Attending Funerals After Loss

Author: Bevin Landrum

When our hearts are newly broken and the magnitude of our losses seems insurmountable, it is hard to think beyond the surreal moments of your own hero's memorial service, wake or funeral. Whether your loved one is laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery or under a tall oak in the family cemetery plot, that location and experience is consuming. You feel as if you will never attend another funeral again. How could you? It would open fresh wounds and require an effort of composure that seems impossible.

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And then your best friend's mother passes away after a battle with cancer. Or children in your son's school are lost in a house fire. Some new loss enters your life, and you are faced with the dilemma of attending the funeral or taking a pass. What is a survivor to do? 

At TAPS, we first encourage you to do what is right for your heart. If you are not ready to walk into that space again, then don't. Reach out to the family and send heartfelt condolences. Allow your own grief experience to give you new empathy for how their family is reeling from loss. No need to compare the grief. It's not more or less than yours, but rather shared. And, as long as you honor the life and memory of your friend or family member, their loved ones will most likely understand if you cannot bring yourself to attend the service. 

Still, there will be situations where you feel you cannot escape the requirement to attend and show support and compassion for those grieving their own loved one. Or perhaps you simply feel that you are now up to the task and need to rejoin this time-honored tradition of saying farewell to a life. 

Here are some experiences our survivors shared recently in a Saturday Morning Message about choosing to attend funerals or not and how they handle the experience. They represent the gamut of feelings and can serve as a starting place in your own decision making.  

We hope they will also give you strength to walk into this sometimes uncomfortable situation knowing that you are loved and supported in a way that makes you capable of seeing it unfold in a new light. The truth that rises to the top? We are all going to face subsequent loss in our lives, and we cannot run from it. Trust your grief skills and allow yourself to breathe in the sacred space where we honor those who are gone too soon from our lives but never our hearts. 

From Annette, mother of Joseph: I have been to many wakes. When it is the natural order of life, it doesn't seem to bother me. However, there have been two recently for young men we know. One was even in the same funeral home as Joe's wake. I could not bring myself to go to either, and I know it was understood. I went to the Mass for one, and that was a challenge in itself. To see the mom fall apart just about killed me. I offered to speak to her but so far have not really had an answer. When she is ready, if she wants to speak, I will be there for her. 

From Robert, father of Louis: We go. The families invariably tell us that we don't have to, but these are the same people who came out to support us. It can be difficult, especially when it's someone's child. We don't stay long, except for someone in our family. 

From Valerie, mother of Kevin: When there is a funeral or calling hours, I go and just say I am sorry. I do not use platitudes or say, "Call me if you need anything." I listen and allow them to talk about the person who died. If it is a close friend, I will just go to the house with food or groceries to leave them. I don't ask. I just do what helped me when my son was killed six years ago this August. 

From Diane, mother of Caleb: Funerals are tough. Two of my very dear friends have passed, as well as my father-in-law, since Caleb left this world. Of course, I went to their services, as hard as it was. My next-door neighbor just passed away, and I will go to his service. We've been neighbors for almost 20 years. For me, there is no easy way to approach funerals, no mantra that makes them any easier. I just know I have to go and so I do. I go to honor their lives. I inhale deeply, exhale and repeat, taking many deep breaths. I pray for strength to make it through. My husband is a wonderful support. I hold his hand tightly and sit close to him; it helps to know he is near. And that's how I approach the funerals of loved ones and friends after our own loss. 

From Vivian, daughter of Don: My dad's service was unconventional with no casket, no urn and no remembrance photo. It created some anxiety for me because I craved those ritual trappings of the service. But, oh, were there flowers. The smell of them was intoxicating but cloying at the same time. For months afterward, I would wake in the middle of the night feeling as if I could still smell the arrangements. I was petrified before attending a recent memorial service that the smell of the flowers would unhinge me. Instead, I found strength in drawing in the aroma of the similar blooms. Yes, it brought back my grief, but it also made me aware that my friend was probably struggling with the same thing. That opened the door to a conversation where we shared a common external thing and tiptoed into the realm of heart-sharing. She eventually opened up and confessed that she had not yet been able to walk to the casket and see her brother. I was able to walk with her only because I knew how important it was to have a companion in these hard moments. She didn't need my lessons. She needed me to be present.  It was easier than I thought once I realized it wasn't just about me. 

To sign up for the Saturday Morning Message email smm@taps.org.  

By Bevin R. Landrum, MA: Bevin has a master’s degree in public relations, is an avid sports fan, cook and Southern hostess. She is a military spouse and the surviving daughter of a World War II veteran. Bevin writes to honor him and all those who serve.