Grief expressed is grief relieved

One thing aging does for a man is help him understand life’s deeper issues a little better. Take funerals, for instance. As a younger man I thought funerals were just an expensive tradition — overdone sentimentalism. Now a septuagenarian, I more deeply appreciate our society’s funeral customs and what they do for the survivors.

My views on funerals have been shaped over many years, going way back to childhood. I consider myself fortunate that my parents believed children had a place at some funerals.

I was 6 years old when a 3-year-old cousin drowned in a stock tank on his family’s farm. Our families were close and my parents took me along to the funeral. While I didn’t fully understand all that took place, I was left keenly aware of two things — the deep sorrow of the occasion and how the family looked to its faith for comfort.

Over the years, I remember attending other funerals as a child. By the time I was an adult, I was somewhat familiar with rural midwestern funeral traditions.

When my maternal grandmother, Oma Gelder, died I didn’t think twice about taking our nearly 8-year-old son out of school for a day to attend his great-grandmother’s funeral. We named Dirk after my maternal grandfather, something Oma deeply appreciated.

Upon arrival at the church a relative questioned my son’s presence. She sharply criticized me for bringing a child to a funeral and wasn’t interested in hearing my reasons for doing so. Our son attended the service.

Burial was in the church cemetery and after the committal service Dirk and I lingered at the grave. We talked about Oma and her life, about the body and the soul, about death and eternal life.

The next day I overheard one of Dirk’s friends ask him about the funeral. He described some of what he had witnessed and added, “A lot of people were crying.” That was it. He was not warped by the experience.

Though my views on funeral traditions had begun mellowing by the time I was in my 30s, it wasn’t until my father’s funeral nearly 32 years ago that I really began to appreciate the value of our traditions.

When my wife passed away 11 years ago the value of a funeral service was made even more real. As difficult as Cindy’s passing was, the kindness of so many friends and relatives at the visitation and the funeral (and many expressions of sympathy later) buoyed my sinking spirit.

Funerals and family visitation times were always awkward for me. While I normally have something to say about everything, I was tongue-tied when it came time to express sympathy.

I came to understand when Dad died that, when said sincerely, a kind expression of sorrow is more than sufficient. I learned, too, that a simple hug can be the most eloquent expression of sympathy.

For years I had also struggled with selecting an appropriate sympathy card. Some cards were too syrupy; others too remote. While I still try to pick an appropriate card, I have learned from personal experience that at a time of sorrow any message of sympathy is appreciated, especially a handwritten note.

Funerals, I know now, help us accept the finality of physical death. A co-worker once told me that by missing the funeral of a friend because of illness she never felt the finality of her friend’s passing. Years ago an uncle died in Minnesota and a series of circumstances prevented me from attending his funeral. I, too, sensed this lack of finality. I realized, of course, that this uncle was gone, but something was left undone in not having attended his funeral.

I have also learned there are many different and acceptable ways to say good-bye to a loved one. One of the most meaningful funerals I have attended was a lengthy, liturgical service in a large, beautiful church. I have also been deeply moved by a simple funeral home service with recorded music.

I understand that funerals are for the survivors. Funerals help us accept our loss and channel our grief. And, as one funeral director friend told me when my father died, “Grief expressed is grief relieved.”

Arvid Huisman can be contacted at huismaniowa@gmail.com. ©2024 by Huisman Communications.


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