Sunday, June 17, 2012

It's Complicated


Life can be messy, and death can strike when our relationships are in flux.  Many families have to deal with unresolved relationship issues on top of the grief they are feeling.  How we feel about a person's right to make decisions, or even be present at funeral services often depends on which party we are closest to, and not necessarily what might be legal or fair for everyone.  In addition, the complicated and volatile feelings of grief and loss can further polarize and dramatize  the situation.
When someone we love dies, we can react by becoming very possessive.  In our loss, we grasp on to our memories, even complicated ones, and feel that we own all the grief.  Sometimes we get to the point where we resent the grief of those those we see as competitors.  Though the situation demands generosity and understanding, we have a very difficult time giving up more because we've already lost so much.
Most often, the situation is something like this:
A couple has split up, but the deceased has not married their current companion.  Therefore, the adult children and/or the former spouse hold the cards.  The current companion of the deceased feels that they should have the right to make decisions, but legally they have no rights.  Their presence would make the legal spouse and children very uncomfortable, but they have a need to grieve and participate as well.
A couple is divorced, and the deceased has remarried.  In this case, the new spouse holds the power and the children and former spouse of the deceased may be denied their opportunity to grieve and participate. 
It's easy to see how many of us could end up on either side of this situation, depending on just when death strikes.  I advise families in this situation to be as generous as they can be to those who have no decision making power, because the shoe could easily be on the other foot. 
As an undertaker, I am bound to follow the wishes of my client.  Most often this is the legal next of kin, or if there is more than one at the same level of kinship, the person who has engaged my services and has agreed to pay for them.   I am also bound to obey the law, which means that at a public funeral, I can request that people stay away in respect for the family, but I cannot keep them from attending.  In any case, it is a heart wrenching task to even ask a grieving person to leave a funeral.  I have seen too many partners without the title of 'widow', or other 'left-out' relatives come up to the grave to weep after the 'real' family has left, and I know that many relatives and loved ones have had to deal with their grief privately when services have not included them.
Japanese  Noh mask of a grieving woman
When I was a child, my parents separated for a couple of years and then reunited.  Soon afterward, my father died.  I distinctly remember that at his memorial service, there was a woman that no one seemed to know, who sat in the back of the funeral parlor.  She may have just been a former student of his, but if she had been closer to my father, I'm glad she was at least able to attend.  Certainly, she didn't call attention to herself or do any 'showboating'.  Sometimes, as my mother has often said, discretion is the better part of valor.  Many families are mature enough to call temporary truce, and allow everyone at least a limited role in the funeral.  
In the past, I have posted advice given by Award-winning Vanity Fair writer and hospice volunteer, Judy Bachrach.  Judy's advice can also be seen on her web site,, and on Wednesdays on Obit magazine  .  Here is her advice on a difficult situation.
Dear Judy,
Please don’t use my real name or anything similar to my name. I live in a medium-sized town in the South and everyone here gossips. My problem is the man I’ve been quietly seeing for 2 years died suddenly (thrombosis). It was a big shock, not just to me, but to everyone here.  His funeral is in a few days, and it will be a big event because he was so prominent and he comes from a prominent family too.

He was married and he has 3 kids, all in high school or middle school, and I don’t want to cause a fuss at the funeral. But I do want to go. My best friend says I shouldn’t because the wife might know all about us (gossipy town, as I mentioned) and she might throw a fit. She’s that kind of person.
But I think after a 2-year relationship with a man I loved,  I’ve got as much a right to mourn him as she does. Don’t you?

Dear Theresa,
You of course have a right to mourn a close friend. What you don’t have the right to do — given the nature of the town you live in — is come to his funeral and provoke even more gossip.  I’m guessing you’re probably right: the widow knows all about you and your relationship with her late husband – or at least as much as she cares to know. Your feelings toward her are your own business.  But they are not her kids’ business. Whatever these bereaved teenagers  may or may not suspect about their father, a funeral is not the time or occasion to clarify details.
Stay at home. Since your relationship was private, you’re grieving has to be done exactly the same way.
 Thank you for writing

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Funeral service faces a crisis of relevance, and I am passionate about keeping the best traditions of service alive while adapting to the changing needs of families. Feel free to contact me with questions, or to share your thoughts on funeral service, ritual, and memorialization.