Helen  Lawson 

When Helen saw someone cross the road rather than talk to her mum, after her brother died 20 years ago, she became passionate about improving conversation and language around death.

She went on to publish a book on bereavement for children, endorsed by Cruse Bereavement Care and wrote a series of sympathy cards without ever using the word sympathy. She almost became a funeral director but is now a lead content designer for Co-op Digital specialising in Funeralcare.

Death And Other Difficult Words

Many of us don’t know what to say when someone dies. Language around death is deeply subjective and sometimes divisive. This talk explores the process and the passion behind getting the words right when talking about death in digital, in print and in person.

Hello. Thank you all for coming today. I know other talks were available. I appreciate you coming to listen to my talk about death and other difficult words. A few moments before this started, I had a little bit of stress because the little USB for my clicker got stuck. And thank goodness for once it was beneficial being perimenopausal because I had some tweezers in my bag and I was able to pull it out, so the talk will go ahead.


So, I'll introduce myself. First of all, I'm a lead content designer at the Co-op. I specialise in writing for Funeralcare. I write a lot of the web content and software content, and I've been with them for nearly six years. I almost became a funeral director and I've written books on bereavement, poetry and a suite of sympathy cards without ever saying the word sympathy.


I'm going to tell you a little bit about why it matters to me, because this is an unusual topic to be so passionate about, I suppose, and to want to work in so much and talk about so often. But it's because of this fella here. It was my brother, Andrew, who died a long time ago now, 22 years ago in a motorbike accident.


But when he died, it changed me because it does it changes you. And it taught me the power of a good funeral, because his funeral was incredible. He was a biker, a proper biker, the hairy sort with patches on his back. And on the day of his funeral, there were 220 bikes roaring their engines behind the family cortege as we went to his funeral.


And it was amazing. And it changed how I feel about that day and how important it can be. And another reason is my little Mum, and I say little, she's four foot ten. She didn't want to leave the house for a while. And I had to organise the funeral. And on the first time she did leave the house, she saw an old school friend that she'd known all of her life.


And this lady walked towards her, and my mum was sort of steeling herself ready to, you know, hear the condolences or whatever or hear something. And this woman stared at my mum in the eye and ran across the road and didn't speak to her. And I sort of said to myself at that point, metaphorically, I will never cross the road if somebody comes towards me


that has been through something like that. So that's why this matters to me. But also, it is a tricky subject and I do go into some detail about some certain funerals. And if it does feel upsetting or triggering and you need to leave, that really is okay. So I'll tell you a little bit about Co-op. I mean, I suppose we all know Co-ops been around a long time and was based here, and sort of began here in Rochdale a very long time ago.


And it was the beginning of the co-operative movement as we know it today. It was founded by these gentlemen here in Rochdale. They called the Rochdale Pioneers. They wanted to give people agency, opportunity, and help them in the whole, with the whole divi scheme. So people got rewarded for shopping with Co-op. They also set up little schools at the top of their stores as well to teach the children of their shop workers and also to teach the shop workers to read and write.


So empower people and we still do that today. Interesting fact about this photo here. I don't know if anybody's ever seen the film The Others, but legend has it one of these men in this photograph is dead and was dressed up and posed for this photograph. I have my suspicions about which one it might be. I think it's this guy here because his eyes are closed.


He's looking on worried, and they're sort of propping him up from behind. I can't obviously prove that, but this is one of the stories when you start at Co-op and you get a tour of the building, this is one of the stories that they tell you. So it comes from a good source. So Co-op Funeralcare, the largest funeral director in the UK, we arrange around 95,000 funerals a year. And some of those funerals are a little bit quirky.


Our funeral directors will go the extra mile. If you are a Star Wars fan, that is one of our funeral directors dressed up there. It can be a colorful celebration of life. whatever feels right for the person who died. It can be something a little bit more traditional, but with your man's best friend alongside, if that's what you want. Or you can even go further.


And that's what I love about doing this job and working with the funeral directors. I've got to know many funeral directors over the years. I've worked with them as SMEs. I've visited funeral homes, and I've become friends with lots of them, and they all have a story to tell. And this is one of my favorites. Young funeral directors who worked with us called Ryan and he had to do the funeral for a young boy.


So a difficult one. And he got to know the family quite well. He went to visit them and got to know them, and they showed him the young boy's bedroom. And then there were loads of red London bosses. He must have had a bit of an obsession. You know how kids get obsessed with dinosaurs or busses or something. And the family asked for four limousines to take them to the funeral.


Now, that would have been quite expensive. And Ryan, instead of coming up with four limousines, turned up on a red London bus with the boy's name on the front. And everybody that got on that bus got a ticket with the boy's name on. And the family look back on that day. And even though it's a horrific thing for them to have to have done, they look back on that day and think, wasn't that great?


Didn't we do right? Wouldn't he have loved it? And it's moments like that that funeral directors can bring to people's lives that makes me really proud to work alongside them, and why I almost became one. It's much easier doing this, though. So obviously content designers. We like to work with principles and tone of voice principles in particular.


It helps keep everybody honest, especially because very often you'll get different agencies that are writing for the same business and you have to speak with one voice and you have to sound the same. We have four pillars at Co-op funeral care, and here they are. We need to be empathetic, reassuring, down-to-earth and inspiring. I'm going to go through each of those now.


Why are we empathetic? Well, empathy means that you understand that you are talking to somebody and you understand what they're going through. It's not sympathy. We don't want to have funeral directors to show sympathy particularly. They need to show empathy because we are here to offer practical help and understanding no matter what, no matter what that person's going through.


And not everybody feels distress when arranging a funeral. I remember a funeral director telling me she had a family member come to visit somebody who died in the chapel of rest. And she was being very respectful, the funeral director friend of mine, and stood back and she said, I'll give you all the time you need. I'll be outside if you need anything, just let me know, you know, take your time.


And this lady came in and she peered into the coffin and she said, I've just come to check that he's dead. And she walked out again. And now we don't know her circumstances. And they're not our business. But what we are here to do is give her an empathetic and good service. That's what we're here to do. It's a people business.


If you've ever broken your leg, if you've ever been needed, a paramedic, if you've ever done a St John's Ambulance First Aid course, one of the things that you're taught to do is reassure people. You're going to be okay. Even if your legs hanging off, you will be okay. I'm here now. We're going to help you. And I really feel it's the same feeling for the funeral director.


People only arrange between one and two funerals in their whole lives, so you don't know what to do until you have to do it. And grief is the difficult bit. Arranging the funeral shouldn't be. That's what we're here for. We're here to help you arrange your funeral. So we need to reassure people that this next bit, this day is going to be okay because we're going to help you. I think this can apply to most content principles.


Really. You need to use words that people can understand. If somebody has to Google something that you've written about, you've lost them, you've failed them. As a content designer, you explain yourself clearly particularly when you're talking about death, dying in bereavement. And we also want to inspire people. The story about the red bus, oh, it's gone. Hold on.


Are we back? Yes. Again, another thing a perimenopausal woman really wants is a little bit of stress, mid-presentation. But a good funeral can be inspirational. The red bus story, my brother's funeral with all the motorbikes. It is our job to inspire people as well. You don't know what you can do if you've never arranged a funeral before.


you have no idea what you can do. And I have to say you can do almost anything. The only thing that you legally have to do is responsibly dispose of a body. Everything else you can hold the funeral in Man United if you wanted to, if they would let you, you can do whatever you like. And we should inspire people to let them know what's available. Euphemisms.


Anybody who knows me will know that I'm not a fan of these particular words. Passed away, passing, passed on. All of these sorts of things that can be misunderstood. As a content designer, when you are writing about funerals you must avoid euphemisms. You need to be more clear.


Why do we avoid them? Well, they can be misunderstood. If English isn't your first language or you know, particularly by children, they can also misunderstand euphemisms. I have some examples of this. One young girl was told that her mum had passed away and then when her sister fainted at school, she was told that her sister passed out.


She just heard the word passed and she immediately thought that her sister had died and that little moment of heartbreak, of worry, of panic in that girl's life, could have been avoided if we'd used the right words from the start. Similarly, somebody on Twitter was chatting with me and she told me that her grandma, her mum had died and she used to live with this family and the four year old little girl and she told her that grandma had gone. And this little girl accepted it and bounced off and but then came back a few hours later going, when's Grandma coming home? Because she hadn't understood. And so that meant that the person whose mum had died had to go through that conversation again and the little girl had to hear it again.


And it could have been avoided. It isn't just me or Co-op that believes there's sort of these rules about euphemisms. So does Child Bereavement UK. They're a really large bereavement charity based obviously in the UK. And the patrons are William and Kate, I think are the patrons of this charity. Their advice is when talking to a child about somebody who has died, you say, I've got something sad to tell you.


Grandad has been ill and now he's died because they can understand that. Similarly, Cruse Bereavement Care, they are the largest bereavement charity in the UK. The Queen is the patron of them. They also talk about supporting you after the death of someone close. And Sands, arguably one of the more difficult deaths to experience, the death of a stillbirth or neonatal baby.


And they talk about supporting you through the death of a baby. And if they can use those words, we can use those words. And I was once in Angel Square just over there, and I'd been asked to look at some content an agency had written, and I was there with a red pen sort of scribbling things down. I scribbled out, passed away and somebody said, well "Isn't passed away nicer?"


But there's nothing nice about when somebody dies. And the fact that it can be misunderstood means that there's no place in the written word when you are a funeral director. Because if you can't say that somebody died, who can? And euphemisms don't soften the blow. All of this said, and I do speak to lots of funeral directors, I would never tell them how to speak because I think they use a technique called active listening.


And active listening is a way of showing empathy and it's way of mirroring how people speak to you. So if somebody is saying to them, you know, my mom passed away, I'm sorry that your mom passed away. But if somebody says, you know, my dad died, I think it's okay to repeat that language back. And I think one of the biggest attributes of a funeral director, one of the most important characteristics that they have is that they are genuinely empathetic people so they understand how to have this conversation.


So even though I'm very keen that when we talk about death online, I would never tell a funeral director how to speak. And also I'd be scared of them. But when you're writing for funeral care personally or funerals or bereavement or grief or DWP or, you know, wherever you're writing about this topic, I think it's a real privilege because you have an opportunity to help somebody through what could potentially be one of the toughest things are going to ever have to do.


And I think it's a real privilege to to write for Funeralcare personally. And there are a few little rules. And one is that the word deceased is one that you won't find on the Funeralcare website. If you do, please tweet me about it. It's there by mistake. And it needs to come away because I don't think that people want to hear the person they love become somebody who is deceased. It's not a pleasant word, but it is a word that we do need to use in Funeralcare because it is a noun that we use to describe a thing that has to move from place to place.


So we have some software that funeral directors use call Guardian, and we use the word deceased throughout that software, but it's back of house. It's sort of behind the curtain. We don't want to have people hear that word anywhere else. We refer to them as 'the person who has died' which sometimes might feel like a mouthful, but it's still the right language to use after you've called them the person who died.


once you can drop into calling them they them as you go through the content. Similarly, another rule is that you don't come to view the person who's died. You come to visit them. And that's because you can't always view them. It's not always appropriate to see them. So just little rules that we have to instill right from the beginning. Every time I do this talk, I really think, why have I got that picture


there it's so horrendous. I hate the dentist. I really have a mortal fear of them. But if they were coming at you with a drill, they wouldn't say, right, this is really going to hurt now. So what would you do? You'd brace yourself, you might close your mouth, you might leave but more importantly, you would expect it to hurt.


You are ready like, oh, god, this is going to hurt this is really going to hurt. I'm going to have to cope with this. So maybe we shouldn't tell people the funeral is going to be difficult. But we did used to say that on our website before we did the redesign not long ago. We used to say all of the time we know how difficult and disorientating arranging a funeral can be.


But if we're doing our job properly, it won't be difficult or disorientating. Because we will help you do that. So we changed that kind of language and made it more about the person, about them. When you arrange your funeral with us, the first thing we will do is listen. Because it's only by listening that we will be able to include those personal touches that we talked about at the beginning. The red bus, the music choices, those sorts of things.


We have to listen to them. Then we used to start, on the home page we used to start with this. We've been arranging funerals for more than 100 years. Who cares? I mean, really, who cares? Everybody knows the Co-op has been around a long time. Everybody knows. But if you were arranging a funeral in 1922, it doesn't necessarily make you good at it in 2022 does it really.


I don't think it's useful. And also this makes it about us and we don't want it to be about us, we want it to be about them. So instead of saying things like that, we've gone a little bit more about the experience. You tell us what you want and we will do our best to make it happen. Whether that be a funeral in Old Trafford or something. I don't know if we'd swing that.


We're so sorry for your loss. I mean, this used to appear in some written collateral that people would be given to take away with them after they've been at the funeral arrangement meeting. So they've been sitting potentially in the funeral home, they've been having that conversation. They've decided what the funeral will be. And then they take this home, they may or may not read it.


And the first line was, 'We're so sorry for your loss'. Well, that person is about to spend anywhere between a thousand and £5,000 with us. And it feels a little disingenuous to read that in print and take it away. If our funeral directors say that to you in person, that's empathy. That's quite nice. That's okay. They're talking to you,


that's people having a connection together, having a conversation. I don't think that that should be in print. That is also nowhere on the website and it's nowhere in our collateral anymore. We just need to be really practical with things. If someone has died and you need our help, we're here 24 hours a day. This is a bit contentious for me, this sentence, because when I first heard it, I thought, I'm not sure that the best goodbye is the most personal one for everyone.


As we talked about before, the lady who just came to check that the man was dead, I'm not convinced that she would want to put her personal touches into that funeral. I'm not even sure she went. So we've changed this now and it now says 'We think the best goodbye is a most personal one.', because in many, many cases it is.


And it can be, but not in all. So when I was making suggestions and we were working on the different content, I just think we just go on the positive. We'll arrange the funeral that feels right. What funeral feels right for you and right for them.


You can trust us to manage your budget. This was also in the printed collateral that people took away. And I think, again, I'm very suspicious of companies that tell me to trust them. You know, trust is earned. You don't tell me, you know, you have to earn that trust from me. And it isn't our job to manage their budget.


It's their job to manage their budget. So we removed that and instead we'll just be open with you. We'll be clear about all of the prices. We will be transparent and we will work with you within your budget. This breaks two of my rules. One of which is when you're planning a funeral, there's enough to think about, well, again, we're here to help you do that.


We're here to help planning the funeral, as easy as it can be for you. And we can never stop people worrying about money. How could we possibly stop somebody worrying about money? We don't know their situation. We don't know the circumstances. We don't know how much they earn, if they've been made redundant. So that and it's also it's not our job to stop them worrying about money.


We can't do that. Instead, we will be open and honest with you about all of the costs involved in arranging a funeral. Now, when we were doing some user research a few years ago, one person was talking to us. And I think that people who do user research with you about funerals are the best people so kind of them to share their their knowledge with us.


But one woman was talking about when it was her dad's funeral, when the bill came, she nearly fell off a chair because she'd been sitting in a room with this man in this funeral home and just agreeing to stuff. And she was too nervous to ask about money, too nervous ask, well, how much? And he would ask questions like, so how many family members are going to the funeral?


How many limousines do you need? And if there's a lot of people, that's three limousines, that's nearly £900 on cars that you don't necessarily need to spend. And she felt nervous to talk about money. She thought that they would think that they don't she didn't love her dad enough if she couldn't pay for it. So she never asked about money.


She felt shy. And then she was landed with a five or £6,000 bill at the end of it. And that just doesn't feel fair. And thankfully now there have been some changes in regulation and law. The Competition Markets Authority has now made it law that all funeral directors have to display their prices in the front window and on the home page of their website.


And they have to be up to date and they have to be clearly seen. And I think that's about right. I think there's so much secrecy and nervousness around money when arranging a funeral. So hopefully that incident won't happen again. But we just are going to be open and honest about all the costs involved in arranging a funeral. This is on Dignity's website.


Dignity is another funeral provider, and we were doing some research in search terms around funerals. And one of the most searched for terms is what to wear to a funeral. And I don't care how much I like you, I'm not wearing a knee-length skirt or dress to your funeral. So that's not going to happen. Smart, plain blouse. You can't tell women to dress like that in 2022 it's ridiculous.


So our advice when we wrote that. Ask the family. Sometimes we are guilty of treating people that are arranging a funeral like they're in a bubble, like we can't touch them, we can't go near, we don't want to bother them, don't want to worry them. Whereas actually that time in between the death and the day of the funeral can feel like no man's land. It's a bit of a strange time and somebody calling or texting or popping in could be a lovely relief.


And we also have to trust that if people don't want to speak to you, they just maybe won't answer the door. They'll just ignore your text. But don't feel afraid to ask them something as simple as you know, is there a color scheme? Do I need to wear a Liverpool shirt? Those sorts of things.


And and this is particularly important. When a good friend of mine when her step dad died, I gleaned from a conversation with her that she was wearing black and that she'd bought her son a black tie. So I wore my one smart black jacket that I wear for job interviews and other such things. And Posh Shirley from York didn't didn't know about that.


And she came in a bright pink cerise dress with flowers on and a fascinator like going to Ladies Day at Ascot. But she wore that because she knew that Richard loved flowers and colour and actually she was right. But because she didn't check, she felt daft because she stood out. And what a shame that she felt that, because actually Richard would have loved that.


And maybe would have all worn bright colours had we had that conversation around it. And another person at that same funeral turned up in a boiler suit covered in paint because she was a an artist. And I think brilliant. The most important thing is that you were there, you were there, and you gave Wendy a hug. And that was the most important thing.


So this training that I've been talking to you, taking you through, is something that I do with all of the external ad agencies, different creative agencies that write for Co-op for Funeralcare. And I like to think it's had a bit of an effect. And I'll show you an example. So this is an old advert for funeral plans.


If you've ever worked in advertising before, and I used to be an advertising copywriter, I can imagine the person coming up with that was like, "Oh yeah, that's great." That's really funny, cos there's a mental leap here and it is leave your family, leave your loved ones with something they'll appreciate in the future. Don't leave them with the steam train.


Whereas it's not really getting to the crux of what it's about, trying to be a little bit funny and there is a mental leap, there's work to do. So I didn't work on these adverts, but I do like them. They now look like this. They make about you. If you are going to buy a funeral plan and you want it to be, you know, the louder, the better, that's okay.


You tell us what it is that you want. When that time comes, we will do our best to make it happen. Well, the 'everybody wear pink' plan. Colour plays a big part in funerals these days. Black is sort of on its way out and the 'must be colorful' plan. That's one that maybe Richard would have liked when Posh Shirley was trying to lead on. But what can we do to support our friends and family through grief?


This is the part of the talk that veers a little bit away from content design and UX and all of the design principles that we talked about. And it's, you know, don't cross the road. Don't cross the road when somebody is walking towards you if they've been through something difficult. What can you do? What can you say? Well, this was on my Facebook page a few years ago when my friend's mum died. Two things about that, really.


One, I'm really glad that people were saying something because it's important to say something, but also don't say the same thing as four people above you have also just done. I think there's something really wonderful about hearing about the person who died from other people who knew them differently to you. So what could you do? What else can you do?


You can share a memory of that person. So my friend Wendy, her step dad Richard. The amount of times he picked us up drunk from outside a nightclub in Hull with a bag of chips is just innumerable. And when he died, we talked about that. Wasn't he lovely and he used to make us sandwiches the next day.


So share a memory. If you don't have any memories, ask about them. I will also say that some of my brother's friends told me stories about him on the day of his funeral I wish I hadn't heard. You can imagine bikers going on trips to Amsterdam. I'm like, no. So if you don't have any stories that you can share, ask. What were they like? What was it like growing up with them?


You know, talk about them. There was something wonderful hearing that person's name come out of somebody else's mouth. It rolls around in your ears. It just feels great to hear somebody talk about them, and that's why it's important to say their name. We don't want to make people upset but they're already upset, so it's okay.


And if we talk about them, it just feels good. Take it from me. So go out there in work. If it applies to you, it may or may not, but use these honest words in your work or in your life wherever you want. And if you know somebody who's grieving, just check in with them. Even if it was a few years ago, drop them a text.


How are you doing after your dad? It's been Father's Day recently. You know, it will not fall on deaf ears and it will not go unnoticed. Because you're never going to remind them that someone died because they're never going to forget that. What you're doing is reminding them that they lived. And that's a lovely gift. Thank you.