they can’t admit it to themselves. 

How to Disarm them:

  • Empathizing with the situation. Let the family know you recognize how unfair and painful this time must be for them. Help them to open up a bit and feel their feelings in a healthy way.
  • Mentally put on a “suit of armor” with a shield. Troyer encourages funeral directors to take a moment to create a boundary around themselves for all the emotions coming toward them. 

Mechanism #3: Projection

What it is:

Projection comes in the form of unfair accusations from the family or family members. Troyer says if you are wondering “Where did THAT come from?” after a family member’s comment or reaction, projection is most likely at play.

When someone “projects”, they take a feeling they have and give it to you because they are uncomfortable with it.  

If you hear someone from a grieving family tell you things like:

      • “You’re just in it for the money.”
      • “You seem so distant.”
      • “Why are you so emotional?”
      • You don’t like me, do you?

They may really be saying….

      • “I’m not sure I can afford this.”
      • “I feel numb and distant. Why don’t I feel more.”
      • “Why am I so emotional?”
      • “I don’t like myself very much.”

How to Disarm it:

  • Have a non-defensive comeback. For example, if you have been accused of only being in it for the money, you might reply with something like: “I hear what you are saying, but I have a whole staff that I need to pay. Let’s take a look at some other options.”

Mechanism #4: Reaction Formation

What it is:

Reaction formation appears when someone has an opposite and exaggerated reaction to convince themselves and others they don’t feel something. This could be because the person did not like the deceased and wants to overcompensate. Or, it could be because the person wants to seem wealthier for some reason, or believes overextending themselves financially for the deceased proves their love.

Their reactions seem objectively false, “fake,” or over the top to outside observers. The person most likely will regret their reaction and the decisions they made in those moments later and will blame you, the funeral director, for the results.

How to Disarm it:

  • Be very careful about the arrangements made when a person is in this state. Don’t let them harm their future due to their feelings in this traumatized moment.
  • Begin a “No Regrets” discussion based on this premise: “I want you to have a service that you are happy with this Friday and a year from Friday.” Stay clear and focused that you understand the importance of a meaningful and appropriate service for their loved one. However, you also want to create a service that will not impact the family adversely in a year.

More advice for difficult situations

Many families are not operating from defense mechanisms but the arrangement process can still get difficult for all parties involved. Here are 5 pieces of advice that cover a whole range of difficulties you might come up against:

1. Remember, you can’t fix families

As much as you would love to, remember, you can’t “fix” families during an arrangement conference. You can only guide them toward creating the right service for themselves and their loved one.

2. Slow down

Don’t rush decisions that don’t need to be hurried. Take your time to find out about the deceased. Get family members talking and thinking about what their loved one would really want at this time.

3. Provide a non-judgemental summary of any disagreements

Say: “What I hear is you are discussing/you want options X or Y. Am I right?” This makes it clear and objective so families can choose the option best for their loved one.

4. Urgency — Know when to employ it. 

Urgency can get a decision made, but it can make an already stressful moment completely overwhelming. When you’re wondering if you should use urgency, ask yourself: “Does this have to be decided today?”. Try not to rush decisions when people are deeply grieving unless something like a religious practice requires the time frame. 

5. Remember you don’t have to serve every family that walks through your doors.

If the family does not seem like a good fit with your funeral business, recommend someone else who may be able to serve them better. Consider the financial reality of keeping a family that will be extremely difficult to work with. Troyer gave this test to decide if what he says is true: “Think of your profit. Then think of the worst family you ever served . . . Were they worth it?”

How do you manage conflict at your funeral home? Tell us your best tools in the comments below!