Being the co-host of two funerals tops the list of my life’s stranger experiences. I dreaded both my sister’s and father’s services, wishing I could choose not to go. But like (so) many things in life, the anticipation was much more intense than the experience. I ultimately found the events to be soothing, empowering*, and devastating — all at the same time.
For most folks who choose to marry, a wedding is one of the only occasions that you can rely on a group of people to come out to support you for one of your life transitions. However, as either a bride or groom, you were likely very involved with the guest list and knew exactly who to expect. As a funeral host, when you show up at the service, mingle during calling hours, or sit shiva, you typically have only a vague idea of who will be in attendance.
While I appreciate that my extended family came to my sister/father’s service (and seeing them all together brought its own special level of comfort) — I expected them — of course they would be there.
What really stood out were the others — people I hadn’t seen or talked to and years, or current friends who lived far away and came to be with me. I saw faces from childhood and college, parents and siblings of friends. There were those who drove all day. It felt so special to be surrounded by people who cared and made such an effort to be with me.
I know I didn't have a clear mind at those funerals, but fourteen years after my dad’s service, I can still recall the friends who came, those who I was surprised to see, and it still comforts me to remember the effort they took to be supportive.
At these gatherings, where the purpose was to honor my beloved family members who died way too soon, I unexpectedly experienced a variety of positive emotions. For both of my family members, we had receptions following the services and at those social gatherings, when the pressure of funeral sadness was released, I found temporary respite from my grief. They were, I admit, even somewhat enjoyable. I didn’t expect this.
Those brief moments of lightness, combined with the gratitude from the waves of support, have turned me into a big supporter of attending funerals. I want to be able to provide that experience to others.
Why we’re nervous to go:
Many people are reluctant to attend death services — and not just for the obvious reason that funerals are the opposite of fun. We question whether we knew the deceased well enough, if we know the survivors well enough, or if too much time has passed since we were connected to the suffering family.
We’re nervous that when we greet the bereaved we’ll need to know what to say to make them feel better. I've also felt uncomfortable going to a service when I didn't know the deceased person well (or at all). I worried that my lack of grief would be transparent.
There’s no one in my life that I can name that I wouldn’t have welcomed at my father’s or sister’s funerals. When you show up to a service you are telling the survivors, in the most concrete way possible, that their loss is significant, their pain matters, and the person they loved was important. I’m so thankful to everyone who came to support me when my father and sister died.
What if our relationship is/was complicated?
I know there are plenty of people/families that have complicated dynamics (and I am inclusive of this group). There are arguments, resentment, tension, and estrangements. There are ex-husbands/wives/boyfriends/girlfriends. There are friends who have had a falling out. There are people who have wronged you or you have wronged them. There are miscommunications and misunderstandings. There are relationships that require years of therapy to repair.
Regardless, I haven’t encountered anyone who has regretted attending a funeral. I’ve also never heard from anyone that they were angry about someone showing up at a service that they didn’t want to see.
If you are worried about your presence, you can always stay in the back. Of course, there are circumstances where it might be best not to go, but those situations are incredibly rare.
How should I interact with the bereaved?
Tend to their needs: My sister’s service was a three-hour visitation at a funeral home and my father’s was at our house. Both involved mingling and the mingling was tiring. As a sister/daughter, everyone (understandably) wanted to check on/in with me.
Walking in I felt like a celebrity in the worst possible way. During all of these exchanges, one friend kept her eye on me with tissues in hand and appeared with them whenever I needed them. Another friend brought me water when I didn’t ask for it. Other friends provided a home-base — a place I could return to when I needed a break from interacting with the masses. My husband, with the help of friends and extended family, took charge of my infant daughter so that I wasn’t preoccupied with her care.
Read body language: I was getting a lot of really long hugs or was caught talking to people for much longer than I wanted to. As a funeral guest, be on high alert to read the bereaved's body language - are they pulling away from the hug or lingering, does it looks like they need space (away from you or away from the group)? If you are not sure, ask them.
Don't put the bereaved in a position to comfort you: As the sister/daughter, I wasn’t up for interacting with folks who were sobbing. If I were sobbing and another person started to cry too, that would be ok because our levels of sadness would be matched. After all, crying can sometimes be as contagious as a yawn (and it's sad when people die).
But when people came to offer condolences and were sobbing when I wasn’t — well then I was left in the awkward position of telling them everything would be ok when I didn’t feel like it was going to be ok. It’s appropriate to be visibly sad/crying at the service, but try not to put the bereaved in a position where they're trying to comfort you.
Keep the conversation appropriate: Some people wanted to know the nuances of my sister’s illness and unexpected death. They were eager to hear ‘the story.’ I get the curiosity. I willingly admit to being someone who finds themselves in a rabbit hole of obituary searching trying to determine a cause of death for strangers whose deaths appear on social media. The necrology section of my alumni magazine is the first page I turn to. But the funeral is not the best place to ask about the details of someone’s death.
The caveat to this is if the bereaved bring it up. Some people are in such shock that they must repeat the facts of what happened over and over again. If they broach the topic, engage with them however they steer the conversation.
Recently I heard from a man who talked about the small talk that flustered him while sitting shiva for his son. To overhear complaints of everyday life (home repairs, traffic, sports scores) was upsetting and he ended up making an announcement asking folks to keep the conversation to memories of his son.
Overall you need to be super in tune with the bereaved. Watch for any signs of discomfort and react accordingly.
What else can I do?
As I already mentioned, I actually rather enjoyed the reception following my sister/father’s services. I wish more people had been able to attend. It provided a place to hear stories about my family members and reconnect with people I hadn’t seen in a long time. Though an invitation had been extended to everyone, I think that many folks thought that they weren’t close enough to us to attend. If you are invited, please go!
One of the more jolting experiences is that one day you'll have dozens (or more than a hundred) people around supporting you, and then the next day everyone has returned home. If you are in a position to take more time off of work and/or from your home life and can extend your travel for a few days, your loved one may really appreciate having more time to spend with close friends and family before they begin to rebuild their lives.
If you are particularly close, you can offer support as they look into what this new life might look like. If you are a close friend to the bereaved, you may even offer to skip the funeral and ask your friend if they’d prefer for you to come the week after the services. A time that often feels so incredibly lonely. This is unconventional, but I definitely would’ve welcomed this type of company.
I will close by pointing out that I certainly understood that there were people who were not able to come to my dad and sister's funerals and I don't hold it against them. Many services are held during the week or require airplane travel. There are childcare considerations, work and time-off issues, and a multitude of other concerns that may prevent attendance. The point of this post is not to make anyone feel guilty for not attending, but instead, provide encouragement for those who feel unsure. I'm not the only one who feels this way.
That's me wearing my sister's dress at her funeral (I always relied on her to dress me properly) and laughing with a childhood friend.
*I used empowering to describe the funerals because speaking at my sister's and father's funerals was a complex and incredible experience. I plan to write about it in a future post but wanted to give a brief explanation about why I chose that word.
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