The Partnership Podcast

Grief and aftercare with Dr Bill Webster

August 20, 2020 Golden Charter Season 1 Episode 12
The Partnership Podcast
Grief and aftercare with Dr Bill Webster
The Partnership Podcast
Grief and aftercare with Dr Bill Webster
Aug 20, 2020 Season 1 Episode 12
Golden Charter

Grief Journey's Dr Bill Webster talks about grief in the time of COVID-19, how to support bereaved families remotely, and the future of his own grief support work.

Show Notes Transcript

Grief Journey's Dr Bill Webster talks about grief in the time of COVID-19, how to support bereaved families remotely, and the future of his own grief support work.

Malcolm Flanders [00:00:04] Welcome to the Partnership Podcast, your quick guide to what's new in the funeral profession. This time we're speaking to an expert in grief and aftercare, Dr. Bill Webster of Grief Journey. Many of you will recognise him from his SAIFInsight column or from using his materials to support grieving families. Supporting families is fundamental to a funeral director’s work and is one of the more obvious areas in which COVID-19 has impacted the profession. For a long time it was impossible to speak face to face with families, and the pandemic may have had longer term effects. In this episode, we'll be exploring what grief and grief support look like now, and how they might look in the future. 

Malcolm Flanders [00:00:49] So, Bill. Very warm welcome all the way from your home in Canada. Thank you very much. How are you, sir? 

Dr Bill Webster [00:00:56] Doing very well, Malcolm. ‘Caw awa’ as they say in Scotland. 

Malcolm Flanders [00:01:03] I'll take your word for that! Thank you. You know, it's nice to have the opportunity to talk to you. I mean, let's get straight to the most immediate concern at the moment around the pandemic. So, from your perspective, have you seen an impact on bereaved people due to the unique constraints of COVID-19? And I suppose, the context for my question is, has it complicated the usual way people grieve or made it harder for them to find support? 

Dr Bill Webster [00:01:30] I think all of these things are true. Things have changed. You know, sometimes we say the world has changed because of this pandemic. I'm not sure if the world has changed. The way we see the world and the way that we are affected by the world has certainly changed. 

Dr Bill Webster [00:01:46] So in terms of grieving people, I think a lot of people have had great difficulty because of social distancing. Elderly parents in nursing homes, they haven't been able to see them, they weren't there when they said goodbye, they weren't able to have a funeral. They weren't, certainly, able to have the funeral that they wanted. And one of the things that I've heard, because I've had dozens of phone calls, people find me through my website, dozens of phone calls, which I'm happy to take up, and they're basically saying "this isn't the way we wanted it". And I'm quite sure that there are funeral directors who'll say, "this isn't the way we wanted either".

Dr Bill Webster [00:02:23] I was at a committal service where the people were supposed to socially distance and they weren't. They were milling around. And the funeral director said, I'm not a law enforcement officer, I'm a funeral director. And this isn't the way I like to deal with people. 

Dr Bill Webster [00:02:37] Somebody did ask me, you know, is this complicated grief? And from a clinical perspective, no, it's not complicated grief. But the grief has been complicated, because a lot of people have not been able to come to a support group or express their grief. So, yeah, there's a lot of grief out there. And I think we need to find a ways to help people deal with it. 

Malcolm Flanders [00:02:58] Yeah quite, I get that. Thank you. So I'm particularly interested in your views on the idea of remembrance ceremonies that might take place, say, at least a year after the initial bereavement. And I know I've had various conversations with funeral directors here in the UK. We kind of know it's a valuable option for families, but presumably this kind of time delayed event might have its own effects on people's grief. How would you see that option? 

Dr Bill Webster [00:03:30] Well, I think I make a distinction between a funeral and a celebration of life. I think that when the funeral doesn't take place for months, there can be a lack of closure. People in Canada at least, and that I think in parts of the UK, they have a funeral. You know, it's short there's very few people there, but they actually do something about the body and so on. And then later on, they can have a celebration of life. 

Dr Bill Webster [00:03:58] My view is that actually sometimes a little bit down the road, it can be even more meaningful, because at the time of the funeral people are numb. Now, what we're talking about here is ritual. And as you probably remember, my definition of a ritual, a ritual is something you do when you don't know what to do. So what can we do? 

Dr Bill Webster [00:04:21] When my son Steve died two years ago, we were between a rock and a hard place, because he was transported to a care centre that was miles and miles, four hours away from his home. And I was on the other side of the country. So we had to have a very simple little service and have him cremated. And then later on, a month or so later, and this is before COVID, we had a celebration of life in his hometown and then a celebration of life in my hometown. 

Dr Bill Webster [00:04:58] Because while these things are important for the family, they're also important for the community. The community needs to, a) say goodbye to the person who's died, and b) show their support to the people who are grieving. 

Dr Bill Webster [00:05:12] And so while at the time I felt a little bit, well to be honest, I felt a little bit embarrassed, "oh, I don't want my funeral directors to know that we had to have a disposition and then later on..." But now that this has happened, you know, I see how I can share that now and maybe be a help and an encouragement to people who are trying to do that. 

Dr Bill Webster [00:05:32] However, Malcolm, there's a danger. And it's this: that many funeral directors over here, and I'm sure it's the same in the UK, they are doing the funeral, they're doing the cremation. But then later on, people are going elsewhere for the celebration of life. To the golf course or the event centre or something. And so I think funeral directors really need to find ways of suggesting how they can be part of that and how they can help to create meaningful ceremonies. 

Dr Bill Webster [00:06:05] And it's difficult because they're so tied up with dealing with the immediate and the funerals. And that's where I feel, you know, we can lend some help and support in creating materials that are going to help people to kind of think this through and come up with more meaningful rituals when a loved one dies. 

Malcolm Flanders [00:06:25] Thank you Bill, understand. And so during the pandemic, one of the most tangible changes for funeral directors is they regularly can't be in the same room as their families. And our guests have talked about making arrangements over web chats. How can we best support people after the fact, if that kind of isolation remains? 

Dr Bill Webster [00:06:46] My argument has been, it's better than nothing. I find what's meaningful for people in a situation like this, it's not just talking remotely over the phone, but somehow being face to face, even if that is, you know, on a Zoom, on a website or whatever. People communicate not just with their words, people communicate with their eyes. And so even if you can see someone on a screen, you get a sense of that communication. You know, body language, like nodding and being sympathetic, and so on, can come across in a much clearer way. 

Malcolm Flanders [00:07:21] Thank you. Now look, I know you've used the pandemic to craft a new community approach that fits with the unique needs that have developed over the past few months. So can you explain a little more about When Life Changes programme that you've developed? 

Dr Bill Webster [00:07:36] Well, for 35 years, Malcolm, really the main focus of my work has been in facilitating community support groups. And we've started support groups and I've trained people to lead those groups in Canada and in the UK. And then there's a number of great examples, you know, in Derby and in Essex and in Wales and so on, where people have utilised that model. 

Dr Bill Webster [00:08:06] The problem is that funeral directors are pretty busy and it takes a lot of work to facilitate a programme. So what we've done is we've actually put my programme on a website. Ten 30 to 40 minute programmes, it has a facilitator’s guide, a workbook for participants and all the related materials. And my hope is that whether people watch that on media, or even better, if they assemble at a funeral home, or in a church, or in a community, that they'll be able to watch the programme and then have a discussion face to face with each other. 

Dr Bill Webster [00:08:46] I'm finding that a lot of people are a little disillusioned with grief counselling. They want to talk to people who get it, other people who, you know, they need some guidance and instruction and so on. And that's what we're providing. But to be able to sit down with other people and say, "Hey, I'm not alone. I'm amongst friends." And so this programme, I'm hoping, is going to allow every funeral director in every community, whether they do it themselves, or whether they get their local churches involved in their community, that they can actually be the people who bring community support group right into their community, and that it really takes care of itself, and so on. 

Dr Bill Webster [00:09:29] And I think I think it's a great model. I wish I'd thought of it 20 years ago, but I didn't. And here we are nonetheless, we're doing that. And we're also building a new Grief Journey website. Funeral directors can put a link on their site to come into. And we're throwing everything onto that site. All my videos, all my books, everything. Because, you know, I know I don't look it Malcolm but I'm 75 years old now. Not gonna be around forever. I'm a grandfather, as you can relate. 

Dr Bill Webster [00:10:01] And so, you know, this is my legacy. I want to do something significant, maybe in memory of Steve and people can analyse that as they wish. But I'm not finished yet. And I feel that there's still more that I can do to help people. And so we're going to put out something that I think will be unrivalled, just in a month, September, and I'm encouraging people to get in touch with me, to email me, or to contact through yourself or whatever, to just see how we can actually impart that and make that available to communities all across the country. 

Malcolm Flanders [00:10:37] Hey, look, that's all we've got time for today. Absolutely enjoyed that, Bill. Thank you ever so much for your time and best wishes. And you’ve got one more thing to say, I can see that, go ahead. 

Dr Bill Webster [00:10:50] Well, you know what? I think grieving people today are feeling, "How am I going to manage and how can I find meaning in this situation?" And that's exactly what funeral directors, and funeral planners, and aftercare people need to do. It's time that we work together. This has to be a team effort. It's not funeral directors doing their thing, and selling plans here, and doing aftercare over there. This is a combined effort. We're all in this together. And I'm very, very delighted that you've made me feel a part of that, Malcolm, and I really appreciate all you're doing. And to the funeral directors, can I just say, I don't think you guys are getting enough credit for all that you've done. So thank you very, very much for your service. I think it's very much appreciated. 

Malcolm Flanders [00:11:36] And thank you especially for that, Bill. Well said. Absolutely endorse that. 

Malcolm Flanders [00:11:46] Thank you for listening to the Partnership Podcast. You can hear all of our dozen episodes on And if you want to hear about a specific topic, let me know by email on [email protected] Take care and I'll talk to you again soon on the Partnership Podcast.