Monday, March 24, 2014

Facing Another Funeral, Without 'Falling Apart'

[Reviewed and updated August 2, 2023]

All the king's horses and all the king's men
Couldn't put Humpty together again.
~ English Nursery Rhyme

A reader writes: My brother passed away from colon cancer 18 months ago. I spent the last two weeks of his life with him. It was a horrible, painful death and I don't think he ever came to grips with it, thinking that he would somehow be OK even in his final days. He didn't want people to fawn over him or feel sorry for him, so I was the only person other than his wife that he asked to be there.
He didn't want my parents to be there, because he didn't want them to worry....and there were other health issues involved...Dad died this past month I was the one holding everything together...making sure that my SIL had what she needed, making sure Mom and Dad were updated, but never talking about the horrible things we had to deal with as my brother died. I wanted to make sure that Mom didn't have to hear that litany or imagine how awful it was.

In this process of caring for everyone (and my own family...and then my father's death) I feel overwhelmed still. I can hardly think of my brother without tears. I am beginning to be able to picture his face as it was in life, before he got sick...but even writing this brings tears and a huge lump in my throat. I don't think I have discussed the end of his life with anyone. I don't want them to have to carry that burden....he was a vibrant beautiful man in life...and I want my loved ones to remember him that way.

Now I am faced with taking Mom to a funeral of my uncle tomorrow. I am apprehensive about handling it myself without falling apart. It isn't so much about my uncle's death..he has been ill for a long time...but about yet another funeral in our family.

I guess what I am saying is I need help. I need to know what to do to be able to cope better.

My response: I’m so sorry for your loss, and you have my deepest sympathy. I hope you will take some comfort in knowing that you did all you could to make your brother’s last days as easy for him as possible. Since you were one of the two people he wanted at his bedside when he died, surely he loved you dearly, and he must have known how very much you loved him, too.

As I read your story, a number of your statements suggest to me a sort of “stiff upper lip” approach to crises in your family, and I’m wondering how that expectation may be affecting your ability to move through your own grief now. You say your brother never really “came to grips” with his terminal cancer, even in his final days. He didn’t want people to “fawn over him or feel sorry for him,” he didn’t want your parents to worry, and he permitted only you and his wife to be present when he died. You describe yourself as “the one holding everything together,” taking care of everyone else in your family, working hard to shield your parents from the harsh realities of your brother’s death, protecting others by keeping your own thoughts, feelings and memories to yourself so as not to upset anyone else. And now, as you face the prospect of attending yet another funeral, you’re “apprehensive about handling it myself without falling apart.”

I wonder, my dear, what would happen if you gave yourself permission to “fall apart”? Sometimes we fear that if we show our sadness, there will be no end to it. We worry that, if we allow ourselves to cry, especially in front of others, the tears will never stop. We think that once we “let ourselves go,” we will lose all control and won’t ever be able to regain our composure.

As a child you may have been taught that crying is a sign of weakness, and strong people (especially men) don’t cry. If that’s the way you were brought up, if it is the style of some in your family to be strong and silent in front of others, there is nothing inherently wrong with that, and you may have to accept it and allow for it – as you did in honoring your brother’s wishes.

Nevertheless, my concern is the effect that all this “holding in” may be having on you. You have a choice here. You don’t have to maintain a brave exterior all the time. You have the choice of letting the tears come, welcoming them as a natural and helpful form of release. When you permit yourself to “let go” for a time and release what you feel, you’ll be better able to function afterward. It’s a simple fact that holding onto your emotions takes a lot more energy than releasing them.

You might try setting aside a certain “crying time” each day, when you can deliberately immerse yourself in grief. Pick a completely private time and place. Take the phone off the hook. Use triggers and props to help bring on your tears, such as music, photographs, writings or sad movies. And do not worry about crying so much that you won’t be able to stop. Think about it: It is physically impossible to cry 24 hours a day! And it’s okay to let others (especially children) see you cry. It shows them that you care deeply about the person who died, and reassures them that it’s all right to express sad feelings in front of others.

There is a wonderful passage in Lynn Caine’s book, Being a Widow, in which she describes her husband’s and her own reluctance to be honest with their children about the fact that their father was dying:

We not only balked at telling the children the facts, we failed to tell them the emotions. They had to learn that one can be bitter, one can rage and yet one cannot stand up against death. It conquers. But it need not conquer the living if they understand. If they know how to look down that gun barrel. We didn’t know that, so how could we tell the children. If I had been able to burst into wild tears when Martin told them, it would have done us all a world of good. They probably would have cried, too, and we would all have been sobbing away. Martin and I would have been able to cry and to say, “We hate it a lot. It’s a bum rap.” But all my energies, then and later, were exerted in holding myself together. I always had this Humpty Dumpty fantasy that if I were ever to allow myself to crack, no one, not “all the King’s men” could ever put me back together again. I’m beginning to learn how wrong I was. Emotions can strengthen you, not splinter you. To express emotions is healthier than to repress them. So if I were given a chance to tell the children again, I would have encouraged them to cry. I would have worked hard to get them to ask questions, to talk about Daddy’s illness. I would have tried to help them understand the truth.

You say you need to know what to do to be better able to cope, and I strongly encourage you to do some reading about loss and grief. As I say repeatedly in our online Grief Healing Discussion Groups, the more you learn about grief, the better you can cope with it. Pay a long visit to my Grief Healing Web site and read some of the articles you’ll find there. See especially the Links page and the Comfort for Grieving Hearts page. And you'll find links to all my blog posts categorized and listed here: Marty's Articles.

The help you seek is all around you, my dear. I hope you will take it advantage of it, and think of it as a gift you can give yourself.

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