Recently, our family was involved in the memorial services for Bobbi Braff, who was my wife Barbi’s mom. The funeral and reception were a very sad and yet a meaningful time, made more poignant by the fact that I also lost both of my parents last year.
With Barbi’s dad having passed on many years ago, she and I have now become the older generation for our family. We are starting to figure out how that plays out for us, and for those we love.
Having these recent firsthand experiences with deaths, I have learned a few things that have helped us a great deal, about not only the grief process but specifically the tradition of funerals. I hope they help when you are faced with these situations, too.
Funerals provide a structure for an ending.
Our brains don’t naturally gravitate toward losses of any kind, especially the death of someone we care about. Losses are painful and negative. So, we tend to avoid thinking about them or feeling what we need to feel. We would instead engage in something more positive. But neuroscience research shows us that when we don’t say a real goodbye, both intellectually and especially emotionally with our tears, it’s not good for us.
People who disengage from loss and avoid funerals often find that they don’t have closure with the relationship. They usually have trigger reactions down the line to something that reminds them of that person. They might also have conflicts with people who remind them of that person and struggle with energy, concentration, and mood issues. The clinical term for this is delayed bereavement. Funerals are an organized way to help you get through the loss and avoid delayed bereavement.
Funerals bring people together in a new way.
A memorial service combines friends, family, and colleagues to honor the person who is gone. It is meant to be a source of healthy and supportive relationships to support each others’ loss. More often than not, the service also reconnects people who haven’t been in touch for some time and renews the friendship. We had so many meaningful, sad, and funny conversations with so many people during Bobbi’s reception afterward. We are thankful that her passing brought so many of us together.
Funerals mix the sadness and the joy.
Grief requires that we honor and respect the good that the person brought to the world. But we are also to express how much we miss them. You need both emotions to get through the grieving process fully.
Stay away from the thinking, “We’re not having a funeral or a memorial service. It’s going to be a celebration service.” That is undoubtedly part of the purpose, but it prohibits people from feeling OK about saying authentically that they are sad and miss someone they care about deeply. Then they have nowhere to go with these emotions. So keep both elements in place whenever possible. It’s okay to celebrate and mourn at the same time!
Funerals are something we can do.
People feel helpless when there is a death, especially if that loss is unexpected. You can’t bring the person back. You can’t fix it or undo it, and helplessness is not a pleasant feeling. But you can attend a funeral, and go through the memories, songs, anecdotes by the family, video presentations, and prayers. You can go to the reception and reconnect. You can serve the family members, either by comforting them or by just saying “How are you doing?” or talking about sports if that is what they need for that time. But having something to do helps us all.
Funerals are not entertainment. But they are good, important, and necessary. You will be better off in engaging, whether it’s to help someone, or when you have lost someone yourself.