Being a funeral director gives me a unique laboratory to study human nature. We in the business are passionate about telling the life story of the deceased. We use buzz words like, “Celebration,” and “Tribute.” We encourage brining food and posting family photos on video tributes. Sounds like it should be something for the public to look forward to, and yet they don’t. Ever wonder why funerals and visitations are dreaded so much in our society? The obvious reason is that there has been a loss, and that loss leads us to confront several uncomfortable truths.
One is our own mortality. We are inherently reminded by seeing someone else’s casket (or urn, or photo) that we too will travel a similar road. While many of us have varying amounts of faith in what comes after this life, the truth is that none of us have proven that faith. We prefer things we can see, touch, feel, and experience. Not many of us are adept at walking blindly into new experiences. So unless your faith is rock-solid, facing the after-life might give you pause.
Another uncomfortable truth is that our society is extremely inept when it comes to grieving. In general, we’ve been conditioned through advertising that we can “have it all.” If you don’t like your car, get another one. If you don’t like the way you look, just lose weight, get some plastic surgery, and viola! A whole new you. Feeling down? Here’s some medicine for that. And so on. But grief is something that you can’t just wipe away with a new and improved magic cloth. Grief is hard. And we don’t like hard things. In fact, we generally avoid hard things like the plague. I know I do.
So we as a society have not been taught how to process our own grief. I believe that this fact has caused the cremation rate in our country to grow significantly over the past twenty years. We’ve been conditioned that if we skip the viewing and funeral and “just cremate” without any ceremony – we will somehow avoid the difficulty of grieving. I’m afraid this is not the case. Grief is not avoided – only delayed and/or complicated.
More significantly, we have not been taught how to grieve with others. This fact is on display in my world almost constantly. Recently, we served a young couple who lost a baby. (Now don’t get me wrong – dealing with the loss of a baby is simply the hardest thing we as funeral directors do. My wife and I have walked a similar road. We lost twins who were born premature over seven years ago. It still hurts.) The mother of the infant is usually the person who takes the most active role in planning the arrangements, and this mother was no different. She was extremely organized, and was willing to face her grief head-on. Rather than avoiding it, she confronted it and planned a service that beautifully honored her son and embraced the limited time she had with him.
But a sad thing happened. Those around her resisted allowing her to experience the grief. If she broke down, they ran to her side to try to “cheer her up,” or change the subject to take her mind off of things. People said things like, “I know how you feel.” I guarantee not one of them did, and she knew it. Rather than having the desired effect, it only made her feel more isolated. It came to the point where I offered to let her come to the funeral home and just be by herself. She almost took me up on it.
I counsel parents of young children to be prepared for the dreaded, “I know how you feel” line. Why we think that helps, I don’t know. I wish we could stop using that phrase when it comes to dying and grief. But that paled in comparison to what happened at the service.
The mom had requested that, after letting go of some helium-filled balloons, I dismiss the crowd and her immediate family would stay behind for a few private moments with the casket before she had to walk away from her son for the last time. I did what she asked. I thanked the crowd of her closest friends and family for being there to show their support, and that she and her husband and three other young children wanted to have a few private moments alone. I directed them to go to their cars and to take the opportunity over the next few weeks to reach out to the family.
And no one moved. They were frozen with confusion, not knowing how to react. As I tried to escort the mom and dad back to the casket, individuals stepped in to hug the mom. “I’m so sorry. Please let me know if there’s anything I can do.” Over and over again. Eventually, the mom and dad became separated, each swept out to sea by wave upon wave of, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” each person trying to out-comfort the previous one. And it hit me. These people aren’t doing this for her. They were doing it for themselves. Somehow ignoring the mom and dad’s wishes so that they could interrupt a beautiful moment with their sentiments (which sounded like everyone else’s) was their way of helping and supporting the parents.
In our ignorance and discomfort, we’ve become convinced that to support a grieving family is to insert ourselves at any particular moment, hug, and recite the “I’m so sorry, please let me know if there’s anything I can do” line. Beyond that, we’re clueless. I’m reminded of the book of Job, where Job’s friends came to visit him in his grief. They sat with him for seven days on the ground. They wept, but didn’t speak. Job knew they were there. He felt their support. The Bible says they didn’t speak because they saw that his grief was very great.” Oh that we could learn a lesson from Job’s friends.
How do you help others grieve? A grieving friend or co-worker doesn’t need your words of wisdom. He or she doesn’t need you to out-comfort the others at the service. Just being there is enough. Being there in the weeks and months to follow is even better. But that is hard, and that is why most people don't do it.
We've made a lot of articles on grief, written by leading experts, available to you at www.educatedfuneralconsumer.com. Please take advantage of them and learn how you can effectively help others in their grief.