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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