Following my presentation of a funeral ceremony that I had prepared as part of my UKSOC Civil Celebrant Training, my tutor asked me ‘is grief negative?’ How shocking. Not his question which was perfectly reasonable, nor his observation which was gently put. No. What I’m concerned about is the fact that I didn’t realise myself the problem with what I’d written, what I was saying. Over my life I have suffered a number of what many would consider to be significant losses. My father died more than 35 years ago when I was 20 years old and, my (to my knowledge) one and only pregnancy, ended in miscarriage a few years later. More recently; in the last five years my husband and my mother have both died. Alongside this personal experience I have worked as a sociologist for over two decades which involves, amongst other things, breaking down taboos about everyday expected and normal experiences such as dying and death. How then with all of this experience, both personal and professional, could I fall into the trap and describe not only grief, but sorrow and anger as negative?
Grief engenders other emotions; perhaps sorrow and anger surrounding the death and/or the circumstances of the dying but also probably happiness and joy in recognition of good memories and a life well lived. Historically, all of these emotions have been denied in the bereaved as it was argued that the best thing a bereaved person could do was put the death and the associated grief behind them and move on to other things. More recently there has been an acceptance that for many of us, finding a way to take the deceased with us; through talking about them, through memories, by carrying on a life’s work, and so on, is more helpful. This approach also acknowledges that there is nothing wrong with any of the feelings we have following the death of someone close to us, or even not so close to us.
I know this. In fact I think I practice it. Death doesn’t embarrass me and I don’t attempt to divert people to other topics if they talk to me about their bereavement experiences. I talk about my own losses, my dad and mum, my baby, my husband, and friends and other family who have died. Why then, I wonder, did I, if not deny a whole set of emotional experiences, at least label them as bad?
My excuse is, that despite the changes in the way in which we think about dying, death, funerals and bereavement, there is still an expectation from some that emotions such as sorrow and anger are best kept private and not publicly displayed. It’s not a good enough excuse though and what I should have written, what I should have said, is that it’s important to let yourself feel and express, if you need to, the emotions that others might deny or classify as negative.
Celebrant funeral ceremonies which are concerned about and with the person who has died, can help those who have been bereaved to feel comfortable to express any and all emotions. The language we use is important in facilitating this.