BLOG: Two entwining roles with compassion at their heart

Two entwining roles with compassion at their heart

For many who join our hospice team, working in an environment where death, dying and bereavement are everyday occurrences can – understandably – take some time to adapt to. For one recent arrival though, becoming part of our workforce felt a very natural transition from her former role.

That’s because before taking up her new job Healthcare Assistant (HCA) with our Urgent Care team in February, Denise Holgate worked as a Funeral Director, overseeing, directing and co-ordinating all aspects of funeral services including body preparation, visitation, services, burials and cremations, while providing caring support and advice to families and friends of the deceased.

It was a role Denise found hugely rewarding, guiding and supporting bereaved families as they planned and attended the funerals of their loved ones. So, when a period of ill health forced her to rethink her career and search for a new position, she was set on finding one that made the very best use of all the skills and experience she’d acquired and enabled her to continue to make a difference to the lives of others.

Denise takes up the story: “I have always worked in caring roles. Before qualifying as a Funeral Director I was a Healthcare Assistant at Dartmoor Prison, and worked at the National Blood Service and in a various NHS posts, as well as bringing up two children.

“As my children became more independent, I began looking into new career opportunities. Becoming a Funeral Director appealed because while it was something different, it sounded really interesting and I sensed it would be a good fit for me. Following a year of study which covered everything from greeting bereaved families to helping them arrange every detail of their loved ones’ funerals, I worked for a funeral company that’s part of a national chain and then for an independent firm.

“During those 13 years, I had such a fulfilling career supporting people at the most sad and difficult of times for them. Being a Funeral Director, you are in a position of great trust and there to ensure the family gets the funeral they wish for. Having lost their loved one, they are reliant on you to explain things clearly, patiently and kindly, guiding them gently so they know – and feel – that they are in control. Obviously, it is a very emotional time for them so listening with empathy is key.

“Each family is unique, and what many people don’t realise is that the funeral can be as individual as they want it to be as long, as it meets health and safety regulations. They can even conduct it themselves if they want to. You only get one chance to say goodbye so I always made it my mission to ensure that not only was each funeral the dignified service they wanted and needed for their loved one but an occasion that would leave them feeling they had done their very best for that person so dear to them.

“From taking services by the sea and in people’s back gardens to helping a musician’s family organise his funeral along a festival theme – in a field and with everyone dressed the part – it was important to me to do all I could to make sure everything went smoothly, reducing any feelings of anxiety or fear for families so they could say goodbye feeling as at peace as possible.  

“I really loved my work, but the hours could be very long because you can’t just clock off, and eventually a period of illness meant I had to stop. I knew though, that whatever I did next would need to be something where I could continue supporting people. That’s why joining St Luke’s appealed to me, and why – when I saw the opportunity to join as an HCA – I wasted no time in applying.

Healthcare assistant funeral director

“There are so many similarities between my former role and the work I’m doing now, comforting people as well as making sure they are comfortable despite it being such a tough time for them. The only difference is that whereas my contact with families used to be after their loved one had died, now it is in the weeks and days before.

“What matters to me is being able to make a difference, whether that’s giving a patient’s partner a break from their caring duties so they can grab a shower or get some fresh air, or arranging a night sit from the Marie Curie team so they can get a decent night’s sleep.

“In both my previous job and this one, it’s that shared sense of humanity that connects us with those we support. I always want the people I’m looking after to know they are not alone and that if there is anything they need, they only have to ask. To be that shoulder for them feels very special to me.

“Having been a Funeral Director, I am at ease with all aspects of death and dying, and just like my colleagues at St Luke’s I am passionate about helping to remove the stigma that hinders the helpful, honest conversations people need to have sooner rather than later.

“As well as being really welcoming and supportive, my teammates have been curious about my previous job and full of questions that I’m only too happy to answer. And recently, for those who wanted to visit I had the honour of arranging a tour of a local crematorium so they could look around and find out more about what happens there. I think they found it helpful and reassuring, recognising that whether you are someone providing support before or after a person dies, what matters above all is compassion.”

If you are interested in joining the St Luke’s team, have a look at our current job opportunities.

Thank you to Clifford’s Family Funeral Directors for the use of the photos.