(based on work by Dr. Alan Wolfelt)
What a Healthy Ceremony Can Do to Help Meet the Needs of the Grieving:
Help to acknowledge the reality of the death – Come to terms with the reality of death
When a loved one dies, we must openly acknowledge the reality and the finality of the death if we are to move forward with our grief. Typically, we embrace this reality in two phases. 1) First we acknowledge the death with our minds; we are told that someone we loved has died and, intellectually at least, we understand the fact of the death. 2) Over the course of the following days and weeks, and with the gentle understanding of those around us, we begin to acknowledge the reality of the death in our hearts.
Move toward the pain of the loss
As our acknowledgment of the death progresses from “head understanding to “heart under-standing,” we begin to embrace the pain of the loss—another need the bereaved must meet if they are to heal. Healthy grief means expressing painful thoughts and feelings, and a healthy funeral/memorial ceremony allow us to do just that. People tend to cry, even sob and wail, at funerals because funerals force us to concentrate on the fact of the death. For as odd as it sounds, it is really important that we do not intellectualize, or distance ourselves from, the pain of grief. Funerals must provide us with an accepted venue for outward expressions of our sadness.
Remember the person who died – Share in the remembrance of a life lived
To heal in grief, we must shift our relationship with the person who died from one of physical presence to one of memory. The healthy funeral ceremony encourages us to begin this shift, for it provides a natural time and place for us to think about the moments we shared—good and bad—with the person who died. Like no other time before or after the death, the funeral invites us to focus on our past relationship with that one, single person and to share those memories with others.
At traditional funerals, the eulogy attempts to highlight the major events in the life of the deceased and the characteristics that he or she most prominently displayed. This is helpful to mourners, for it tends to prompt more intimate, individualized memories. Later, after the ceremony itself, many mourners will informally share memories of the person who died. This, too, is meaningful. Throughout our grief journeys, the more we are able “tell the story”—of the death itself, of our memories of the person who died—the more likely we will be to reconcile our grief.
Moreover, the sharing of memories at the funeral affirms the worth we have placed on the person who died, legitimizing our pain. Often, too, the memories others choose to share with us at the funeral are memories that we have not heard before. This teaches us about the dead person’s life apart from ours and allows us glimpses into that life that we may cherish forever.
Develop a new self-identity – Begin to make the transition from life before death to life after death
Another primary need of mourners is the development of a new self-identity. We are all social beings whose lives are given meaning in relation to the lives of those around us. When someone close to us dies, our self-identity changes. The healthy funeral helps us begin this difficult process of developing a new self-identity because it provides a social venue for public acknowledgment of our new roles. For example: If you are a parent of a child and that child dies, the funeral marks the beginning of your life as a former parent (in the physical sense; you will always have that relationship through memory). Whether they know it or not, others attending the funeral are in effect saying, “We acknowledge your changed identity and we want you to know we still care about you.”
In situations where there is no funeral, the social group does not know how to relate to the person whose identity has changed and often that person is socially abandoned. In addition, having supportive friends and family around us at the time of the funeral helps us realize we literally still exist. This self-identity issue is illustrated by a comment the bereaved often make: “When he died, I felt like a part of me died, too.”
Search for meaning
When someone loved dies, we naturally question the meaning of life and death. ‘Why did this person die? Why now? Why this way? Why does it have to hurt so much? What happens after death?’ To heal in grief, we must explore these types of questions if we are to become reconciled to our grief. In fact, we must first ask these “why” questions to decide why we should go on living before we can ask ourselves how we will go on living. This does not mean we must find definitive answers, only that we need the opportunity to think (and feel) things through.
On a more fundamental level, the funeral reinforces one central fact of our existence: we will die. Like living, dying is a natural and unavoidable process. (We, in, North America tend not to acknowledge this.) Thus the funeral helps us search for meaning in the life and death of the person who died, as well as in our own lives and impending deaths. Each funeral we attend serves as a sort of dress rehearsal for our own.
Funerals are a way in which we as individuals and as a community convey our beliefs and values about life and death. The very occurrence of a funeral demonstrates that death is important to us. For the living to go on living as fully and healthily as possible, this is as it should be.
Receive ongoing support from others
As stated, funerals are a public means of expressing our beliefs and feelings about the death of someone loved. In fact, funerals are the public venue for offering support to others and being supported in grief, both at the time of the funeral and into the future.
Funerals make a social statement that says, “Come support me.” Whether they realize it or not, those who choose not to have a funeral are saying, “Don’t come support me.” Funerals let us physically demonstrate our support, too. Sadly, ours is not a demonstrative society, but at funerals we are “allowed” to embrace, to touch, to comfort. Again, words are inadequate so we nonverbally demonstrate our support. This physical show of support is one of the most important healing aspects of meaningful, and thus healthy, funeral ceremonies.
Finally, and most simply, funerals serve as the central gathering place for mourners. When we care about someone who died or his family members, we attend the funeral if at all possible. Our physical presence is our most important show of support for the living. By attending the funeral, we let everyone else there know that they are not alone in their grief.