This weekend we attended a teenager’s funeral. It wasn’t a death due to texting and driving, or even alcohol, which cuts too many teenage-lives short these days. Though I don’t believe any of those would have made the memorial service less heart-wrenching. The church hall was filled with family, classmates, and friends. You could feel the hearts breaking. The sobbing. The tangible pain through the room.
The pastor did not launch into the usual scriptures that usually prevail at funerals. With a quiet manner, he explained that this service was not for the child who had passed, but for those left behind. It was to bring the family and friends comfort and peace during their time of grieving.
The pastor’s words were like a warm fuzzy blanket. They couldn’t heal, but they provided a brief solace, a tiny bit of light during the early stages of the mourning process- and it is a long process.
I lost my mom over a year ago, my father before that, my sister over a decade ago and countless friends, neighbors, and other loved ones as well. Death is no stranger, and unfortunately, it does not get any easier, no matter how many burials or services you attend.
After my mom had passed, a friend told me about the 5 stages of mourning. They can occur together and even in mixed-up order.
- You refuse to accept that your loved one has passed. It can’t be true. You are numb with shock. It doesn’t seem real.
- You lay the blame on everyone- even yourself for this person’s death. If only you had spent more time. If only the doctor had done this. Anger can be directed towards anyone and everyone. You may have to deal with a flaring temper and short fuse.
- This one seems to go hand in hand with denial. If you do X, your loved one will come back. It sounds crazy, but when you are grieving, it doesn’t seem crazy to you.
- You are sad. Feeling incredibly alone and isolated. You may stop doing things you love. You may do nothing at all- and stare out into space, not even processing thoughts at all. You may find you have no appetite or the food you used to enjoy tastes bland, even bad.
- You are finally beginning to let go. This doesn’t mean you are over your mourning. My sister died over a decade ago and I get as choked up thinking about her death as I do remembering mom passing away a year ago. But in the healing process, life slowly gets back to normal- or a new normal. You may stop picking up the phone to dial that loved one. You may find yourself thinking of other things and not dwelling as much on them. You are letting go. You aren’t forgetting about them or doing them any dis-service by letting go–it’s part of the healing process.
If you find yourself or your child dwelling too deep in these stages, you may want to seek professional counseling.
Grief comes in waves.
One minute you are feeling fine and the next you are sobbing so hard you have to pull the car over because you can’t see through the tears. You don’t feel pain all the time. In fact, sometimes you’ll think- I’m fine and then the wave comes crashing down and you feel like you are drowning. You think you are going crazy. But you aren’t. It’s all part of the grieving process. You will get better. There is a light at the end of the tunnel.
Children and Grief
There were so many children at this funeral. Family and school friends. They say children don’t understand death, the fact that someone who has passed is not going to come strolling through the door again, but my niece, who was only 3 at the time, had a direct understanding of my sister-her aunt’s death. While her dad was trying to tell her Aunt Susan was with angels, this three-year-old said quite distinctly: “She’s not coming back. Aunt Susan is not coming back.” We were all floored. Never underestimate your child’s grasp of the death-concept.
But even if they do (or don’t) comprehend the passing of a loved one, it doesn’t mean they are not in mourning as well. They may seem outwardly okay, but inward they may be struggling. And they may have no one to talk to about the death- or just death, especially if their parent is in the midst of grieving themselves. Even those moody teens who use monosyllables to communicate can be hurting inside and in desperate need of an outlet for their grief. Friends at school may not offer the support they need- and if you are suffering from grief yourself, you may not be able to offer that support either. A trusted friend, relative, pastor, or even therapist may be a good idea to help your child work through their own grief. Kids are already overwhelmed by the emotions of growing up.
Ways to Help the Grieving Process
- The pastor suggested that friends share stories about the child who had passed. At other funerals, the pastors have suggested that friends and family go up to the podium and tell stories about the loved one who had passed. At wakes I have been to, everyone stood around drinking, both laughing and crying over tales about the dearly departed.
- It may help to bring out a photograph album and go through it with your child. Go over the good times and happy memories. Don’t force it on your child though. They may not be ready, especially if they are in the denial stage.
Visiting the Burial Site
- Every year we used to visit my father-in-law’s gravesite in the Florida National Cemetary. He passed away when our kids were toddlers. All of my husband’s sisters and his brother would accompany their mom on the journey to Bushnell to pay their respects. It’s a sobering sight- thousands of soldier’s gravestones- all lined up with military precision. But it was their family tradition, this trek to the National Cemetary.
- I have taken the kids to lay flowers on my own family’s graves- my sister, father, and mother all in the same cemetery. And sometimes I just go alone. Even without flowers. To have a little peace. And shed a tear or two.
- Visiting the burial site can give you a sense of calm and maybe connection- but be warned, not everyone feels that way.
Visiting a Favorite Spot
- You don’t necessarily have to go to the cemetary to feel connected with a lost loved one. You could always go to a place that you shared – like that favorite park. That hike. The coffee shop. My mom would take my kids to feed the koi fish in a nearby park. Visiting there reminds them of their grandmother. My dad used to drag all of us to train shows and ride trolleys. Revisiting these places remind us of him.
Making a Memorial
- When my dad passed, I got a Buddha garden statue and placed it among the flowers. Every now and then we place flowers in his palm. Making a little memorial in your yard with your child can help work through the mourning. It also gives them and you a place to escape, reflect, and remember good times.
- Exercise helps boost the oxygen levels in our brains. It also just helps to get out- and away. Take a stroll in a park, on a beach, or just down your street. Take the kids along as well. Fresh air and sunshine are good for you.
- Paint a picture. Listen to music. Punch some clay into funky shapes. Write a poem. Or an emo song. Yes, it Is a distraction, but getting creative can help you work through your grief. You may see your child drawing their anger. They need to get it out- better expressed on paper or in clay than in a fist fight at school.
- A daily meditation- a guided one can help you calm inner turmoil. It doesn’t have to be long- just five minutes a day. Focus on your breathing or use a guided meditation to help you.
What to Say When Someone Dies
Even for being a writer, I always feel at a loss for words at funerals- other than “I’m sorry.” On the other end of the stick, I may be in the anger/denial phase, feeling like a powder keg ready to blow and anything people say to me just makes me feel angry and irritated. “They don’t understand!” I’m wailing internally.
I remember going to my neighbors funeral in Greece and there were a couple of women sobbing in the front of the tiny church. I couldn’t see who they were, but I heard woman behind me say to her companion: “I wonder if they hired mourners.”
I wish I could say that I told her off for her rudeness, but instead of saying something back, I started crying- sobbing as loudly as the women up in the front pew- and I couldn’t stop! Grief is bizarre. There are things you can say at a funeral, and things that you need to NOT say. David Kessler, an author and expert on healing and loss has some excellent advice and examples on the best and worst things to say to someone grieving. And what I heard at that funeral in Corfu was definitely not cool at all!
Facing the Imminent Death of a Loved One
Both my sister and my mother had long drawn-out illnesses. We all knew at the time that they would die, but that did not make coping with their death or the grieving process any easier than my dad’s death, which came suddenly. There is no way you can prepare yourself emotionally for a sudden death, but for a terminal illness, sometimes a little knowledge helps…but only a little.
When my mother was taken to hospice, they gave us a paper in all her stack of forms that listed what would happen during the dying and death process. I wish I had read that paper when my sister was taken to the hospital, as I would have recognized the signs of her imminent passing. But having that fore-knowledge armed me better in recognizing the stages my mom was going through. An article from Hospice of North Central Florida offers information on what to expect when your loved one is dying: Preparing for Approaching Death if you would like to know the signs- but be warned, it’s can be a tear-jerker if you have been with someone who has passed away, or are with someone or caring for someone facing a terminal illness.
Before the child’s funeral service ended, the pastor suggested that we write a note- some memory or story of their child and send it to the parents to help them on the long road ahead.
And may they find peace and healing in their hearts and minds along the way.
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor or a therapist. This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be used as a substitute for professional medical/mental health advice. Always seek the advice of your professional, licensed physician/therapist/mental health care provider.
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