Sunday, September 6, 2009

Thoughts on Funerals and Grief

I lost my uncle a couple weeks ago, so I got to thinking, and I saw a question on funerals and answered it, on the National Novel Writing Month Forum. Here's what I said, in case anyone's listening:

 I've been to several funerals, and of course, they aren't pleasant, but it helps to go through the ritual and talk to others who are missing the loved one, so it is therapeutic.

 Usually, there is a trip to the funeral home to make arrangements. You are shown caskets and clothes [that don't have a part below the waist; open casket funerals are just opened from the top half]. The family chooses the casket and may bring clothing from home for the body. The time of the service at the church or at the funeral home is set; there may be a church service with the casket there at the front, and a viewing at the funeral home where there may be a display of photo albums, awards, and life mementos of the deceased on the way up to see the body and speak a few words of comfort to the family. The viewing might be the night before the funeral, if I remember right.

 At the church, a minister will speak a few words, and the family may or may not talk about the person, and close friends may speak. There is usually prelude music and the family will specifiy which hymns are played. The congregation may sing a hymn or two, or someone might sing for the group, or there might just be organ music. I don't think piano music is traditional. I only heard of organ music at funerals. Then, the pallbearers, usually the six closest friends of the deceased if they are able to lift the casket, gently carry it out to the waiting hearse, usually a black Cadillac specially modified to carry a casket.

 My parents died in metro Atlanta and were carried down to Carnegie, GA for the burial. So, there was a viewing at the funeral home in Chamblee, a service at the same funeral home, the trip down to Carnegie, and a graveside service. We got the preacher from the church to speak, and it was just a simple thing. He didn't know them, so he couldn't really say much. The funeral home doing the burial had a tent, and folding metal chairs set up on a velvety carpet. We sat on the chairs, heard the service, and both my parents were WWII veterans, so they both had a flag draped on the casket for the graveside service, and it was presented to my father after Mama's service. Dad's flag was presented to my stepmother. There was no open casket there. If there is an open casket service, I believe that is done in the Church/funeral home service and not at the graveside, but I am not sure. I never remember many details about funerals, and this is common in the grief process. When someone dies, you go a little numb for the first several days and may not cry much. The body's way of protecting you from the shock. A friend of the family actually did go into shock when her young husband died and she got the news! They had to take her to the hospital! But, I digress. After the service, usually everyone leaves before they actually start the burial itself. We stayed to talk to old friends, and I saw them preparing to lower the casket. My sister gently pulled me away before they started lowering it. There's a frame set up over the hole, and a vault [a big concrete box] is put into the hole. The area is covered with that dark, velvety cloth and the casket is put into the frame before the family comes for the service, or is carried to the frame by pallbearers. Since we had to travel, all that was done before we got there. What I saw of the lowering, a machine lowers the casket. Later, concrete or a granite slab is laid over the grave. There is a funeral marker, a metal or plastic frame with a card that has the name of the deceased, birth and death dates. There may be metal letters with the info. Later, the monument company brings the gravestone. Veterans are eligible for a special veteran's marker that has which war they served in and what regiment, etc. that usually goes at the foot of the grave on top of the slab. My parents' graves have coping around them and gravel inside the coping, but the cemetery is now just planting grass with flat headstone markers of metal, for easy maintenance of the graveyard. Copings will not be replaced. Neither will slabs.

 You should be careful how you write about the grief process. From my experience, society gives you about 2 weeks to get over it. In reality, the grief process takes 6 mos to 2 years before you feel halfway normal again. What's needed is someone to listen, but what you get mostly are harmful comments like, "Oh, she's in a better place now!" or, "At least she's at peace!" Religious people usually have some idea that the person's spirit is still living, and that is a little comfort, but it doesn't take away the shock of losing a young person. Mama was only 59 and died of pneumonia. Your brain just doesn't register that someone young as that can die, so it adds the shock of a young death.

 Grief has stages, and this holds true for loss, or for loss of skills such as when someone is injured and becomes disabled.
First, there is numbness. You might think the person's a cold fish, or is handling it very well!
After the first few days, the tears flood, and the person feels despondent. People wanting to comfort tend to think they have to say the right words to make it all better. What the person needs, is someone to just listen. There ARE no right words.
Sorrow gives to anger. There might be sleep disturbances, hallucinations of seeing the loved one, violent behavior, sudden urge to do a big project. Everyone goes through grief a little differently, but basically, sorrow and deep depression alternate with anger. The person might feel pretty unlovable and emotionally volatile. This can go on for months.
Most people bargain with God. "I'll do anything if you'll bring her back! I'll be perfect! I'll give all my money to the church!" Then, there's anger with God when He doesn't bring the person back. Sometimes, the religious struggle brings a closer, more personal kind of religion. Some people turn away from God, feeling punished. Again, this is a very personal thing.
Finally, the person moves into Acceptance. The person is gone, and it's time to accept it and move into healing. Swings from sorrow to anger are shallower and less intense.
Holidays and anniversaries of the death bring a minor repeat of the grief. It's common to grieve every lost person at once during the holidays. This gets easier with time, but the first couple of Christmases, if the person was a Christian, are nearly unbearable without some understanding relatives and friends near!

 Remember. grief isn't all-consuming. A person grieving a sister might laugh at a joke, but not for as long as before the loss. She might feel guilty for laughing. She might feel fine until reminded of the grief; well-meaning friends that bring up the subject might ruin her day! It's possible to put off grief until you're alone.
You expect to lose your parents; nothing in life prepares you for the loss of a baby!
I lost my son at 16 weeks into the pregnancy. I refused a picture of him. They drugged me to do a D&C, to make sure I wouldn't get a bad infection [they scrape out the uterus]. Then, when I was still drunk from the anesthetic, in came the poor nurses with the papers. We weren't in any shape to make these decisions. The small hospital had no morgue. We had to decide, right then, what to do with my son's body. I decided to donate him to science. You may think that's horrible, but he was so small, and I was so stupid, I didn't even know you could have a funeral for a less-than full-term baby. Mama had told me of a miscarriage, and they buried him under a tree, or did they even do that? They didn't have a funeral.

 Later that day, when I woke up good, I regretted that decision. It's been 21 years, and I still regret it. Worse, 9 days after Jimmy's birth and death, I decided I wanted those pictures after all. I called the hospital. They threw out the file, they said. But, later, a nurse called me back. She had a birth certificate. I left that very minute and got it. On it, one of the nurses had spent a lot of time getting good impressions of tiny footprints. I photocopied the certificate, the footprints, and added an ultrasound picture, a fuzzy black and white one. After several reductions, I cut them out and pasted them on a sheet of blue paper, then cut it to fit a 5x7" frame. This, I kept on my desk. For a few days. But, I almost bawled every time someone asked me about it. Going back to work was torture.

 I worked in the Georgia Tech Archives then, and I was a very new employee. When I got pregnant, I told all 109 people in the library how happy we were, so as I went to other departments for various purposes, I talked about it. After the miscarriage, I didn't look any different. I still was wearing maternity clothes. You can imagine what it did to me, every time someone asked, "How's the baby?" I'd find some excuse to go down in the Archives where nobody worked, and I'd have a good cry while I did my work. Then, I'd straighten up in the ladies' room and make sure I didn't look as if I'd been crying.

 Finally, I went on the library-wide electronic newsletter and announced that I had the miscarriage, just so people would quit asking. I got a flood of sympathetic responses, which embarrassed me, but I was very grateful for the support.

 I found a self-help group. There, I learned about the grief process, and learned to forgive my husband for not being depressed. Husbands usually don't grieve the loss until about 6 months later, because they feel they have to be strong for the wife. Like us, a lot of couples end up divorced after the loss of a child. I had 2 miscarriages and one healthy daughter with my first husband. Then, I had this one, and one earlier one, then a healthy daughter, with my second husband.

 In the grief group, there was a couple I liked a lot. He was mild-mannered without a violent bone in his body. But, he put a fist through their wall once, and decided he had to do SOMETHING physical with all that anger. So, he built a deck. Other men in our group built things, or one man took a sledgehammer to a rock pile in the back yard. I became a Girl Scout leader, volunteered for PTA, gave blood and donated platelets, I nearly ran myself into the ground.

 One lady brought her grandmother, who had a miscarriage 25 years before. She hadn't grieved her baby's loss until her granddaughter lost her baby. We gave her lots of support. Back then, you didn't grieve publicly for a miscarriage. Ditto Mama's miscarriages [she had two, and one was full-term].

 I didn't have time to finish my grief process before having ANOTHER miscarriage a year later. I and my older daughter had just attended the SHARE Walk, a walk to let people know about the grief of losing a child, and they had planted a tree in a park on Ponce de Leon Ave in Atlanta. I think I miscarried the next day. I have a picture taken that day, with my sad smile.

 I often write about grief in my stories, and it is healing for me. I am hopeful that someone reading about a character who loses a close friend, or a baby, also finds it healing. Just my two cents' worth, that this is your chance to put in something about the grief process. It makes a good story. It might help someone who IS grieving.


Posted via email from Adia's Posterous From DanniStories

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