I was sitting by myself in the lonely and cold room of the funeral home staring at my friend’s body surrounded by flowers. He looked good as corpses go, decked out in a fine suit with an Art Deco pin on the lapel. He had on a lot of make up, but then again, most do. The casket was glistening steel in a muted silver and they hadn’t bothered to drape the underside, so the criss-cross bars that supported him were exposed. There were a smattering of funeral floral arrangements, all beautiful and one just as fragrant as the next. There were two screens on the wall above him, playing a woman speaking and singing incessantly as the tape rolled over and over. She had a great voice, but it was a short video and the volume was too low to be heard in the back, where I finally moved to after an hour and a half of waiting for the service to begin. More people made their way in and as the waiting time became closer to two hours, some began to leave. The older age of those gathered made no argument for the rest of us to get back to the day at hand. As I looked around, I noticed a friend and he came and sat and said hello. He was shaking, sweating and smelled of tobacco. I saw that he came in earlier and left with two other guys and was just returning. As he started to speak, his voice was shaky and he was unable to speak in a clear sentence-as if his speech was forced, muted and choppy. His eyes were so dark and his hands were trembling. All he could muster was “I’m socially inept at the moment”. I asked why and he said he was just having trouble. Fresh out of rehab and back in town, he was contacting old customers like myself as he was starting a new job this evening. My body language must have said it all, if only he were sober enough to have read it. In his twenties with so much talent and a bright future ahead of him, he was making ill use of his idle hands and wide open schedule. He managed to awkwardly apply his black cloth face mask, half exposing his mouth and beard. After about 15 minutes, his body began twitching uncontrollably as he was either going into withdrawal or suffering from chorea. I weighed out my options of either giving him my business card which listed my specialty in counseling or just asking him about his sobriety. I did neither. After all, I am not his counselor and I have no business asking him about his choices. On the other hand, I do care that a young guy that I care about is absolutely not ok. It reminded me of some terrible choices that I made at his age. I remember that horrible feeling of not being able to speak when spoken to and wanting to sink into the floor. Today, I saw a ghost.
I recently attended a funeral and the stepmother wasn’t acknowledged at all by the deceased or her family in the service or the obituary. She had been married to the deceased girl’s father for 30 years and all of this came as quite a shock to the stepmother. She certainly counted her children as her grandchildren, gave and received cards and gifts from them and always attended every outing and family function. Over the years, the deceased woman’s mother who was originally married to her father, made it clear to the children that they were not to acknowledge the stepgrandmother, so they felt awkward at gatherings. This didn’t deter the stepgrandmother from loving them. After all, they were only children and didn’t deserve any of this.
When the stepdaughter became very ill, the stepmother and mother found themselves at her deathbed together along with the father. They were able to forget their differences and the stepmother thought that this was finally the breakthrough she needed in order to help the young family with their loss. The stepdaughter’s husband was so full of grief that he was losing the love of his life, he was bitter and angry and consequently took it out verbally on those nearby. This united the grieving parent trio even more. The children were also less wary about who to turn to for support at their time of great need.
After her passing, the husband was left with the children and his family to help him. A few days later, the obituary was placed in the local paper and the stepmother’s name was left out intentionally. It read, “she is survived by her parents” and listed her mother’s name and father’s name, as if they were still married to each other, along with other family and extended family member names. This included her half brothers whom she only saw a handful of times in her life. Her husband was furious when he read it and she could only cry. You see, she had known her stepdaughter since she was 9 years old. They had always told each other “I love you” and exchanged cards and messages on every holiday. She was always the first person that came to mind at Christmas and even at her wedding, the stepmother was asked to read a special passage and they shared a special day at the winery after presenting her with the tiara she wanted to be married in. The stepmother gave her three special baby showers and she was always made to feel that she was part of her family.
The stepdaughter’s husband said that he had orders from above (whatever that meant) and wrote it as he was told to. The father and the husband had breakfast and the husband apologized to the father and then called the stepmother to apologize. She said she wasn’t angry because after all, he had just lost the love of his life, his young wife. But inside she was so hurt.
The day of the wake, the stepmother being comfortable with the mother now, asked her husband to call her and offer her a ride since she was alone. The husband was on the phone and put the mother on speaker, so the stepmother could hear. She asked if the father had read the obituary and he said that he had, not mentioning the stepmother’s hurt feelings. The mother proudly stated that the husband asked for her input and that she had approved the obituary. The stepmother now knew that her name was intentionally left out because the former wife was still trying to get even with her husband for leaving her 39 years ago, and for marrying the stepmother 30 years ago.
I know this story is true, because I am the stepmother in this story. No matter how much you love someone, sometimes it isn’t enough in the end.
If you have lost something or someone that meant something to you, you will grieve the loss. It’s ingrained in our DNA as living beings. It is the price we pay for love.
There is no getting around it. It’s a door you have to walk through in order to get to the other side. Some people claim that they never stop grieving, it just morphs into something softer like an old sweater that you know is unravelling but still feels familiar and is strangely comforting.
You fear that if you pull it out into the open too many times it may just fall apart and you’ll forget what it feels like, so you fold it up and test placing it on a shelf for a while until the feelings are so unbearable you walk around wearing an old sweater in the heat and people begin to stare. Family and friends stop calling because they don’t know how to help you and they feel embarrased and ashamed to admit it and this makes them feel powerless. This would be tragically sad if it werent so… ironic.
After about a year, if you still feel as if your head is in the clouds, and you’ve made robotic attempts at living, all the while still yearning for the deceased as though the loss were yesterday, you may be experiencing Persistent Complex Bereavement Disorder. It is defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders fifth edition as continuing to experience sorrow and intense emotional pain; preoccupation with the deceased and the circumstances of their death on more days than not. It has been descibed as being emotionally numb, having difficluty with positive reminiscing about the loss with escessive avoidance of people, places and situations that may be a reminder and bring pain to you. Sometimes there may also be a desire to die in order to be with the deceased and feeling utterly alone in that process. Life may have no meaning any longer and trusting others to confide in is nonexistent. And if the breavement was due to tragic circumstances, such as murder or death by suicide, there may also be a preoccupation with the factors surrounding the loss.
Children also can suffer from the disorder. Unlike adults, children are usually more resilient when it comes to loss. After about six months (versus twelve in adults), they have usually accepted their life as it is as their new normal. Grieving in children will resurface at each holiday, birthday and anniversary, but will return to baseline and this should be expected into young adulthood. On the other hand, if after six months the child continues to express yearning in their play behavior and has marked difficulty accepting the finality of death, then they may also be experiencing the disorder. Younger children will avoid talking about their feelings regarding the deceased and older children may be preoccupied with them. The less the caregiving routine of children is disrupted, the better.
Increased and misdirected anger when someone speaks about the deceased, acting as if the deceased individual will be coming home, cooking meals for them or saving presents for them at holidays or auditory or visual hallucinations in adults may be present. This can occur at any age after 12 months of life. Grief responses are different, and usually occur at once after a loss. PCBD may be delayed months or in some cases years. Although this is rare, anyone experiencing these symptoms should get medical help immediately.
Pathologizing grief to some is unnecesary, however there are those that walk around in many, many shades of pain and are afraid to ask for help. Please don’t be. Death remains a mystery but to those of us left behind, it can be a great teacher if we learn to share in our grief. As much pain as you may be in right now while you are reading this, please know that there is someone else following right behind you and it may help them to know that you survived in spite of it.
Life is not always easy and to watch someone we love suffer can make it unbearable. All too often the grieving process starts before the person who is ill is ready to make others feel better, or even face the end of the battle themselves. Tempers flare, feelings fly out of people’s mouths and tears flow uncontrollably. It stems from feeling helpless and being overwhelmingly sad at the same time. One might say that the entire world that they know has become tilted in an effort to minimize the burden of carrying around a heavy, invisible boulder known as grief.
Offering kindness in the face of such adversity seems like a cliche, but it actually has a healing effect that is contagious and can change the temperature of a room in an instant. Grief is messy business because we are human and there is no handbook of etiquette. But we have to remember to offer kindness to ourselves first and the rest will follow.
Venture into mindfulness at times when the feelings become unmanageable. This simply means to reground yourself through a form of meditation. Some people reconnect with their five senses: focus on one thing each that you can see, feel, taste, hear, and touch. Next, slow down your breathing by inhaling deeply through your nose for a count of four and slowly exhale through pursed lips for a count of six. Repeat. This process slows down your autonomic nervous system (your flight-or-fight and/or freeze response) and has a very calming effect on your brain and body.
Everyone grieves and there is no right or wrong way to do it. Take care of yourself first so that you can be there for others. Families all have dysfunctions and these tend to become illuminated at the most inopportune times, and especially at funerals when emotions are raw. Kindness is armor. Love yourself.
First, it is important to distinguish between grief and mourning. Grief is the profound roller coaster of emotions that we feel after a loss. Mourning is how we express those feelings in order to honor those who we have lost. Depending on our culture, we may dress in black, cover all the mirrors in our home and/or not attend to superficial tasks for seven days. Sitting Shiva as it is called, provides a specific time for spiritual and emotional healing when mourners join together usually at home to honor the dead. After seven days, it is then acceptable to get on with “the business of living”. In some Christian cultures, wakes are held and can last for days. The body may be brought into the home for viewing and people gather to memorialize their loved one prior to buriel. In some cases, this is done in a funeral home or chapel and the family will gather there. In cases of green buriels, the body may be shrouded and placed outside, surrounded by the beauty of nature and wildflowers before family and friends gather with shovels to help with interment.
And even with all of the choices we have available to us, sometimes family members are rendered speechless as they are met with only an empty urn to say goodbye to, having either not been privy to their loved one’s final wishes, or sadder still, their loved one’s spouse who vindictively and intentionally withholds information-and the body’s whereabouts- from the rest of the family. Using this type of malicious, passive-aggressive behavior can be psychologically damaging and is morally reprehensible, but legal.
It happens more than people realize.
Then, there are those who do not consider the possible harm that shocking others with their final wishes may have. Take for instance a young mother who died by an overdose when she was nine months pregnant. The family had many choices in how to honor her and her child. They chose to embalm them both and placed the child in her outstretched arms as if she were about to gently toss him up in the air on a fun-filled day at the park. He was dressed like a toddler-not a newborn, complete with tennis shoes, tiny jeans and a plaid shirt. She was adorned in a cheerful dress, sunglasses and sandals laying on a red and white checkered tablecloth on top of faux grass with a picnic basket full of flowers nearby. There was no casket. The family explained that this was their vision of how she and her baby would enjoy the afterlife together.
Hence, in death, as in life, there are many ways to honor and memorialize our loved ones. If we fail to make these choices for ourselves, rest assured that someone else will have the final say in how we will be remembered. It is never too late to write down your final wishes and let someone know where to find this information-with the full knowledge that these wishes can and will change over time. As always, the best place to begin is with the end in mind.
Real tombstones. Courtesy Pinterest.
Because we love. It is that simple. I have heard from clients that the deeper we love, the harder we grieve. This is quite possible. And if this is true, then it makes sense that the more traumatic the loss, the harder the grief process will be. Grief is not a condition or disorder. It is a natural response to a profound loss. And because of this, some say that counseling or therapy is not warranted. However, sometimes traumatic grief becomes more than we can handle alone and an intervention is required to get us back on track.
There are many online and in-person support groups for those who are grieving because talking to others who share an understanding of the process does help. Talking about those who are no longer with us and having a safe space to grieve openly and honestly helps to bridge a former life with a new one for those of us left behind.
But where can you go to talk about the details of a horrific traumatic loss? Here. Right here. I hope that you will share equally the stories of your losses and your triumphs. I hope that you may find others to comfort you along the way and find some peace along your journey.
We are taught how to love, but not how to grieve and when a loss happens it can be devastating.
Love and loss are inevitable. It happens to us all and yet some can handle it better than others. Why? Did they take a class that I wasn't aware of or is it natural for them? The answer is not an easy one. I believe that spirituality and upbringing are part of it, and so are cultural expectations. We are products of our environments and that includes our own personal awareness of death.
As a child raised in the North, West and South regions of America, I became spiritually aware at a very young age. By age 8 I was baptized in the Roman Catholic church, yet I attended an Orthodox church each week with my aunt in MA. I had never been to a funeral, but I remember helping my grandmother pour wine and clean plates for guests when she cooked for family wakes. By age 9, I was living in Anchorage, AK and remember visiting the Native burial grounds and found it so interesting that they buried their family members in a seated position. I would stare at those beautifully adorned little houses built over the graves, complete with bells to be rung and loaves of petrified bread to be eaten by the spirits. But it wasn’t until I came to Virginia at age 12 that I went to my first funeral. I did not notice at the time, but I most likely was the only child that fell apart and had to be held up by my parents as I walked toward my great uncle Grady’s casket. A man that was very old to me and whom I had only met once represented the scariest thing on earth: a dead body. Most children in the South back then were used to being in the church and attending funerals. They also posed for pictures next to their departed loved ones and cherished the photo albums dedicated to them. I now have two in my home from my husband’s childhood when his grandparents passed away. He and his brother were dressed in their suits and drank punch and ate cake while playing around the casket amongst the flowers and their relatives. He can also remember paying his last respects to some other relatives in their own homes in NC. They don’t bring caskets into homes anymore, at least not here but I am told back then it was normal.
When my own grandfather passed away, I was in my early twenties and traveled to MA to be with my family. We had a three day wake, then a funeral, then a dinner at my grandmother’s home. The funeral director brought in chairs and tables and greeted guests at her front door. They provided transportation and drivers for anyone who needed to go anywhere over the entire course of the week and then made sure the caterers kept the house stocked with food. My grandmother made sure the house was stocked with wine. In MA in the winter, the ground is too hard to bury someone so once again, the family gathered for the interment in the Spring. It was less formal but still was attended to properly by the funeral home.
When my father passed away, the funeral was planned and over in two days. The service was in the funeral home and he was buried the same day. There was no caterer, a few neighbors brought food and my mother enjoyed the company of her family in the home. When my mother joined him seventeen months later, her service was a mass in the church, then a dinner in the hall. She was also buried the same day and then life just seemed to resume as us siblings and our spouses got used to being adult orphans. In both cases, we met the funeral director the day of the funeral and never spoke to them again.
Over the years, funeral fanfare has diminished. But not to the depths we have witnessed with COVID. Families were forced to say goodbye as someone entered the hospital and in certain places, they were not even allowed to hold a funeral. Bodies were being cremated en mass in an effort to stop the spread of the pandemic. Eventually, as we learned that the disease was host-dependent and airborne, some restrictions were lifted and eventually funerals resumed, but with limited attendance. Now, over a year later, we will hopefully see things get back to a new normal. But what is normal? How should a loved one be remembered and does it matter to those left behind? The answer is yes. The way you grieve can affect you for the rest of your life and it can change the way your brain processes other losses-forever. So, if this is so important, then why aren’t we taught how to grieve and how to accept inevitable loss? Good question!
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