The funeral Mass was more difficult emotionally for me than I had anticipated. Not wanting to scare my daughter, I did my best to repress my feelings. I cried, quietly, fighting off the big ugly cry building inside me. Inside I felt cheated, denied the opportunity to grieve. I felt like I had to stay strong for my daughter. I didn’t want to scare her.
My godmother’s death was a shock. She was only 57. It was an aneurysm. She had a headache and sent my uncle alone to the function they had planned to attend. She took a nap and never got out of bed.
Months later in church, my godmother popped into my mind. There was nothing special about the sermon. No specific words triggered my feelings, but all of a sudden, I couldn’t breathe. I had to get out of the building. I quickly lifted my youngest child off my lap, made a quick excuse to my husband and left. I spent the remainder of the Mass sitting on the curb in the parking lot, crying. I managed to pull myself together before other parishioners exited so that I wouldn’t have to answer questions. Of course my husband needed an explanation, so I filled him in.
This made me rethink, for the first time, death and funerals and grief. I had long before shaken my phobia of funerals, thanks to my husband and his views, but at that point in time, I had very little personal experience with grief. I had been to many funerals but only one was someone I had really loved, my grandfather (which was my introduction to funerals and a very difficult experience).
This moment in church taught me to not try to hide from it and to not keep it from my kids. Death is something we can’t (and shouldn’t) avoid. Yes, it is painful. It is difficult to be the one left behind. Finding your way to a new normal seems like an impossible task. But it is something people have been doing for eternity and something that I think we can learn to do better.
I won’t shield my kids from grief. Instead I try to teach them about it and to prepare them for the time I know will someday come that they suffer a loss that will make them feel like their heart has been ripped out and stomped on. Before funerals, I have talked about what they might see and hear, so they have some idea of what to expect. I don’t want them to be shocked and horrified, as I was at my first funeral, that there were people joking and laughing. At the time, this made no sense. SOMEONE WAS DEAD! The family was sad! How could anyone find humor here? I have learned that funerals are not just for being sad, but for celebrating a life and remembering the good times. This is one of the messages I have tried to pass on to my kids.
I explain what they will see. Usually family members are nearby, greeting visitors and accepting condolences. Most visitors go to the casket, to “pay their respects” and perhaps say a prayer. Although some disagree, I do not believe that this is at all necessary and have given my children permission to not approach the casket if they are not comfortable with it. (I have sometimes had to get involved when well-meaning family members have tried to push them to do so). The body in the casket often looks different than the person did in life, and this can be alarming, or even downright frightening. Sometimes one needs time to be in the same room and observe from a distance to get comfortable with this. Physical proximity to the deceased person is not necessary to honor their memory or provide comfort to their loved ones, which is really the purpose of funerals anyway.
Knowing what to expect takes away some of the apprehension. Death rites vary, depending on one’s religion, culture and family wishes. It is helpful to those unfamiliar with the rituals to be told what comes next. The expectations are more complicated, however, when you are “the family.” This brings you front and center. People will seek you out to offer condolences. This can be difficult on children who are working out their own feelings about the situation and may want to just be left alone.
Death is difficult to accept and makes one question life. I came to a realization a couple years ago after a particularly difficult loss: Grief is the price we pay for loving. Without love, we would have nothing to grieve. As difficult as it is, I think that it is worthwhile.