What’s Your Question: Coping When Funerals Bring Up Old Losses

We posted recently about remembering loved ones at weddings and we got a great comment asking us to post about funerals.  The comment went like this: how ’bout a post about how to cope with a funeral? Every time I go to a funeral I feel guilty because I feel like I’m really grieving for my loved ones rather than the one whose funeral I’m attending.

Let’s start by saying, great suggestion for a post! We have probably all been there, but there is a good chance we haven’t talked about it because it feels, well . . .  weird.  How do you say, oh no, these aren’t tears for the person whose funeral this is, these are tears for my husband who died 7 years ago, or for my grandmother who died last year?  Chances are you don’t say it.  Instead you silently felt just a wee bit guilty that your emotions were not exclusively for the person who died.

The scene goes a little something like this: you go to the funeral of your friend’s grandmother (who you met twice, maybe) and suddenly you are a blubbering mess.  It isn’t the loss of this nice lady you barely knew that has started the waterworks, but rather the memories of your own grandmother’s death, or the death of a friend, or any number of other losses.  You now are left feeling 1) emotions you weren’t expecting 2) guilt that you are sad for the wrong reasons 3) confused because you didn’t see this coming and you can’t get it under control.  You are rapidly becoming that crazy girl/guy that no one in the family recognizes who can’t stop crying.  Don’t worry, we’ve all been that crazy girl/guy.

Any death that we encounter has a tendency to bring up our past losses.  Triggers are real and a funeral is an oh-so-common trigger.  What is a trigger?  A trigger is anything in our environment that brings up the pain of our loss.  It can be a sight, smell, taste, or sound that brings up a certain feeling or emotion for us.  Triggers can come up out of no where and hit us like a ton of bricks.  Funerals are a common trigger, but they are far from the only trigger.  Triggers can be songs, places, foods, people, and just about any other think you can imagine (like the socks at Target that caused me to have a meltdown in the sock aisle).  Needless to say, a funeral may be filled with sites, sounds, and smells that all remind you of the loss of your loved one.

So how do you cope when funerals bring up old losses?

1) Remember that this experience is TOTALLY normal.  You may be feeling guilty that you are the only one shedding tears for someone other than the person who just died, but you’re not.  I promise.  We all bring our past losses with us to a funeral, so chances are those around you are also feeling a combination of pain for the person who died, as well as others they have lost.

2) Be prepared.  It can be even harder to cope with emotions when we are caught totally off guard by them.  Getting to know your grief triggers in general can be helpful.  If you know it isn’t uncommon that funerals bring up old losses, you can be better prepared to handle the emotions when they come up.

3) Reflect on your grief in advance.  If you know you are going to a funeral, take some time to think about your loved one in advance.  The night before do some journaling or general reflection.  Rather than being overwhelmed by emotions that you may not have felt for a while during the funeral, this can help to give you time with those feelings before the funeral.

4) Plan your escape route.  Seriously.  The surge of emotions in the situation may be too much for you to handle.  If you are worried about attending the funeral for fear of the emotions that may come up, give yourself permission to leave when you need to.  Sit near the back.  Don’t carpool with someone who may not be ready to leave when you are.  Take breaks if you need them.  Read Eleanor’s post on being an introvert at a funeral, for some inspiration.

5) Accept your grief.  If you are feeling guilty that you are grieving your loved on, instead of the person who died, let it go.  It is absolutely okay to acknowledge the people you love and miss.  Funerals are about grieving together.  As much as we are together grieving the person who has just died, we are all collectively bringing our previous losses with us.  Allow yourself to feel the emotions.

6) Say your own goodbye.  If you feel like your past losses interfered with your ability to say goodbye to the person who just died, plan another ritual to say goodbye later.  This goodbye could be whatever you want, from private time reflecting to visiting the cemetery later.  There is no rule that says a funeral is the only time, or the best time, to say goodbye!

There is another discussion that is just too long to include here on preparing for the funeral of someone who you were very close to, so we will save that for another day.  For now, we would love to hear how funerals have impacted you as a griever and how you’ve coped, so leave a comment!

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March 28, 2017

12 responses on "What's Your Question: Coping When Funerals Bring Up Old Losses"

  1. I attended a funeral today of my sons friends mother. She was a year younger than me and had battled cancer for 10 years. Taken to soon.
    A piognant event in a lot of ways for me as I have attended several funerals in recent years which have been difficult. The advice given in this article is good. Escape routes are a useful strategy. As today I used this one , sat at the back of the service, used another door to leave the church so that I didnt have to shake hands with the immediate family, and decided that going to the tea afterwards was too much to bear, and that there were plenty going to be there anyway. I cried many tears today, and not all for the woman whos service it was. Many were for family and friends lost to me before.
    Hymn singing makes me even worse so I mimed the words instead. I am pleased I attended today, I wanted to go as my son couldn’t attend. And yes plenty of handkies of the cotton variety never go amiss.
    Bereavement never goes away, our lives just wrap around it, envelope it. Sometimes its more acute, sometimes its quieter and in the background but its always there. Once you accept it as part of your life and part of what makes you as a person then the acute phase passes easier.

  2. Next week will be the funeral of my sister in laws cousin who was an absolute amazing person, but just the thought of attending is giving me such anxiety as attending it would be my first time even being in a church since the funeral of my fiance in October last year. I am still emotionally fragile and not ready to even face life as it is, so attending the funeral is going to be really painful and I don’t think that there is anything that can really prepare me for it. I appreciate the fact that in the article it suggests having an alternative means of leaving if it becomes too much as I feel that that just might be the case and the rest of my family will not want to leave just because I am having a hard time. It feels selfish that her passing has heightened my grief but I cannot help it, there are just so much similarities in their passing and so soon I am just not ready to face all of this

  3. This painful moment is the most saddest time of our lives, and we will never be ready, no one else will…but time heals all wounds..

  4. I am going to the funeral of a friend tomorrow. It is the first funeral that I will have attended since the death of my youngest son just over a year ago. I searched for advice on the internet and found this article. It is very useful and practical and I thank you for that. I have found that all that I do needs to have a degree of preparation now to prevent being sideswiped by triggers.
    Thank you again .

  5. This Xmas eve will be 3 yrs since i lost my daughter. I have not been able to attend a funeral service since. I just can’t.

  6. Thank you for writing about this. I looked up this exact scenario because today I’m attending a memorial service for my husband’s grandfather. I only met him a handful of times so I wasn’t close with him personally. However, my mother-in-law and his wife of 67 years have been on my mind a lot since this happened. I lost my dad a little over 10 months ago and just the thought of attending this memorial has brought me to tears multiple times. Even as I type this.. This is the first memorial I’m attending since my dad past away, and it’s honestly the first one where not only are memories of my dad come flooding back, but I can truly empathize with the people who were close to my husband’s grandfather. I have no idea how I’m going to handle it. I hope by the afternoon, I am cried out and can hold it together during the service. I worry so much what his family will think, especially his extended family who I’ve never even met before.. I’m aware a memorial is for the person who died but it really does bring up a lot of your own losses, especially when they’re more recent. I just don’t want to look like a jerk.

  7. I think it is a wonderful post and as they say acknowledgement of the issue is the first step, but what about actual coping strategies for the funeral itself. I am about to attend my second funeral in a month, both gone before their time, and I am struggling to think about how I am going to cope. I have had a lot of loss, with my own parents dying when I was in my early 20’s. and I really struggle at funerals. Firstly I spend the days leading up to the funeral convincing myself to go, and bursting into tears a the mere thought of it. At the funeral I almost hyperventilate before I even walk in and have to concentrate on every breath just to get that far. During the funeral the only way I can cope is by not listening to it – by thinking about something else totally – a recipe, plants in the garden, whether I will have time for a coffee later, anything. I also spend a lot of time with my nails imbedded in my hands to give me something else to focus my attention on. Then I try not to stay longer than I absolutely have to – (the exit strategy is a very good one). I make sure those who need to know I came to support them see me and then I leave as soon as it is over. Is there any other ways to cope that I can also use? I would really love to know if there was – I am currently doing the “talking myself into attending” my great aunts funeral in a few days. Thank you for such a wonderful article.

  8. Thank you for this post. I’m glad to know it is normal. I’ve had several funerals a year after my mom had past and upset for days. I’m glad to know I’m not alone and it’s ok to have these feelings. Thank you

  9. Yes, what a worthy topic. I think funerals and memorial services are about our own mortality also. So as a funeral director, I try to think it out that way. Every person’s death speaks to our coming death too. And a good funeral can send everyone in attendance out the door with a slightly altered life philosophy. What is it about this death, this life, that we’re celebrating? How can we do better, work smarter, connect with more people, in the remaining time we have?

    • My friend and ex a couple of times of 50 years, told his sister to call me to come when he was dying (at home). His sister said I was the first one he called to come. We were close companions for the last 20 years and he was Poppa to my kids and grandkids.I stayed at his house until he died, was present along with his sister and his other sister’s son when he passed. I was given the wrong time for the memorial, which was not corrected,I was not thought about, while my ex husband was called to see why he wasn’t there. My daughter got there late, told me our family was excluded.( It was her father that got called to come, he came from Texas). I got a sorry from his sister, even though my friend made sure she knew how close we were. I thought memorials helped the grieving process, I wasn’t the only one left out I think. Trying to figure out what to do, I miss my friend, we spent a lot of time together, we had a lot in common. We talked about our relationships with family, about a lot of other things he couldn’t share with others, spiritual, etc.

  10. I agree, Litsa ~ great topic for a post, and your suggestions are spot-on. Thank you! I’ve added a link to your article at the base of my own post on this same topic, “Facing Another Funeral Without ‘Falling Apart'” http://j.mp/1dGACE3

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