Mon, Jan 05, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Loss of funeral rituals leaves mourners adrift

The pain of bereavement is worsened by isolation, but few of us know how to speak about loss — our own or others’

By Jenni Russell  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

My father died just before Christmas. He was nearly 80; he had been ill. Intellectually and rationally there should have been nothing startling about his death. It is part of the pattern of things. Yet I have been as stunned by his death, and the utter absence of him, as if I never knew that human beings had a lifespan.

I did understand that people die. I didn’t understand how the loss would feel. Perhaps it’s something one can never grasp until it has happened, because the imagination refuses to go there. But it’s also that death has been so removed from our daily experience that it has become almost embarrassingly private. We have gone from the strict and public mourning rituals of the Victorian era, with widows in heavy black clothes for a year and a day, and men wearing black armbands to signify loss, to having no mechanisms to signal our sadness at all.

When it happened I realized that I, like many of us, had neither the public ritual nor the private knowledge to tell me how to get through this. I needed to talk to those who had already lived through it, and who could tell me what had helped them. I wanted to talk about my father with those who had cared about him. Lastly, and almost most importantly, I wanted the close friends of mine who had never met my parents to know what had happened. And I wasn’t sure how far it was reasonable to ask for any of this from anyone.


I couldn’t think of anyone ever having messaged me to tell me that one of their parents had died. It’s the kind of thing that comes up in conversation when you see someone, not something that you are notified of. So who was I to impose this news on others, especially at Christmas time? I didn’t want to be the specter at the feast.

I couldn’t hope that many people would hear the news themselves. I don’t belong to a church or a community that would provide such a structure. Much of the time we welcome the freedom of action that that implies. At times like this, though, it can be a loss. Mourners want to feel supported, but don’t know what they can expect from others. Friends and acquaintances can be quite oblivious to those needs. In that gap there is room for much uncertainty and disappointment to grow.

One friend of mine was bereft when her stepfather, the only constant parent in her life, died young. She arranged the funeral, then felt abandoned. She found herself longing for the Jewish rituals others observed.

“What I really wanted was for people to sit shiva with me — where friends and neighbors mourn with you, and bring food, for seven days. I didn’t want to feel so alone.”

I didn’t know this at the time. She, embarrassed by her need, kept it to herself. But it still hurts.

Over and over again people I talked to about this admit to having expected more from others than they received. Most just wanted more acknowledgment. They wanted acquaintances at the office or the school gate to express sympathy rather than pretending nothing had happened; they wanted cards to be sent, they wanted telephone calls asking how they were, they wanted to talk about the person they had lost.

But I have also been struck by the way in which some people, while proudly rejecting formal rituals, expect everyone they know to have understood, by osmosis, that they should be following a very specific unwritten script. There can be a lot of resentment boiling away. Some are furious their friends didn’t ask them out to social events shortly afterwards — “as if I was a leper!” — while others are furious that they did — “I don’t know how they could be so insensitive!”

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