We all grieve differently and of all the mental health issues facing people in the wake of the pandemic – this year, probably more than any other, will see many thousands of people enduring that grief often silently and alone.
For some people, it’s a process with a beginning, middle, and, thankfully, an end. For others, it’s a lifelong condition – a new state of being following the death of a loved one.
Grief is not just individual, it’s also cultural. Paul McLean became a funeral director when he experienced at first hand, following the double suicide of his sister and niece, an upsetting lack of understanding for the needs of African-Caribbean people in an overwhelmingly white profession.
Debi Lewinson Roberts knows a bit about grief too. An independent celebrant, who herself has suffered bereavement, set up Serenity Gardens and the Loss Café, a sometimes virtual, sometimes real-world place of refuge where Black people can share their grief and provide mutual support.
“Debi often works with us on the most challenging funerals,” Paul says, “, especially in the case of violent deaths including suicide. She has a great ability to bring comfort in the worst of circumstances.”
“Some people want a little bit of religion while others want none at all and as I work from a person-centered perspective, I’m happy to go with whatever feels right for them,” Debi says. “My father was a minister so I was raised to comfort the bereaved, support the community and attend funerals from childhood. As an independent celebrant I work for the family and ensure that everything I do is about them, rather than the funeral process itself taking over and pushing them in directions they don’t want to go.”
Families of all races and backgrounds often choose to work with Debi rather than a minister because of her flexible approach. She doesn’t conform to the structures of any particular faith but rather designs a service to complement their wishes and beliefs. She says “if you don’t want the rigidity of a humanist celebrant or a religious minister, that’s when you consider the services of an independent celebrant”. She usually works alone, but has also served alongside religious leaders from different faiths.
“I led a service for a family who were Methodists from South Africa, but who also had Hindu traditions. I created a blended funeral by inviting a Hindu priest who conducted the traditional rites ceremony and their Methodist minister spoke. The various traditions and religions were woven together, the result was lovely and the family were very pleased,” she says.
“Being a good celebrant is also about being a good storyteller. The funeral is where you tell the story of someone’s life, so I always talk to family members in detail about the person who’s died so I can write a eulogy that’s fitting. Whether I read it myself or write it for a relative to read from their own personal perspective, it’s a huge responsibility to get it right.”
Grief and guilt entwined
For Paul and his wife Sharon, who runs Integrity Funeral Care in London with him, Debi’s attention to detail is extremely important. “People need funerals to go smoothly as part of that grieving process,” he says. “One of the reasons we founded the business in the first place was the lack of understanding of the specific cultural needs of Black people. We hold what’s called a Nine Night which is a traditional get-together, usually before the funeral takes place, where everyone can celebrate the life that’s ended. Our community is used to funerals which can take several hours in church and then a couple more by the graveside with songs and poems and speeches. It can be so upsetting if a funeral director or a minister doesn’t understand our traditions. It’s not that they’re better or worse than anyone else’s way of doing things, but it’s what people need to express themselves and hopefully begin a process of healing. Attention to detail is everything. I know from personal experience how grief can be compounded if a funeral doesn’t feel exactly right. When things aren’t as they should be, families can feel guilty, that they’ve let down the loved one who’s passed.”
It’s been widely reported how the pandemic and lockdowns disrupted so many funerals. “When everything was in crisis,” Debi says, “the really important details got lost. Important elements of our traditions like washing, dressing, and viewing the body, Nine Nights, the mourners coming together over food– everything became so much harder, and that just amplified the grief people felt. Family and friends often couldn’t be at the graveside and if they were, they couldn’t help fill the grave because they weren’t allowed to touch any of the tools. Some of the white funeral directors I worked with became a lot less accommodating, even in terms of explaining to families what was and wasn’t possible. I always tried to make sure they had all the necessary information in advance because getting to the day itself and then to have the funeral directors just almost shrug their shoulders at the graveside and say, ‘Oh, yeah, sorry; can’t do that,’ was just awful.”
What’s left when all the mourners have gone?
Based in London, Debi became a Death Café facilitator in 2017. She says, “I didn’t know of any other Black people running one and I wanted the space to be multicultural as all the cafes that I visited, weren’t very diverse and I didn’t feel particularly welcome. I wanted to celebrate different types of people, no matter their religion, their background, their race, their ethnicity. When lockdown came, I thought it was an opportunity to go online and felt the need to start a Loss Café for people from the African diaspora. Now that it’s virtual we’ve got people coming from the African continent from America and Canada and from the Caribbean as well as the UK.”
Debi strongly believes that grief is best dealt with as a collective experience and there is often a shared understanding when people have similar traditions and cultures.
“The Loss Café is a safe platform where people will come on and talk about what they’re going through. Individuals can share as much as they want to or just listen. We encourage people to share because the more they do so, the more they get out of it. Others may offer support by saying for example, ‘when my mum died, this is how I dealt with it.’ Or ‘when my husband was in the hospital and the doctors weren’t listening to me, this is what I did’, or ‘this is how I spoke to my children about my diagnosis,’ whatever it might be. People talk about their fears, but they also talk about their challenges.”
Debi also helped to set up Men Cry Too, a bereavement group run by Black men for Black men. “Men don’t always want to talk in front of women. Some of the conversations that they deal with are what they see as specifically male problems, whether it’s to do with relationships, physical or mental health or emotions.”
Paul says, “One of the main reasons we work with Debi is because we both recognize that for us as a culture, from the moment of loss to the funeral and beyond is different from the British norm. For families we work with, if we have a seamless process by not only arranging a funeral, but handing over this delicate client to someone like Debi to manage the process of the day itself, whether it be the eulogy, or other elements; it just provides that continuous transfer of service. We’ve seen and experienced how it helps people when they feel that their culture, their understanding, their needs as Black people are fully met without reservation. We even have families who didn’t need her services for the funeral, but who we’ve put her in touch with afterwards for that post-funeral care, if you like.”
“Grieving is different for everyone,” Debi says. “People may live with their grief forever as it’s a process without time limits. That we are there for them to support them in their time of need is what really matters.”
Written by: Simon Garrett