When someone passes away, a funeral is a celebration of life, a fond and final farewell from loved ones united in their grief. But undertaker Lianna Champ has had to fight against unrivalled odds to deliver the fitting tributes for which she is known.
Ceremonies via Zoom, online counselling, it’s all so new and so difficult for this celebrant and grief counsellor who prides herself on the personal touch.
At the beginning of the pandemic when restrictions came into force, she’d cry after funerals, a mix of frustration and empathy for people isolated in their grief.
She says: “I’m a grief specialist, I work face-to-face with people and being physically present makes it all the more effective with someone when you can see by their actions how you are affecting them. Not being able to approach or touch them has been gruelling. It took me quite some time to get used to it and after each funeral I’d cry. It was so against everything I believed in. It’s a natural, human instinct to reach out to the suffering.
“I had to do a lot of work over Zoom which not everyone is comfortable with. If you’re grieving it doesn’t feel the same, it’s more like a business meeting. It’s a personal, raw experience. I had to change my vocabulary and tell people how much I cared, so I could reach them.”
Lianna is the author of Grieve Like A Champ, published in 2018, on the advice of Dragons’ Den judge Richard Farleigh, who was impressed by her wide knowledge of grief.
“When we’re happy we want to share it with our friends. It should be the same when we’re sad as both emotions need to be expressed. It’s very difficult because we may feel we’re burdening others but the best thing we can do for our mental health is to share our feelings. Choose carefully who you share them with, choose someone who won’t judge you and will treat your words with confidence.”
Journaling is also helpful and Lianna suggests writing down the highs and lows of the relationship with the person who has passed, including areas where the relationship could have been improved, as a way of working though any unresolved issues on the journey to healing.
Lianna says grief during the pandemic is becoming very complicated as people are already grieving over their loss of routine, freedom and security.
“People aren’t getting the closure because they’re storing up other losses. People are being prescribed anti-depressants but really they are grieving. We’re all facing our own mortality at the moment and if we have unresolved issues it’s becoming very complicated and many are struggling.
“Talking and sharing is the human thing to do. We’re not lone wolves, we’re pack animals. So if you know someone is grieving reach out, and touch base with them regularly.”
Lianna wanted to be an undertaker from the age of nine, although her careers advisor at school said she had more chance of becoming an astronaut.
At 15, her mum organised for her to spend the morning at a funeral home in Blackburn, Lancashire, thinking, wrongly, that it would lead to a change of heart.
That led to her first encounter with death and loss. She saw her first dead body and assisted in its preparation. But instead of putting her off, it encouraged her.
At 21, when she failed to get a job offer – one funeral director said employing a female would put him out of business overnight – she spotted a former bank building in Clayton-le-Moors. She was fortunate to have the backing of her parents as guarantors, so Champ Funeral Services was born.
But in those early days, the reaction from competitors meant she had to collect coffins in secret and pay cash up front. Undeterred, she worked all hours, built up the business and by age 27 had a £175,000 overdraft.
Lianna has suffered her own losses – her best friend died at 17, another friend at 19 to cancer, she suffered a miscarriage at 15 weeks in between her two sons and her mother, Margaret, died in 2011.
“Because grief has been my passion I’ve dealt with them all but my mother was the one that affected me most. I realised then that people don’t know what to say to someone who is grieving. It was the most isolating time of my life, everybody just left me alone because, as a grief expert they were worried that they’d say the wrong thing. It was awful, but that’s what sent me on the quest to find out more about grief in its widest aspect and my mother would have loved the fact that she’d instigated that journey for me.”
So does Lianna believe in life after death?
“Yes absolutely, I have the most wonderful on-going relationship with my mother. When she died, for years I was searching for her everywhere and I used to get quite frustrated. I felt abandoned. Then I realised that my questions were being answered. It felt like she was providing the answers. When someone dies our physical relationship ends but our emotional relationship continues with them until the day we die. I sometimes feel her with me and I’d give anything to have one more conversation with her. I sometimes dream about her and I touch her hair in my dreams. She had the softest hair in the world. It’s a great comfort.”
People – usually men – have been fascinated as to why Lianna would choose death as a career path.
“I replied‘ only a man could ask that question, women know black is so slimming’, she laughs.
“When I was training I used to ask so many questions. One time, I asked Jack, one of the old drivers I worked with, ’Jack, why aren’t there more female undertakers’. His reply‘ there’s a lot of silence involved in this job’. “