How to Grieve Without a Funeral
If you are reading this, first of all let me say how sorry I am that it applies to you. You have lost someone you care about, and for whatever reason cannot process this loss in the way common to our culture. Perhaps there's a global pandemic going on that makes it necessary to forego social gatherings. Maybe you can't physically be there because of geography, illness or some other circumstance.
Maybe your person died and you didn't find out until later, long after their funeral was held.
It's unfortunate that I can write about this with some authority. My scenario was the last one above; when my estranged father died in 2015, I didn't know about it for a month. There was a funeral; I just didn't know about it. Five years on, I feel that perhaps I went through this situation so I can offer some comfort to anyone going through something similar. I know what it's like to lose someone and not be able to have what you consider to be a "proper funeral."
To come up with some ways to grieve without a funeral, we must first consider what funerals provide that we are missing. By considering what the rituals mean to us, we can find creative ways to heal our hearts.
1. Funerals Give Us an Appropriate Space to Mourn
Many people don't feel comfortable crying in public. It's a very personal thing to grieve, and the process can make us feel quite vulnerable. There might be the sudden shock of someone so familiar suddenly missing from everyday life. Or there might be the longing for what might have been and finality of broken dreams. Working through these realizations takes time, and quiet space to think.
Find some ways you can mourn your loss. Create a video, photo album or scrapbook. Wear black. Let yourself have comfort foods, or let someone take care of you. Write in a journal, paint a picture or find some similar way to express your grief through creativity. Let off some steam if that feels good to you, and let yourself have a good cry. It's hard enough to lose someone you care about; the grief is compounded if you feel you can't adequately mourn. So go ahead; do what you need to do to celebrate their life and your relationship, and cry your eyes out if you need to. Give yourself permission to mourn.
2. Funerals Give Us a Chance to Talk About Our Loved One
The "celebration of life" trend over funerals in recent years has brought to light our need to remember the good times and talk about our loved one with other who knew him or her. We deliver eulogies, formal or informal, and "pour one out" for the person we lost. A funeral is a gathering of people sharing a collective grief. So how can you "gather" with others if not at a funeral?
Find some spaces for talking about your loved one. Host a Zoom meeting of loved ones, or a virtual celebration of life. By creating this community space to grieve together, you are giving others permission to be part of the community and let it out. Share stories, ask questions and talk to others who knew your person. Learn about the other parts of their life by inviting others to share. Encourage each other to feel it all.
3. Funerals are a Way to Honor the Dead
One of the hardest parts of losing my father and not being able to attend his funeral was that I felt I couldn't properly honor him. Because our relationship was contentious or nonexistent for much of my life, I wanted to honor the good memories I had of him, and the parts of him of which I could be proud. His military service; his intelligence; his dedication to my education. When we have a funeral, we pin medals and ribbons, post photographs and talk about accomplishments. We salute our person and celebrate their life, dedication to family and friends and professional endeavors.
Find things you can be proud of, and tell others about them. Write an obituary that details their successes, virtues and best qualities. Write a list of what you loved about them. Make a shadow box of their medals or flags. Create a collage of their proudest moments. If you would like to share these things, consider publishing them, sharing them online, or sending them to a local newspaper. Give yourself permission to tell others about this person you loved. It's a great way to honor their memory.
4. Funerals Provide Closure
Whether a funeral involves a casket, urn or photo, we know this is our last chance to see the person and say goodbye. The chance to get closure by saying goodbye can be an important part of the grieving process. My family growing up was an open-casket, full-on Mass with a receiving line sort of family. People filed past the deceased in solemn process, and we sat together with the body for several hours as you would at a wake. Saying goodbye to the physical body is important for many people, and an important part of psychologically registering that they are really gone from this life. If you are one of these people, you are likely hit particularly hard by not being able to have the sort of funeral you would want.
Find physical and tangible ways you can say goodbye to your person. Take the time to hold a ceremony of your own making. Include candles, photos, balloons, bubbles or anything that helps. Think about what your person would have liked or might have found beautiful and incorporate that into your new ritual. Read poems or scriptures, play favorite songs, or prepare special food. The very act of writing a new ritual to say goodbye to your loved one is a beautiful and thoughtful way to honor them.
Do What is Right for You
In no way am I suggesting that any of these practices will "make it okay" or "right" that you aren't able to have a funeral the way you would want. It is my sincere hope that you might find something in my experience that will provide you with comfort, or will inspire you to design a way to do what you need to grieve properly (whatever that means for you).
Sending you love and light, from my heart.