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Try a little tenderness – Working With Bereaved Clients

Two years ago, a local pastor walked into VanNoort Florists in Niagara-on-the-Lake and requested a meeting about arranging funeral flowers. Following her bereavement protocol, owner Sharon VanNoort asked the pastor whom the flowers were for.

“They haven’t passed away yet,” she said. Puzzled, VanNoort gently pressed again. As it turned out, the funeral flowers were for the pastor; she had been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer and only had weeks left to live.

“I just looked at her for a minute. Her husband couldn’t even talk,” VanNoort said. “She came in and arranged her own flowers and told me what she liked and what she didn’t like.

I kept thinking about how lucky I was that I could sit with this amazing woman and thought about the strength it took for her to walk through those days and talk about her own death — and that we got to do the flowers for her.”

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Creating arrangements for a funeral is an honour, but it can also involve one of the most delicate and complicated customer interactions. No two people grieve the same, and it’s important to provide them with comfort and expert service.

Flowers have had a presence in funerals for centuries. Initially, flowers served a more utilitarian purpose—to mask odours with their fragrance—but today, they’re symbols of life and beauty. Florists have to learn how to navigate customers’ (understandably high) emotions in addition to creating beautiful arrangements worthy of their loved one.

Although you may have the arrangement part down, talking to grieving families may be more difficult. Often, getting better at comforting and speaking with family members is just a matter of practice—the longer you’re in the industry, the easier it may get for you. However, there are a few things that you can keep in mind as you try to sharpen this skill.

CREATE A QUIET, PRIVATE SPACE

Expect every single family, and even individuals within families, to grieve in a different way. Some families may have had time to prepare emotionally and financially for their loved one’s death, but for others, a death can come as a complete shock or surprise. And even if the family wasn’t surprised by a death, they can still be emotionally unprepared for the finality of it.

Because you never know a family’s emotional state when they come into the store to make plans for the funeral, it’s best to have a space set aside for mourners.

“Take them to a private area where they can express their emotion through tears without being on your sales floor,” says Jackie Lacey, AIFD, PFCI, director of education and industry relations for the Floriology Institute in Jacksonville, Florida. “It’s much easier for the family to have at least a semi-private area to go to because it gets them out of the public eye.”

LEARN TO LISTEN

It’s challenging to know the right things to say to someone who is going through one of the most difficult periods of their life. Death isn’t something most of us are accustomed to thinking about a lot, and sometimes it feels like our words can fall flat.

When a family comes into your store to make arrangements for their loved one, it’s always appropriate to say, “I’m sorry for your loss” or “My condolences.” Beyond that, it’s often wise to say nothing at all.

“I think as florists we all have our own way of dealing with death. My best advice for any florist is to listen,” VanNoort said. “Talk less and listen more.”

Ask the family members questions about their loved one and invite them to share any memories if they feel comfortable. Let them talk as much as they want. Once you actually start discussing flowers, you’ll need to pay close attention to whether or not they need help planning things out or if they already have a specific vision in mind.

“Some families I think need a little bit more guidance and others know exactly what they need. The important thing to me is to listen to what they may or may not be saying,” said VanNoort.

“What strength did it take for them to come through your doors today? This is their goodbye.” As a florist, you’re going to have to balance between supreme confidence in your capabilities and sensitivity to their wants
and needs. Also, it’s always best to fine-tune your approach depending on the situation.

SMOOTH OVER ANY FRICTION

When there’s a death in the family, there can be tension between relatives. Although this isn’t always the case, a florist should know the right ways to communicate with families who may be having disagreements on how to handle the arrangements. “There may be five or six people in a consultation, and we may end up getting in the middle of a family situation,” Lacey said.

We have to make ourselves available, even during the times we may be closed

“A lot of times, families don’t agree about much of anything, especially when it comes to making the arrangements. In this situation, you’re not just acting as a professional florist, but you’re also a mediator, a counsellor, and a grief crisis person.”

When there are differing opinions, sometimes you can incorporate many of the ideas into one. This is where your design expertise will come in handy: try to find a solution that will work well enough for everyone. Whenever possible, bring the focus back to the loved one who has passed away. Ask the family members what their loved one’s favourite colour was or if they had a favourite flower. You could also ask them if they had a favourite hobby that can be incorporated into the casket spray or in any other arrangements. In situations of conflict, it’s important to be professional and firm, but still comforting.

BE PREPARED AT ALL TIMES FOR A GRIEVING FAMILY

Death, unfortunately, knows no bounds. A death can happen while you’re in the midst of planning multiple weddings or during the Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day rush. You won’t be able to predict when a death happens, but you can always be prepared to take on the business of a bereaved family.

“We have to make ourselves available, even during the times we may be closed,” Lacey said. “Have a plan for those off-hour calls, either with your local funeral director or by using an after-hours answering service so that you can provide that service anytime.”

Not only do you need to be ready to take on a funeral at any time, but you also need to be thinking about ways to make families feel like you’re not throwing things together at the last minute. Being prepared in small ways, like always having bottles of water and tissues available (and maybe even in some cases a glass of wine), helps the family feel more relaxed.

Above all, be self-assured in your skills and your service. “I think it’s important that you have that confidence because you want to make them feel comfortable,” Lacey said.

Jamie Birdwell-Branson
Jamie is a freelance writer and editor with over nine years of editorial experience working as a writer, editor, fact checker, social media specialist, proofreader, and layout artist.
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