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Guest Blog Post: Hearts With Ears for the New Year


Jan 14, 2016

Guest Blogger: Jill Johnson-Young

ASD is pleased to share this month’s guest blog post in our new blog series from Jill Johnson-Young. The blog series is focused on aftercare, self care, and helping families with grief recovery. Jill Johnson-Young, LCSW, is a clinical therapist in private practice in Riverside, California. She is the co-owner of Central Counseling Services, where she specializes in grief and loss for adults and children, as well as individual and family therapy. Jill is certified as a Grief Recovery Specialist through the Grief Recovery Institute and has more than a decade of experience as a medical social worker in hospice both in California and Florida. She holds a Master’s degree in Social Work from the University of South Florida and is licensed in California. Jill is a member of the Orange Belt Funeral Director’s Association. Her passion is seeing people work through the losses they experience and finding a new path where they can thrive in a life they choose.

Hearts With Ears for the New Year

ASD has a great program they call the “Sensitive Save of the Week.” Their operators are recognized for truly reaching above and beyond to meet the needs of families, usually during a first call. You and your staff take those moments and continue to meet those families’ needs. As a social worker and therapist I refer to that as, “meeting them where they are.” This may mean defusing anger, support for a family crushed by an unexpected death, or mediating when making arrangements because agreement is far from sight when the family arrives at your door. Those calls from ASD may just tip you off about special circumstances, even in subsequent after-hours calls that may seem mundane to you, but represent a real need to be heard by the person calling.

As we begin a new year this month, instead of resolutions I’m heading for goals in relating better to others. As a therapist you’d think I did that all day long. As a funeral director or staff member at a mortuary the public expects that from you, but with a skeptical eye. When the skeptics arrive at my door they want to know how I can possibly think I can help them with family, crisis, trauma, loss- you name it. When they arrive at your door they want you to help them navigate a situation they weren’t expecting, even if they knew it was coming. They may expect you to instead act like a salesman trying to upgrade their funeral and be defensive about making sure what they want included really happens.

The perception of the funeral industry is that you make a lot of money, want to sell overpriced caskets, and don’t listen to the family’s needs. The reality is that you work around the clock, for a lot less money than most people think, and you do it because you identify your profession as a “calling.” Everyone does to some extent, from the ASD staff taking those first calls (and multiple after-hours calls), to the removal staff, to you. So, how do you demonstrate that when the family arrives at your door?

The grief program I was trained in refers to approaching grieving people as a “heart with ears. Okay- I know the image is a little weird, but the meaning is true to all of you. But how do you show that to the families you serve?

Some of it is simply the phrases you use every day: “your families”- not customers; you “take someone into your care” – you don’t remove bodies, even though you do. Families hear those phrases, and tell me later they were surprised by them and felt better immediately hearing them. Did you know your language made that big an impression?

Some of it is by not saying the things everyone else does: you don’t tell your families their loved one is in a better place, or is now a special angel, or that it’s a relief for the family that their loved one is out of pain. You don’t tell them you know how they feel. You never tell them about your losses or your bad day- when they are with you it is their time. I know one funeral director who considers the arrangement room sacred space when they are with a family, because the focus is on their memories, their needs, and creating what they need to get through those first weeks. I’m sure many of you have a similar feeling about that time, and a phrase you use to describe it- or maybe until now you hadn’t put to words what that time means to you.

Something many of you do is to go that extra bit after hearing, really hearing, what a family member is saying they need. When my own grandmother died many years ago, my mom and her sisters had a huge need to see wheat in the floral arrangements. It was almost an obsession. She was born in Kansas, and lived there as a little girl. I am not at all sure she even liked Kansas, or Iowa. For the most part, she didn’t like much of anything until she’d had a stroke and discovered ice cream was not the work of the devil. But they needed wheat. I would not have blamed the poor director tolerating them if they’d said it was not available, and the florist couldn’t find it. I tried, and I couldn’t find any. We live in California, and it was March. Instead, that director called all over (there was no Amazon in those days for the youngsters reading this) and when we arrived at the viewing there were wheat stalks jutting out strategically from amongst the roses and greenery. That was all they needed. They felt heard, and from that moment on the services were perfect- because of wheat.

A director I know worked with a man who was from Europe originally, and in making his wife’s arrangements he said he didn’t want the folders, or the book. They held no meaning for him after losing the love of his life of more than sixty years. He told their love story, and described being in the local pub on the day of his wedding and the day his first child was born. His dad had to go get him for each of those life milestone moments. He said he’d rather have his friends each bring a pint than a card- that would represent their marriage to him. The family of course needed the cards and folders, but that director had a heart with ears that heard him clearly. The day of the service she seated him in the chapel, then returned a few moments later and put a bag at his feet. She whispered to him that she hoped she’d gotten the right stuff, because she would never forget the story he’d told and the love he’d shared with his wife. In the bag was a four pack of English ale. He had tears in his eyes when he told her later that her gesture meant more than anything that day- because she heard and understood him.

You are just finishing the busiest season of the year in our industry. At our house the funeral director had more than sixty calls in a twelve hour period one day. You’ve done the holiday memorial service, been on call over the holidays, taken care of families grieving when others are expecting them to be strong and put on a cheerful face for the holidays. It’s a new year, despite it all. Let’s all focus, when we can, on listening more, hearing more, and trying to demonstrate your heart and ears are responding to what your families are saying. The thanks you hear from your families may re-energize you just a little bit. (And don’t forget your vitamins, lots of water, and an occasional power nap. It’s still cold and flu season and you need to take care of you).

Happy New Year.

Check back next month for another guest post from Jill Johnson-Young.

Be sure to read Jill’s Other ASD Guest Blog Posts:

Guest Blog Post #1: Providing Grief Support to Families
Guest Blog Post #2: Self-Care Moments for the Funeral Profession
Guest Blog Post #3: Tips for Handling Funeral Home Stress
Guest Blog Post #4: Supporting the Children of Funeral Directors


About The Author

Jess Farren (Fowler)

Jess Farren (Fowler) is a Public Relations Specialist and Staff Writer who has been a part of the ASD team since 2003. Jess manages ASD’s company blog and has been published in several funeral trade magazines. She has written articles on a variety of subjects including communication, business planning, technology, marketing and funeral trends. You can contact Jess directly at


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