I am writing this post from the Oklahoma Panhandle, after a very long drive from my home in Kansas City. Our family is gathering to celebrate the life of my grandmother, who died early Sunday morning. We last made this trip just a few short months ago, following the death of my grandfather – her husband of more than sixty years. I really miss them both.
My grandparents both had long and healthy lives, and they had good deaths, too, surrounded by loved ones, with plenty of time to say goodbye. Even as their lives ended well, though, they still have left behind a huge hole. My mom and aunt and uncles aren’t “the kids” anymore; now they are the oldest generation in our family. The family farm, that place that was really inseparable from my grandparents, will never be quite the same. We will miss their presence at countless future family gatherings, just as we are missing them at this week’s family event.
It’s kind of weird, actually.
I definitely feel sad that my grandparents are now gone, but another feeling that comes along with this is, well, weirdness. It’s weird to think that my grandma won’t be at lunch tomorrow. It’s weird to go to their home and not have them there to greet us. It was weird for my mom to make the drive down here, think that she needed to call Grandma to let her know how far away she was, and then remember that Grandma wouldn’t be there to receive the update.
Starting to deal with that weirdness is one of the reasons we need funerals. Bereavement expert William Worden identified four tasks of grief, which people work through at different times in different ways. One task is to accept the reality of the loss. When we gather for a funeral, when we view our loved one’s remains, when we meet at our loved one’s graveside – all of these are ways to help us acknowledge the finality, the reality of the loss of our loved one. Funerals help us to accept the reality of the loss.
Another task is to adjust to a world without the deceased. Coming together for the funeral is helping us start this process, too, as we remember not to call Grandma from the road and we take a family picture without her. I think this task may take longer for me and for my family. Still, funerals help us to start adjusting to a world without our loved one.
Funerals can be painful and awkward, sometimes too soon for starting emotional processing, and sometimes logistically really difficult to attend. Sometimes they are just the first step in a long process of grieving. But they do matter. That’s why I’m in Oklahoma today.