Before my dad went on ahead, I remember feeling completely at a loss of what to say or do when I went to a funeral. "What can I possibly say that will make a difference at all?" I'd think, and, truth be told, there were a few occasions when a family member (whom I didn't know) of a friend of mine passed away and I didn't make an effort to go to the funeral. I told myself that my friend wouldn't miss my presence there, that I would be just one more person in a sea of people paying their condolences that day, and that it wasn't a big deal if I just waited to check in with my friend later.
But since then my perspective has changed, and I've started thinking differently. I now know that it is important to make an effort to be there to support the people I care about who are grieving, even if it's hard and even if I am struggling still with my own grief. For all of my rambling over the past year and a half about what I didn't appreciate people saying to me in my own grief, the truth is that I STILL don't know what to say to another person who is bereaved. Here's my gut feeling, though: I think those whose loved one has gone on ahead need to hear that the person who died will live on in the memories of and in the hearts of others who knew him or her. I think it can be helpful for them to hear about what that person meant to others or even just to hear a story that that person has to share about their loved one. For me, one of the things that I have feared the most since my dad died is that time and the business of everyday life will swallow up the impact of my dad's presence for other people in the world, like he wasn't here or like his life didn't matter to anyone other than to those in my family. Maybe that is a common thing to fear in a situation of loss, and, if so, maybe reassurance in some form from those who also knew that person will in some way help those who are suffering from a loss.
From my own experience, I also learned that the significance of following-up with a friend who has lost a family member, checking in with them after a little bit of time has gone by, is so often overlooked, or at least it was in my family's case; I think it's something that most people just don't think about doing, or maybe they think about it but just get too busy with their own lives. I learned how touching little things are as we go through the process of the funeral are, everything from having someone bring extra Kleenexes to someone taking photos of some of the flowers to the strangers along the way to the cemetery who pull their cars over on the side of the road to let the procession go by. I learned that different families, different situations, and different religious practices result in different types of funerals, and that that's ok; certainly there's no right or wrong way to hold a memorial service or to grieve.
The funeral today was at my friend's church; the service was very touching and was reflective of my friend's beliefs and her preference in music and verses. My dad's, though, was a different style altogether. Before he got sick, Dad had said many times that he didn't want a big service to be held in his memory after he died; he said it embarrassed him to even think about having lots of people gather in mourning for him. For as long as I can remember, he'd said that he wanted to be cremated, and several times after going to someone's funeral he commented that he would much prefer it if a celebratory type of gathering could be held in his honor in place of a traditional funeral, when the time came.
And so, on the night he died, my mom, my sisters, my aunt, and I sat in my parents' den and talked about what Dad wanted, and the plans were set in motion. A memorial celebration it was, to be held three days after he went on ahead, to allow for travel time for the many who came from out of town. Some of the time around the gathering is a blur to me; I see from this vantage point so clearly the shock that blanketed us then and I know that created a haze over some of what was going on. I remember who came, though, and I will never forget their efforts to comfort us with their presence and their kind words and gestures during the most difficult time in our lives. The memorial celebration was memorable, in probably precisely the way it needed to be, and it served as Part One of our bereavement process.
Part Two happened six weeks later, when the cremation had been completed and when those of us who lived out of town had a chance to regroup and return for the burial. One benefit to delaying that part of the process of laying my dad to rest was that my mom, my siblings, and I had a chance to put some thought into how we wanted to have things go. We'd decided early on to honor Dad's wishes and to have the burial only opened to close family members, and we agreed that we wanted the ceremony to be held at the graveside only and to pay our respects on that day in whatever way each of us decided. One by one, each of us chose what part we wanted to play as individuals, to honor and to pay our respects. My mom, my sister Jennifer, and I planned to read something that each of us had prepared in advance; my brother Lee wanted to read from the Bible, and my sister Nancy did not plan to address the group during the ceremony. As it turned out, though, Jennifer had trouble getting through the end of her reading, and Nancy came to her rescue to finish the passage. When my turn came, as I read what I had written, I felt my voice shaking, and I couldn't hardly see through the sea of tears that clouded my vision as I struggled to keep my emotions in check enough to get through the words I wanted to say. I thought I would feel some closure, some relief, or some comfort. All that really happened, though, is that I did more of exactly what I'd been doing since the moment of Dad's passing: I breathed, I mustered up all the courage I could, and then I pushed forward to do what I knew Dad would want me to do, despite the pain and the confusion in my heart.