In this time when we may not be able to say goodbyes in person, it's vitally important to still mark our loved one's passing and grieve the loss.
I encountered a lonely funeral yesterday. I was on a morning bike ride when I heard the church bell begin to toll. I looked over and saw a single funeral home employee rolling a casket from a hearse into the church. No pall bearers. No family. I don’t know who was in that casket, but I do know that what I was silently witnessing was sacred. I offered up a quiet prayer.
As a priest, I’ve been present at funerals of all sizes. Some have been so well attended that people spilled out of the pews and had to stand along the walls. I’ve been at funerals where there have been two dozen or more priests gathered in the sanctuary. I’ve also been at small funerals. One was so sparse that the only attendees were me, the funeral home employees, and the kind-hearted lawyer who had handled the estate. There are a variety of reasons this happens. For instance, older people with no children who have outlived all their friends and family tend to have small funerals. It’s more common than you might think, and it has nothing to do with how well-liked a person was. This is why it’s an act of mercy to attend funerals. We never know how much that particular person will need our prayers. We never know how many other people will be there to do so. As I said, sometimes there is almost no one.
But in all my life, I have never, ever had to say a funeral mass completely alone. There has always been someone.
Due to the quarantine we are temporarily under, funerals are difficult. I suspect that most are still able to proceed with small gatherings of family, but others may lack even that. Family who typically would travel are not allowed to fly and friends who may be around to fill the void may not be allowed to participate. This vastly complicates the process of grieving.
As embodied creatures, it is important for us to show our love physically. At a visitation, we want to kiss the deceased on the forehead one last time before the casket is closed. We want to place a rosary in their hands and look at their face one last time. In the church, there is comfort in seeing the holy water sprinkled, in smelling the incense rise up to heaven. At the graveside, we are driven by an inner impulse to touch the casket before walking away, hands lingering on the wood in a sign of benediction.
Funerals offer a marked moment, a safe space to express grief. Funerals stare death in the eye, an act that changes us. As a priest, I see it all the time. The way a family expresses themselves before and after the funeral is as different as night and day. It isn’t as if they are magically healed and ready to move on, but the funeral gives them permission to be sad. It helps them stop pretending that there has not been a loss, and creates an opportunity to show their love.
In grieving, we typically go through five stages – denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, and acceptance. Although the stages are not always in order and not always clear, we all go through them in some way or another.When we experience loss, the need to mourn and go through this process is strong. It’s natural. No one else does it for you. It has to be you. Funerals are a vital step in the process. There are no shortcuts to the end and no way to stall the grief and pretend the loss never happened. But if you cannot make it to the funeral, if you are not allowed to go to the funeral, how can you grieve?
Create your own marked moment. Set aside time to acknowledge your grief and come to terms with the loss. It must be intentional. Healing cannot be expected to automatically happen with the passage of time. It is not true that time heals all wounds. I can assure you that, if we do not actively mourn, we will never fully process our grief and it will linger in our veins like poison.
Don’t shy away from looking death in the eye. Allow yourself to cry. Write a letter to the deceased telling them how much you loved them. Read some of the Scripture passages that are used during funeralsand commit to saying prayers on their behalf. If you are Catholic, your priest will take your Mass intention and pray with you, which is always a comfort. Make a donation in your loved one’s name to a charity. Talk about it and express your emotions honestly with no cliches or false attempts at hope. If you need to, talk about it in a grief support group, some of which are offered through parishes and meet online right now.
Don’t allow guilt or frustration about missing the funeral to hold you back.
There are many ways to process grief and mark the passing of a loved one. However you handle it, the key is to be honest and patient with yourself. Yes, in an ideal world we would make it to the wake and funeral. In an ideal world no one would die alone or be buried alone. The current situation that separates us from each other is a forceful reminder that life is far from perfect. Who knows if or when things will get back to normal. One thing I do know for sure, love is stronger than death. It overcomes every separation. Those who love are never alone.