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  • Writer's pictureClaire Sandys

Feeling the funeral feelings

My Why audio version of this blog available here.

This week we’ve had a nationwide example of what people go through every day (on a slightly smaller level and with less white feather ghost hats and Busby's marching around of course) - funerals.

So, as some of us sit in the aftermath of Queen Elizabeth’s funeral this week, others are attending funerals or maybe starting to plan one, so I wanted to look at their value, the time after the funeral, and some of the emotions we might experience and how to get through it.

On initial examination of a funeral you might think there are two types of people coping with the effects of it - those that knew the deceased well, and those that didn’t, and obviously the reaction and aftermath for these people will be different. However, because my brain is just one of those that scans around a situation fairly quickly looking at potential reactions and how people might be feeling, on initial look at a funeral I see seven types of people affected by the ripples of it:

  1. Those closest to the person that died - intense emotion

  2. Those who attended the funeral but weren’t close friends or family - sad but not to the extent of the family

  3. Those close to the deceased that couldn’t attend the funeral through no fault of their own - i.e. live abroad, unable to travel, too young, too old - potential for intense emotion complicated by frustration, guilt, lack of closure

  4. Those unable to attend the funeral because of their own actions - falling out with the family, being the cause of the death etc - very complicated emotions going on.

  5. Those who couldn’t bring themselves to face the funeral - be it close or acquaintance - emotion, mixed with other baggage that’s attached causing this response

  6. The people leading the funeral or involved with organisation - not as emotionally involved but different types of funeral may be harder to process or closer to home for them to deal with

  7. Those that witness the funeral or hearse as it passes them by - causing thoughts or feelings about loss, death, or mortality

Plus, the rest of the world who have no idea it’s going on at all.

Of course, that’s just a fairly standard funeral, there are many variations on this that have a different impact on people and depending on who died, how old they were and how they died this will vary. Were police involved? Was a crime committed? Were they nursed long term? Did they outlive most of their friends and family? Is the funeral a secret? Is the funeral a private ceremony for a life barely lived? And so on.

The other day I was talking to Chris and I worked out I’d been to around 15-20 funerals, around four of those online during Covid. I’ve been to the funeral of an eight year old, a eighteen year old, a sudden death of a man in his 30’s, a suicide in his 30’s, seven grandparents, a friend’s dad in his 50’s, and attended the online funerals of a 90-year-old woman who had a great, powerful, single life, an older missionary woman with a big heart for others, a man still in his prime who got cancer in his 60’s, and the funeral of a mother and three of her four children after an accident. I’ve been to burials, cremations, services of celebration and thanksgiving, been in churches, crematoriums and seen faith and non-faith based goodbyes.

Firstly, I want to say that before we did the podcast I wasn’t a huge fan of attending family funerals. Over the years I’ve been someone that just attended, did readings, wrote and spoke eulogies and even worked at them to help out, so I’ve seen them from a few sides, but when it came to the funerals of family members it felt so public and mournful. Just as I was beginning to adjust to that person being gone, sometimes up to four weeks later you have to dredge it all up again and make yourself look smart to go and be sad with lots of other people. Now, I’m sure the Britishness of all this doesn’t help, there’s unlikely to be many people breaking down, if they’re older there’s lots of ‘it’s a celebration’, ‘didn’t they have a good life’ and for some reason I just wasn’t really a fan of the whole thing. I was more of the opinion it would be better to have a private sort of goodbye and move on with things.

I was wrong.

I have learnt so much from the podcast and chatting to people about loss that I now see the immense value in traditions that allow us to say goodbye, force us to bring death out into the open, and mourn.

The Queen’s recent funeral has once again taught me about the value of sitting with grief and mortality, seeing it, sharing it, and allowing it time.

The problem with funerals in this country is that we’re often trying to get back to ‘normal’ life before the funeral. When what we should really do is be intentionally grieving, mourning, lamenting up until the funeral, then go through the funeral as a helpful process in the goodbye. Recent events and watching our country, living with the Queen lying-in-state for four days, was a helpful point of reference for coming to terms with the fact she was gone. I found myself at least once a day putting on the live-feed to just watch people as they filed past her coffin, pausing briefly to bow, curtsy, salute or drop to their knees. I found it helpful, cathartic, peaceful and the deep respect fed something inside me that I feel we’ve lost on a national scale.

But in our day-to-day funerals, without a 24 hour guard, we’ve lost that ability to pause and mourn, we rush on, rushing to get back to work, to be normal, to be thankful, to get through the funeral.

Even when looking for quotes about funerals and what people say about them I found most of them were things to read at funerals, and so many were trying to put a positive spin on it already, about people living on through music, love, hearts, kittens etc - I’m pretty sure if that was Chris’ funeral I’d be sat there saying in my head; ‘I don’t want him to live on through love, I just want him here!’

When I heard W. H. Auden’s poem, Funeral Blues or Stop All The Clocks in the film Four Weddings, and a Funeral in 1994 (yup folks, nearly 30 years ago!) there were lines in it that I knew would be regarded as morbid and defeatist by some, but I just loved them. The poem was actually first written in 1936 for a play, but the film brought it back to people’s attention and it’s a popular choice for funerals nowadays. It’s not something I’d want at my funeral because it doesn’t offer any hope in the situation at all, but for connecting to how you might feel in the aftermath of a huge loss, I think it’s beautiful.

I’ll put the whole poem on the blog, but the lines I loved most were:

Funeral Blues / Stop All the Clocks Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone, Silence the pianos and with muffled drum Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come. Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead Scribbling on the sky the message 'He is Dead'. Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves, Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves. He was my North, my South, my East and West, My working week and my Sunday rest, My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song; I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong. The stars are not wanted now; put out every one, Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun, Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood; For nothing now can ever come to any good. W. H. Auden

They give me goosebumps, they feel like such a visual description of that feeling of loss when a life leaves this planet. Those moments of, ‘what is the point in living now?’ We should allow people those thoughts and feelings, walk through it with them to the other side when they feel strong enough to unpack the moon, reassemble the sun, pour back the ocean and unfold the wood.

And proper mourning processes, including a funeral, make allowances for such raw emotions.

Now, I know they’ll be a whole load of people who think this sounds very dreary, hopeless, lacking in faith or celebration, and depressing. And yes, it probably does, but what’s wrong with that for a time?

I have been at funerals that were huge celebrations for a life, even a young one taken tragically, and that’s an amazing thing to witness, and if it comes off the back of the mourning, then it can be such a privilege to be part of, but if that’s the approach the whole time, no one has space to grieve. No amount of ‘you’ll be reunited’, ‘they’re with God’, ‘they lived a good life’, ‘they wouldn’t want you to be sad’, has ever helped the immediate grief of loss, no matter how true it might be. And for anyone that says this helped them from day one and they never felt the need to grieve, I’d doubt they’d dealt with it at all. How can we not grieve someone we love? How can we not stop to feel sadness at their life being ended? If ever there was a time for tears, is it not then? Regardless of age.

Early on in this podcast I was hit by a lightning bolt, it was some simple words that Katie Elliott said in Episode 2 and was then echoed through many guests afterwards and it was along the lines of ‘feel your feelings’. Initially it seemed a bit obvious and trite, but this is what she said:

You're allowed to feel what you're feeling. Because how many of us have got used to the idea that we should suppress things, we should suppress anger, we should suppress our sadness. Just deal with it, it's not that bad, all this squashing down of things. Emotions don't just disappear because you squash them down. And even though it's counter-intuitive, like actually allowing yourself to feel what you're feeling, naming what you're feeling and being compassionate for that is incredibly powerful, but it's kind of the opposite of what most of us grew up learning to do. Katie Elliott, Episode 2 (Loss of both parents to dementia)

I realised that so often in life I would be telling myself something that was the opposite to my feelings. ‘This isn’t your thing to be sad about’, ‘you can’t get emotional over that’, ‘it’s weird to be angry about that’, ‘you have all this good stuff here, so be thankful’, ‘at least you don’t have to…’ Over and over I would use words on myself that I know you’re not supposed to use on others. Why?! What if I felt sad, angry, left out, alone, disappointed, frustrated, let down, and I allowed those feelings to be felt, rather than telling them they were wrong. It suddenly seemed so obvious, we don’t feel feelings we’re not feeling! That sounds weird but put it this way - if you’re feeling it, there’s a reason. You can’t manufacture feelings about something, if you’re not feeling them.

For example, the recent episode I did on Back to School Pain. let’s say someone posts a picture on social media of their child going to school for the first time in the uniform, now, that either prompts happiness, sadness, anger, pride, or joy etc in you, or it doesn’t. You can’t make yourself feel pain if all you have is pride for your grandchild, and you can’t make yourself feel joy if for some reason there’s a deep pain there. Even if you don’t know why you are feeling what you’re feeling, there’s a reason it’s there, and ignoring it helps no one, least of all you.

However, I will just say a couple of add-ons that I’ve covered in other blogs and I won’t go into here:

  • I’m not saying certain things will always illicit the same emotions in you, you can totally change this and it may well just change naturally over time anyway

  • I’m not an advocate of always following feelings, because they can make you stay places you shouldn’t dwell in for too long and lead you down wrong paths

  • I’m not diminishing the hope, joy and comfort that faith brings to people, because I believe it can live, and have seen it, alongside the grief, it’s just a balance

All that being said, it’s good to be sad and mourn and funerals can be a vital stage in that process.

Culturally, death is dealt with in many different ways, and most far healthier, I would say, than the British way of doing it. Some communities wash the body and cover it before placing hands on it, some have the body on display, some spend time at the house after the funeral and socialise and support the bereaved, some have a period of seven days where visitors would come specifically, some end the mourning period of many days with a large feast. Mourning periods can be anything from 3 days, to 90 days, to a year. And I’ve wondered more recently about the value of open caskets like many countries have, about whether it is healthier to see death than to hide it away and spend days, weeks, years reciting ‘I can’t believe he/she isn’t here any more’. Our tendency in this country is to hide death away and pretend it doesn’t happen, or if it does it’s very unfortunate, a failure or mistake. We’ve done away with the family wearing black, or people visiting the home, or viewing the body at the house, and I’m not sure that was wise.

We now see black armbands being worn occasionally, but in the Victorian era (late 1800’s - early 1900’s) people followed Victoria’s example by having big funerals, wearing mourning clothes and curtailing social engagements for a set time. In the Edwardian era after that they would ‘wear mourning’ and there were stages for it, for example for women stage 1 was ‘deep mourning’ and they wore all black; dresses, veils, bonnets, the lot. No jewellery. Stage 2 was ‘second mourning’; black dress but no hat or veil etc. Stage 3 was ‘half-mourning’ and other dark colours were introduced like greys or pale lavenders and jewellery. But this is the bit that gets me, how long people were advised to stay in these stages.

For a widow:

Deep mourning - one year

Second mourning - one year

Half-mourning - six months.

For a parent of a grown-up child:

One year with veil - gradually phasing out the other black garments

For a sibling:

Six months to a year - gradually phasing out black

For a young child:

Six months

For an infant:

Three months

Bearing in mind it was a different world for infant mortality back then and the mortality rate for every 1,000 live births was around 160 deaths, whereas now it’s nearer 3.

The idea of this outward mourning was that the clothes reflected the inward feelings, allowing life and society to treat you accordingly. Now, tell me we haven’t done ourselves a disservice by cutting this down to four weeks at best.

I hate to break it to you, but you will die, and so will everyone you know. It’s a fact every religion, science and theory agree on. The life that you're building on this planet has an end date and no one knows when that will be. We can theorise and try to rank deaths, working out what’s best and worst, but it doesn’t help the grief. We don’t like to see parents die young and leave children, but we don’t want children to die before their parents, meaning we’d prefer the child to be at the parent’s funeral, but only if the parent has lived a long healthy life, and yet some people say that at any age they never got over the death of a parent. We like the idea of living in a world where everyone will live a long happy life and all die in the order that they should, but it sets us up for a lot of confusion, hurt and complicated emotions mixed in with our grief. My generation in the UK and the one before me and the one after me, hasn’t had to live with a daily fear of death, or seeing it on the streets, so we’ve cloaked it, shaped it and tried to lock away something that will always break out again. This hasn’t helped us develop healthy mourning and grieving processes and for the most part we can’t do a lot to change that, but funerals are one part of the process we all still have (on the whole) so they’re an important stage in the processing of all we are feeling, the full range of emotions not just sadness but any anger, frustration, disappointment or guilt.

I recently spoke to a funeral celebrant called Evelyn, based in Australia, on one of my Let’s Chat… episodes. This is what she said:

I have met people that said, 'You know what, we didn't have a funeral because my dad didn't want one'. But the truth is, the funeral is for the living, not the dead. Evelyn Calaunan, Episode 46 (Let's Chat... Funeral Celebrants)

‘Funerals are for the living, not the dead’. When you think about this it’s very obvious, the dead person gets nothing from a funeral, it is those that are left behind that benefit from the goodbye, the memorials, the eulogies, the music and the flowers.

And funerals can be incredibly hard. They remind us of death, loss, grief. They remind us of priorities, suddenly just being alive feels valuable. Death is the ultimate levelling of the playing field, as we saw this week - right now you and I are more blessed than the Queen of England, we have life, air in our lungs. She has left and nothing she owned has gone with her. We enter this life with nothing, we leave with nothing. We get one shot at life, and funerals bring that smack in front of us and we ponder how we’re living it and that’s not always fun or helpful.

Then after the funeral, as close family or friends, we’re left with some new emotions. As everyone else starts to return to their ‘normal lives’, we’re left realising that our ‘normal’ has gone, changed forever.

Ahead of us is a blank canvas. All our plans, thoughts, routines, commitments have changed or gone. Nothing will be the same as it was, because something is missing. Grief can feel very lonely, because only you will mourn your loss, others will do it their way, but each grief is specific to us because we lost something different. No two siblings, or parents, or friends feel the same loss over the same person.

And so, life starts to move on and it’s hard, scary at times, we certainly don’t want to go through the loss again but there’s almost the feeling of wanting to go back to the safety net of those early days when there were people around you, nothing to think about. When someone stopped the merry-go-round and all focus was on your missing person, but now the ride has started again, and you find yourself in the way, and you just want things to pause for a bit longer.

So what can you do in these early days to survive?

Well, there will be a lot of things that are specific to different people but I’ve got a few tips to help you get through, when your own brain seems to have shut down.

And before I share them, I just want to say that it’s ok to mourn for someone you have never met too. It might be confusing but national events like the Queen’s funeral can bring up emotions about losses in our own lives, or cause us to feel empathy for those who are going through it. After all, if you have those feelings, feel them, who is anyone else to say you can’t? Losses take many different shapes and my experience of childlessness was, and is, a confusing loss of someone or some people I never met, never existed, it’s the loss of an invisible something I never had - But I’ve learnt - feel those feelings!

So, here’s my top tips to get you through those early days:

  1. Continue grieving The grieving doesn’t stop because the funeral did. It will continue, it will change size, it might never fully leave and that’s ok. It will alter, shift, ebb and flow, and you’ll find you grow around it. Eventually.

  2. Don’t rush things If you can take time before you return to work and commitments - do it! Give yourself space before you jump back on the treadmill of life, even if you don’t think you need it.

  3. Say ‘yes’ as much as you can. A good family member of mine said that someone told her after her husband died to say ‘yes’ to every invitation to coffee even though she won’t want to. So she did, and she said it was the best thing she’d done. Firstly, it gradually gets you out into the world again with people who care about you and aren’t afraid to be this close to your loss. Secondly, those coffee invites might not always be there, people will only ask so many times before they stop.

  4. Find simple tasks. Things you can do to help focus you, like writing thank you cards, making lists, or writing notes to people that you’re grateful for.

  5. Be honest with other people. Talk about your grief, share your emotions, talk about who you lost with those that invite you to do this.

  6. Don’t push people away. You might want to, and it’s often harder to let people in, but fight against that and let people in. Obviously make sure it’s the right people and there’s some wisdom and trial and error involved in that.

  7. Slowly start new traditions. To ensure the anniversaries, birthdays and yearly reminders aren’t just filled with pain, find ways to remember your loved one in a way you will look forward to doing, amidst the pain.

  8. Be kind to yourself. Don’t speak words over yourself that you wouldn’t say to someone else in the same position. For many areas of your life the real grieving starts now, when life goes back to normal and it’s littered with holes you will only just start to spot, so go easy on yourself. You’re establishing a new routine, you’re dealing with a new you, you’re navigating a different life - give yourself grace.

Let’s not be too quick to dismiss the grieving process and the time before, during and after funerals. Let’s be intentional about our own funeral planning and what we choose for our loved ones.

It’s ok to still not like funerals, they’re not fun, nothing healthy really is, is it? But just as we need to eat the occasional piece of fruit, we need to remember the importance of these events in our own grieving journey.

One of my favourite couple of lines about death and a funeral is in the film About Time, when the mum (whose husband is dying) answers the door to her son and he asks her how she is, she replies:

“Honestly? I’m f***ing furious. I am so uninterested in a life without your father... Let’s make some tea.”

I just love the honesty of it. Then as they are leaving to attend the funeral, the mum asks a room of her children and relatives:

‘Right. Are we ready for this?’

And the kooky uncle replies: ‘Course we’re not. Hateful day.’

Honesty is helpful when it comes to our feelings, but there’s something else we have to remember, to have feelings we have to be alive, and that is a privilege not everyone gets for as long as we have. So amidst all the pain, the grief, the sadness, and the heartache, it’s important to remember (when we resurface), that life itself is a miracle and it’s to be cherished for as long as we have it.

“We’re all travelling through time together, every day of our lives, all we can do is do our best to relish this remarkable ride.” About Time

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