In Grief: Family Disagreements Regarding Funerals

I think the funeral, done right, is vital to the healing of broken hearts.  ~ Doug Manning

A reader writes: I recently located your website and wanted to inquire about your experiences. I am sure in your profession you have seen a variety of ways that people deal with grief differently. How often have you come across a family member who disagrees with how the other is handling their grief? Specifically, when there are disagreements whether someone should view a body or attend a funeral?
When some may say they absolutely do not want to see their deceased loved one’s body and/or attend their funeral and others feel that person does not care or is doing the wrong thing because their way is the right way to handle the grief and bereavement process. I was just curious what you have seen over the years.

My response: I'm not sure why you're asking the question, so I hope you'll understand that I can only answer it in very general terms.

First, you are correct in your assumption that people respond to grief in a variety of ways. Everyone grieves differently according to their age, gender, personality, culture, value system, past experience with loss, and available support. Mourning patterns differ among members of the same family, as each person's relationship with and attachment to the deceased family member varies. How you will react to a death depends on how you've responded to other crises in your life; on what was lost when this death happened (not only the life of the person who died, but in certain aspects of your own life as well: your way of life; who you were in your relationship with that person and who you planned to be; your hopes and dreams for the future); on who died (spouse, parent, child, sibling, grandparent, relative, friend or other; how you lived together and what that person meant to you); on the person's role in your family; on when the death occurred (at what point in the life cycle: yours as well as that of the person who died); and on how (the circumstances surrounding the death, and how the death occurred). Grief is a normal yet highly personal response to loss, and there simply is no "right" or "wrong" way to "do" it. Depending on how it is managed, however, it can lead to healing and personal growth.

You asked about disagreements within a family about one member's refusal to view the body of the deceased and/or attend the funeral. Without knowing what is behind those disagreements or whether we're talking about children or grownups, or even if we're talking about the death of a close family member, I can tell you that many families are uncertain about how and even whether to include their children in the rituals of grief and mourning. (If that is the case in your family, I refer you to my articles When Children Attend A Funeral: Some Preparation Tips and Including Children in Rituals of Grief and Mourning: Special Situations .)

If the person is an adult, then I'd like to suggest some things you may wish to consider. Everyone's circumstances are different, but I can tell you that people who've had little or no prior experience with death, dying and bereavement may be caught off-guard and feel totally unprepared to deal with it when it happens to them. It's only natural to avoid those things that are unfamiliar or that make us feel uncomfortable. So it's understandable that someone in your family may want to avoid altogether looking at the person who died and at what has happened -- or s/he may be afraid of how s/he is feeling, or fearful of "falling apart" in front of others.

Given a choice, I imagine that most people would rather not view a dead body or attend a funeral, especially if they have no prior preparation or experience, no one to explain it to them, and no idea what to expect. For many people, it is easier to avoid, repress or deny the reality of death than it is to confront it. Add to this the fact that we Americans live in a mourning-avoidant culture that seems to be forgetting the importance of rituals surrounding life and death. Rituals for burying the dead (such as viewings, funerals and wakes) have been with us since the beginning of humankind, but in recent years more and more Americans are questioning the value of planning and participating in ceremonies that honor the rite of passage from life to death. Again, I don't know your particular circumstances, but it may help your family member to think of the viewing and the funeral as an opportunity for remembering and celebrating the person's life rather than his or her death.

As I say in the articles I’ve mentioned, families who love together grieve together, and if this is a death in your own family, I would encourage all family members to go to the funeral services. The funeral is an important family event and it is important that all family members take this opportunity to "pay their respects." Nevertheless, if a child or a grownup absolutely refuses to go, I certainly would not force the issue, and I would want to make sure the person isn't made to feel guilty for not attending.

I don't know if what I've said will be of any help to you, my dear -- as I said, I'm speaking in generalities -- but I hope I've answered your questions.

Your feedback is welcome! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question, or share a tip, a related article or a resource of your own in the Comments section below.
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