Interview with a Funeral Director--An Interview with Natalie Summers Henson
This month's interview was conducted in several segments, reflecting the life of an active, caring funeral director. We began by phone, then had to a postpone due to the arrival of a family; we then picked up again several days later, finally finishing while Natalie was on her cell phone en route to a funeral.
The Summers Funeral Chapel was founded in 1962 by Joseph W. Summers. His daughter, Natalie Summers, joined the firm in 1978 and became a licensed funeral director in 1981. After the death of her father in 1991, Natalie and her sister Vanessa J. Summers became co-owners of Summers Funeral Chapel, Indianapolis. Natalie received her bachelor of arts degree from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, and her master's degree in social work from IUPUI in Indianapolis.
She is a licensed funeral director, earning her degree in funeral service from Mid-America College of Funeral Service in Evansville, Indiana. Natalie and her husband, Raymond, have two daughters, Nikki Jeannine and Janelle Rae, and make their home in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Natalie, the first time we spoke, you told me that you facilitate a bimonthly support group for survivors of violent death and that you also do one-on-one counseling. I find it both remarkable and wonderful that you find time for this important outreach. Please tell us a little about your experiences in these areas of aftercare.
Summers: A lot of my one-on-one or family counseling begins during the time that our families are making funeral arrangements. They will often comment, "You are so patient," or "You are so caring and understanding." Then when I tell them that I am a licensed social worker, they begin to open up and share their feelings with me. People seem to feel safe with me.
I recall one instance when a mother and father really needed to talk and I knew that I needed to take plenty of time to listen. Their son had committed suicide, but there was also a double homicide prior to his death; he killed his girlfriend and baby. Because I hadn't personally experienced this particular kind of loss, but had helped many other survivors deal with violent death situations, I was able to validate their feelings and to provide comfort for them.
I find that quite often I do a lot of counseling during the arrangement conferences. I now call it "arrangement counseling." Later, many of the families will call back for more assistance. They know they can count on me to be here for them. Fortunately I have the education and experience to be able to assist them.
During these counseling sessions, do you tend to listen or talk?
Summers: You never know. Sometimes both! Often times being a good listener is what is required. People need reassurance. I may tell them that even though I haven't been through their kind of loss myself, I have seen others go through it and survive, and later go on and rebuild their lives. I draw upon my own experience and on my education and share from both. Remember in college when we were asked to do extemporaneous speaking? Well, I do a lot of that in my business now!
Well, I've never heard it put quite that way before, Natalie. But I see what you mean. As funeral directors it is important to know how to provide comfort at all times and in all circumstances; when to speak and when to listen; when to give a hug. Or whatever else seems right. It sounds like you are doing a wonderful job with your families. Natalie, what was your most difficult experience as a funeral director?
Summers: Burying my dad. He died in 1991. At that time, it didn't matter that I have all of these degrees. I needed the same aftercare assistance as the next person after my loss. I still had to go through the same pain as everyone else. As funeral directors, we are not exempt from the pain of our own losses. Of course, I didn't worry that I was losing my mind or some of the other things we hear survivors say, because I had the education to support me in these common areas of concern. But as you said in your book, Barbara, grief is a time when the head and the heart are going in two different directions.
I remember in one of your recent interviews you dealt with the issue, "Who Cares for the Caregiver?" Many times, during that first year, when we were doing a funeral, I had to leave my staff and step outside for a few minutes and get hold of my own emotions. That was a very difficult year for us. The pain was so intense.
So being a funeral director and a support group facilitator and also having a master's degree in social work still didn't ease your pain after your loss?
Summers: Nope! Not at all. You have to pray your way through and you also have to take the journey through the grieving experience. There is no other way. I can smile and talk about it now but it was terribly painful for all of us that first year after Daddy died. What helped me was that we had his name to carry on, and his business. We had a mission. We did this in his memory. But then everyone would come up to us and say, "I sure miss your dad." At times we felt they were also saying or reminding us, "Now make sure you take care of us as well as your daddy did." So we also had that challenge to deal with. And we did!
I dreamed about him that whole first summer after he died. Finally in one dream I saw him in his casket and I felt he was asking me to leave him alone and to let him go. Fortunately my education helped me at this point in my loss journey. I ache for those who have no aftercare education and support, and this is why we now offer aftercare to our families.
Natalie, do you feel that most bereaved families get the grief support they need today?
Summers: Yes, the families do get support at the onset of the death, but two weeks after the death most bereaved families are left to face their grief alone. This is when they really need the aftercare support.
In your view, what are the needs of bereaved people?
Summers: The major needs come into play after the funeral, when everyone else has returned to his or her own life. This is when bereaved families need emotional support as they finalize the business of the deceased and struggle to create a new life without their loved ones. Without adequate support or information about the grieving process few are able to accomplish this.
Did you have any hesitation about beginning an aftercare program?
Summers: Yes, at first I did. I was reluctant to start a program because I was not quite sure of the specific needs of those in our community. After analyzing those needs, and finding the aftercare program that met them to my satisfaction, we got involved. I knew of the extreme hurt a lot of my families were going through. As a social worker as well as a funeral director, I wanted to find a way to better serve our families long after the funeral was over. We found it. Our aftercare program has been in effect for approximately a year now.
Please tell us about your program.
Summers: First, a letter is mailed thanking the family for choosing our firm. In that letter we explain all of our services from grief counseling and aftercare to offering to provide a marker or set up a prearrangement session. For persons suffering from a homicide or suicide I refer them to a "Survivors of Violent Death Support Group" that I facilitate twice a month. I refer some of the others to a general grief support group. I tell them that I am also available for individual grief counseling. Aftercare assistance is offered but not everyone responds. We find that those families that are really in need will respond.
During the holidays, we send holiday cards to all families served during the previous year. Families who have suffered a death during the holiday season are generally not included until the following year.
I usually stay in contact with our families continuously for a couple of months after the death, and then periodically through the first year and thereafter as needed. During the past year, I have served quite a few families who have lost adult children and several who have lost young children. These families have been especially grateful for our aftercare support. I refer all of our families to our aftercare provider.
Do you use special staff to facilitate your program?
Summers: My secretary sends out all of the thank-you letters and with my training, I do the rest.
Do you promote the fact that you have an aftercare program?
Summers: Yes, we do. This information appears on all of our advertisements and is also in our thank-you letters to our families.
Has being a woman helped you meet the needs of those in your community?
Summers: Yes, I think being a woman has helped me in many ways to reach the needs of the bereaved that I serve. Our firm has received many compliments about how caring we are. As you know, my sister and I are the owners of our firm now. When we deal with families that I know, it is particularly hard, and sometimes I cry right along with them too. Like when I lost my father to cancer, and someone else had a similar loss, I truly felt it because I've walked in those shoes, but I do try to be professional. Years ago I cried with all of them. But with age and experience, I've gotten a little better.
Has your aftercare program opened any doors for speaking engagements or other community outreach opportunities?
Summers: Yes, I have been asked to do several programs about my survivor's groups.
Does having an aftercare program make you feel differently about the quality of your funeral service?
Summers: Yes, now we are providing full-service funeral service. This has enhanced the image of our funeral home and given us a good competitive edge. Our families love our aftercare material.
Are your competitors providing aftercare?
Summers: Yes, some of them do now.
What is the most gratifying part of your work?
Summers: My most memorable moments are when I know that we have pleased our families. And we can tell. We do our best. We give our all. When people look at us and hug us and thank us for a job well done, this is truly gratifying to me.
What suggestions might you give to directors who have yet to provide aftercare?
Summers: Get out there and get your program started. Get educated. Take a couple of classes if you want to. Find out what you need to get started. Then do it. My next and ongoing goals are to keep learning more.