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Unsung heroes: Bereavement support in the hospital mortuary

A bereavement officer comforts a grieving relative

“We like to bring the warmth into what people think is a cold place,” says Barbara Peters. An award-winning mortuary technician, and mortuary and bereavement services manager at Royal Liverpool and Broadgreen University Hospitals, Barbara (pictured left) has seen people at their most vulnerable, in the grips of the rawest stages of grief. It’s her team’s job to provide compassionate, useful support right at the beginning of the journey through bereavement.

When someone dies in the hospital, Barbara and her team at the Royal Liverpool’s mortuary and bereavement services department is there to support families through the emotional turbulence they endure following their loved one’s death. Its bereavement officers are also there to help with the immense amount of paperwork involved, helping families through the process of registering a death.

“You can get some people who are hysterical almost to the point that they’re numb,” says Barbara. “People collapse. Some people are quite relieved, if their loved one was ill for a long time and they’re now at peace. There’s also guilt. Lots of people feel guilty, especially with elderly family, if they haven’t seen them for a while.

“I’ve also seen people in total denial,” says Barbara. “They believe that it is not their loved one. They say, ‘He’s got a birthmark. I want evidence that it’s really him.’ And you have to take all the covers off to show them. I’ve seen quite a variety of emotions.

“A lot of people haven’t dealt with death before. You have to explain things in simple terms to get them moving in the right direction.”

Though Barbara and her team are dealing with people in the most extreme of emotional states, in a job that’s as challenging as it is vital to those needing help, she says that many people don’t even realise they exist, until the worst happens.

“People think that the health service just runs on doctors and nurses, but it’s much more than that. We’re at the end of the care pathway, but we’re still part of it,” she says.

Barbara Peters and the bereavement services and mortuary team at Royal Liverpool Barbara Peters (second from left) and the bereavement and mortuary services team at Royal Liverpool Hospital.

But misconceptions abound when it comes to the department’s role and purpose. It doesn’t help that families often have vague ideas of what a mortuary might look like, based on TV crime thrillers. The reality, Barbara says, is far from those pop culture depictions.

“I like to raise awareness, because it’s not like what you see on television,” she explains. “I’m a consultant; people come to me with a film script or a book, to make sure their mortuary and post-mortem scenes aren’t overly dramatised.”

While dramatic portrayals of mortuaries on the big and small screen might be making people anxious about what to expect, Barbara says that they do everything they can to make it as peaceful a process for the bereaved as possible.

“We have two nice viewing rooms. We will set the patient on a raised platform, like they’re in a bed. If there are any marks, or if they haven’t got their false teeth in, or if their mouth is open slightly, we let the family know. Your awareness is heightened in grief, so we make sure that things like that don’t give anyone a shock. You get that initial impression of what’s going to happen – you can see if there are signs that someone might collapse.

“We make sure we step in with them for a few moments. If they seem to be doing okay, then you let them pay their respects.”

In Barbara’s time as a mortuary technician (her expertise winning her the title Mortuary Technician of the Year at the 2015 Good Funeral Awards), she’s helped bereaved people of many different faiths and cultures. Each family’s needs are unique and it is part of her job to make sure they have everything they need.

“Everybody has different ways of grieving, everyone is different,” she says. “Some African cultures may sing and wail. I’ve seen the Caribbean community singing gospel hymns. I’ve had Buddhists, who bring in food and joss sticks. Japanese families bring joss sticks too, and they always like to have the doors and windows open, to let the spirit leave. Then Greek Orthodox families, they have to have things a certain way, as do the Orthodox Jewish community.

“You have to be versatile and you have to do your research.”

Like many jobs in the healthcare profession, being a mortuary technician or bereavement officer can take its toll on a personal level. Barbara says that supportive co-workers and job satisfaction can go a long way to help you cope.

“It can be emotionally challenging, especially when you’ve got a tragic, unexpected death. We all have our own coping mechanisms. Everywhere I’ve worked, especially this team here, are pretty tight.

“But also you know that you’ve looked after somebody’s loved one and that is your coping mechanism,” she continues. “You learn to become selfless in this job. Everyone, from the bereavement officers to the pathologists, thinks of the family and what they need. There’s a lot of job satisfaction from that.”

Learn more about mortuary and bereavement services at the Royal Liverpool and Broadgreen Hospitals.

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