Give grief words

A funeral is an opportunity to lay the foundations for understanding your grief

I have a newsletter that I publish through tinyletter. It isn’t always about grief or funerals, but the one I wrote today was about grief. How a funeral is an opportunity to give grief words. I’ve pasted the newsletter text in below, but if you’d like to subscribe to the newsletter, the link is here.

In the services I write for people’s funerals I often include a line or two about what grief is. I write, ‘Grief is … ‘ Then I try to find a word, a phrase, a sentence that I think best suits the needs of the person’s family and friends in this moment. Not that I think I can sum up the experience of grief in a line or two, and I certainly can’t second-guess how an individual’s grief will go. But I want to try and give people a foundation for building their own conception of grief. I want them to be able to think about how they might begin to give grief words.

Re-reading that paragraph, I’m worried that I sound a little presumptuous, even bordering on arrogant. Do I really think that I have the power to give words to someone else’ grief? But I really don’t mean it that way. I try to make the phrases and the singular words as expansive as possible. I am trying to acknowledge through description rather than trying to define it.

I do it because so often the first thing a family will say to me when I meet them is, ‘We’ve never done this before.’ That doesn’t mean that they’ve never experienced grief before. There is more to grief than death. You know that. But a funeral is one of the few opportunities we are given to formalise our grief and to do it collectively (though of course sometimes that collectivity brings its own complexities).

In terms of describing my own grief, I thought I had a pretty good handle on what it was and wasn’t. It has been 25 years since my mum died and 10 since my dad, so I thought I was safe in assuming that while grief might still creep up on me in unexpected times it would not be in unexpected ways.

I was wrong.

My own grief is currently redefining itself. For a long time I was one of the only one of my peers and my immediate circle of friends whose mother had died, and then I was one of only two whose parents had both died. Being parentless was part of my internal identity. It made me feel different to everyone else. Not in a bad way or a woe-is-me way. Just in a ‘this is who I am’ way.

Over the last couple of years this has begun to change. As we enter our fifties, many of my friends have one parent who has died, and an increasing number have become ‘adult orphans’ (a weird term that I’m not sure about, but which suits for this moment). As my lack of parents becomes normalised, I feel a new layer of loss settling over my grief. I feel even more deeply their young-ness and this space of years which could have been filled with the richness of life. My grief grows less and less as grief for me, and more and more as a grief for them. I feel my own loss less sharply, and feel theirs more deeply. Grief is unpredictable.

Wherever you are today and whichever grief you are currently working to make peace with I send you love.