When we think of a funeral we typically imagine really sad mourners gathering together. During the service we tend to glorify the deceased and ignore their shortcomings. The eulogy is read and we talk about how great the person was. But what if that person wasn’t so great? What if they were awful? What happens psychologically to the spouse who outlives their abuser? if the deceased is someone that you are supposed to love, but don’t, or someone who was supposed to love you, and didn’t? What if they were a parent or grandparent who neglected you and abandoned you, or simply didn’t accept you? What if you hate that person, but are expected to go to their funeral and act “normal” whiles someone else talks about how great they were?
You are not alone. There are a lot of people from every race, sex and class who have had horrible things happen to them by a family member. Sometimes the feelings surrounding the circumstance are left unresolved. Conflicting feelings of sadness from unfulfilled expectations, combined with the disparity that you will never receive that apology, or things can never change because that person is now dead. There are people who feel a strange relief that it is finally over and they wont have to tolerate the deceased bad behavior anymore.
Funerals are scary for most people. They become extra uncomfortable when strong socially unconventional feelings are going on inside the bereaved persons mind and they feel like they have to put on a show for the public. Emotions surrounding unfinished business tend to surface when a person dies, but people often feel like expressing them in public is unsafe even taboo. Maybe it is unsafe. Nobody wants to be yelled at during a funeral which they didn’t even want to attend. And not many people want to publicly proclaim that the person at the front of the chapel was a terrible parent, spouse or grandparent.
The purpose of the funeral is a symbolic ritual to allow the living to begin a different journey. Its major boon is to notify the persons’ peers of the need for support. It is the funeral directors job to facilitate the appropriate type of service and support the bereaved left behind within legal parameters. It is our job to understand that when an abuser dies, the victim(s) left behind grieve differently and sometimes that is uncomfortable for everyone who doesn’t know about the abuse or wont accept it.
I watched a documentary a few years ago called ‘Just Melvin, Just Evil’ about 3 sisters who were molested by their father while growing up and throughout their adulthood. In the final scene, his funeral, a graveside service, is shown and the women are a mess. Standing screaming, swearing, and sobbing. The minister was really uncomfortable and so were a bunch of the attendees. It is one of the saddest documentaries I have ever seen. The amount of pain experienced by these women is shown in their rage, grief and relief that he was finally dead. The women in the documentary really could care less what anyone at the service thought. They had each other for support, and before his death they had called him out on his behavior and said it wasn’t acceptable.
There are a lot of people who never get this outlet. Who struggle silently when an abuser dies. We are here to support families in their time of grief and we need to be prepared for all types of family situations.
We’re not therapists and I wont even attempt to touch on the PTSD of abused victims (I wont go there). What we can do, and what we are called to do is serve the public to the best of our abilities. So what type of service can we provide someone who is experiencing grief from abuse or neglect or abandonment combined with grief that the person has passed and the social expectation surrounding that?
Firstly, we need to listen. If someone comes in and says my parent, grandparent, or spouse treated me horribly, we need to ask them exactly what they would like to do create closure. Do they need to spend time with that persons’ body to get everything out, that they didn’t feel they could while that person was alive? Do they need to scream, or cry alone in the chapel or write a letter and put it in the casket? Is it a situation where the abuse was a secret, and they just need someone to sit there, be present and not disbelieve or judge?
These are questions we need to ask our families in arrangements and options we need to provide so we can serve them adequately. We need to provide outlets, rituals and time; because people don’t know these are options. We don’t have to give advice but being present and listening is so powerful.
As funeral directors, sometimes we get a glimpse in the arrangement office of the damage done. Rarely do people feel comfortable calling out shitty behavior when it feels like the whole world doesn’t believe you, or will think ill of you for expressing an opposing view of the dead. We’re not here to change anyone’s mind. We are not here to make anyone stop feeling their feelings or from hating. The unfinished business and the painful haunting memories which our living clients are left holding, after the abuser is dead is part of grief and needs an outlet. We need to be conscious of it and make space for that.