Funeral etiquette: I'm not sad but I probably should be?
June 12, 2013 10:03 AM   Subscribe

In a few days I will be attending my grandmother's funeral in the south. While I love her very much, we were never particularly close. Based on my past experiences with these situations, I know myself well enough to know that I most likely won't be crying or even really upset at this funeral. Please help me prepare so I don't seem callous or further upset my grieving family.

Basically I've always been pretty at peace with death itself. Its a part of life, not something that should be constantly feared or avoided in conversation. When someone in my life has passed (some naturally, some tragically), I very rarely react by crying or deep sadness. I typically spend several days thinking about that person a lot, maybe learning more about their lives and thinking thoughts of gratitude for the time I had with them. But for me, sadness doesn't really enter the equation.

I am far more affected by watching my friends and family grieve, seeing the pain they feel and sympathizing with them. But even then, I feel we are separated by not sharing the same level of pain over the loss of this person.

Because my family is southern, my supportive yet stoic attitude is not well received by a group that largely believes that women are or should be more the more emotional/more nurturing sex. I live on the east coast and have a high tech job while 95% of the people who will be at this funeral live near or below the poverty line in Appalachia. Despite my best attempts to not talk about myself too much and to show genuine interest in their lives and make myself helpful, I get the feeling that based on the aspects of my life I mentioned above, they already see me as hoity-toity in other non-funeral situations and now I am having anxiety that my inability to blend in at my family's highly emotional funerals will deepen this feeling.

(My grieving process has made me question if I am edging on the autism spectrum before, though I have never investigated it clinically because it really isn't an issue for me as much as dealing with how other people react to how I grieve)

Should I:

1. Stand closely to distraught people (such as my father) in support, providing hugs and whatever else needed but possibly coming off as patronizing due to my own stoicism

2. Stand closes to distraught people in support, providing hugs and whatever else needed and also make an effort to appear upset as well - (but I'm worried that faking it will make it even less actually believable)

3. Make myself scarce during the more emotional parts of the memorial/funeral services and do something useful (manning the guestbook, assisting with flowers, etc)

4. Other ideas?

If you were the grieving, which would seem the most heartfelt? I genuinely care about my family, and want to make this as painless for them as possible. I'll do whatever I can to help; I just don't want them to think for an instant that I don't care about them or don't relate to them because I am not wailing.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (25 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
1 (minus the last bit)

Don't worry about your stoicism. Everyone knows that different people have different ways of dealing with grief. I think you're fretting unnecessarily about what other people might be thinking about you, when in reality they'll have other things on their mind.
posted by pipeski at 10:06 AM on June 12, 2013 [6 favorites]

Everyone responds to grief in their own way, and your way is ok. What might be helpful is to ask your family members what they need. Some will want hugs, some probably will not. Sharing stories about the person you loved is always nice. Doing the practical things is a huge help too. Tell them you love them and you are sorry for their loss. In other words, do what feels natural to you with an eye to asking the others what would mean the most.
posted by goggie at 10:08 AM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Option1. Most definitely not 2. and do not leave the funeral during the emotional bits.

Become useful. Coordinate logistics where you can. Share funny stories about your grandmother, or stories she shared with you about the family. Offer hugs, and whatever support you can. When you hear the same story for the millionth time, respond "I love to hear that story" or "thank you so much for sharing your memories with me".

Above all be kind to yourself and your family.

You do not know when/if it will hit you emoptionally- my usually stoic mom got up to give the eulogy at her stepfather funeral, saw the family gathered and just burst into tears. I've had (and seen in others) similar periods of stoicism (up to several months for some!) followed by abrupt bone rendering grief- just because you haven't experienced it in the past, doesn't mean it won't hit you at some point in the future. Be extra kind to yourself.
posted by larthegreat at 10:12 AM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

pipeski: Everyone knows that different people have different ways of dealing with grief. I think you're fretting unnecessarily about what other people might be thinking about you, when in reality they'll have other things on their mind.

I've definitely been to funerals where people are judging others on the appropriateness of their grief response, but you know what, screw those people. They are the Horrible People. pipeski and goggie are right, though. Go and be close to your family and support them in whatever way they need, and if people think less of you for your lack of tears, then that is their failing.
posted by Rock Steady at 10:13 AM on June 12, 2013 [7 favorites]

Exactly as pipeski says. I have been to funerals where I have cried with the best of them, and other where I have been, stoic as you say. More often then not I am quiet. No one has ever accosted me for my lack of emotions. My family is southern, and the funeral I went to recently and did not cry or even feel particularly upset, was a side of my family that is particularly critical about those kinds of things, and even they did not say anything. I think people know each person responds differently, and are more concerned with their own greif to worry about how it is manifesting in others. Especially grandchildren that do not live near.

I say support your family members that are upset. Give hugs, hold hands etc where need be, and no one will be bothered my your response.
posted by Quincy at 10:22 AM on June 12, 2013

Hiya, wife of an appalachian dude.

I've been to this funeral. You're going to be fine just the way you are. Offer to help in specific ways, "Do you need me to get so-and-so and bring them here? Let me go to the store for more pop. Do you need a tissue?"

When speaking of your grandmother to others, let them see that your love for her was strong. "I'm really going to miss her phone calls. Remember how she always made chicken and dumplings on Sunday?"

Be yourself.

As for the income disparity, no one thinks all that much about it. Besides, although my in-laws live humbly, they've got their finances worked out WAY better than I do!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:25 AM on June 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think your best bet is to adopt the attitude and the pose of "I'm being strong for my daddy" and if anyone says something, you can say that you're just being here for him, and that you're better at mourning in private and celebrating the wonderful times you had with your grandma and the legacy she left. Do dress better than you normally might, do hug and stand close and hold hands and all that stuff. Emotions can be catching, and you might find yourself getting caught up in the spirit of the day. I wouldn't worry about other people's expectations, but I'd also concentrate on living in the moment.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:30 AM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just be respectful and caring. People grieve in different ways, so you don't have to manufacture emotion.
posted by theora55 at 10:32 AM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Pro Tip. Don't do what I did in a similar situation: saw a much-loved cousin I hadn't seen in more than a decade and ran smiling to her to give her a huge happy hug in front of everyone. Awkward.
posted by thatone at 10:39 AM on June 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

No. 1.
And I have learned that one never can anticipate how one is going to act at a funeral. So I would enter the situation with a (self)observing mindset, rather than, in advance, worrying too much about how it will go.
posted by Namlit at 10:43 AM on June 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

I have been to a depressing number of funerals (now that I think about it). I couldn’t cry at my own mothers’ but lost it at that of an acquaintance months later. Grief is an odd thing and it’s not always predictable.

During the service, it’s easy enough to touch/rub your eye and even sniff, if you feel the need to show that you are affected. It looks like holding back tears. You don’t have to actually cry. At funerals where the tears wouldn’t come, I have done this, because I was sad, just not crying-sad, but there was no way to convey that.
posted by emjaybee at 11:23 AM on June 12, 2013

1) plus oversize dark sunglasses. People will assume they are there to mask your crying as they are standard funeral fare but they pretty much cover up any human emotion so let people assume there's tears welling up there when in actual fact there's nothing going on. You don't owe anyone a reaction to have the 'right' kind of grief.
posted by Jubey at 11:25 AM on June 12, 2013 [6 favorites]

Number one, plus be a bringer of food or other logistical thing. Do you have a book of photos that you could scan and print out? (Don't ask me how I know not to leave original photos out in a crowd) Some handwritten letters she wrote? Any correspondence from her to anyone? Or from someone else to her?

People love to see the history, the story, of a person. If you can provide a taste of that, you can really help others.

Definitely don't bail on the "more emotional parts" because you can't actually guess what those will be. Sometimes people lose it at "weird" times during funerals.

If Cold Chef stops by this thread to offer advice, listen to him. (I can't tell how new you are hear, being anon and all.)
posted by bilabial at 11:44 AM on June 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

I had a similar situation recently; my paternal grandmother died after a 2 month illness and her passing was expected. We hadn't been close in 20 years. True to what others said, the displays of grief were varied. People I would have expected to break down were stoic and sentimental, while others that I didn't think were close to her were crying the whole time. Though I did not cry, I offered what support I could, hugs and hand holding and telling stories and listening. I felt awkward but it went about as well as it could have (as far as funerals go). No one seemed perturbed or to even notice that I wasn't as emotional as the others.

Coincidentally, a month later, I found myself driving past her house and was struck by a overwhelming sense of sorrow so intense I had to pull over and sob for 15-20 minutes. I began thinking of good times we had had when I was a child and boom, it just burst from me in a torrent that I hadn't experienced in many years. It was actually a huge relief and I felt as though I had some sort of closure. I hope that you find the same. I'm very sorry for your loss.
posted by dozo at 12:03 PM on June 12, 2013

Be prepared to have a more emotional response than you're expecting. I'm not a particularly emotional person, but I've been to a few funerals in the past few years, including someone I didn't even know, and shed a tear at each of them.
posted by mkultra at 12:28 PM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Give hugs, hold the box of tissues and circulate it as necessary if there's one to be found (there should be), get water for crying people if it's hot and that's an option. I've been to a whole mess of funerals and related events this year, unfortunately. One was for a friend my age, and his father wasn't crying, even though he was probably hurting more than anyone else. I don't think it would have occurred to anyone there to judge him for it. People understand that people mourn differently. People cry and laugh and get stony-faced and do all kinds of things at funerals.

And while I am very emotionally demonstrative, I have found the people who can keep it together and fetch things and get things done in those times to be enormously comforting. Just be there, be present, be polite, be unobtrusive, and you'll be fine.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 12:39 PM on June 12, 2013

Funerals are really weird. I have been to (more than) my fair share of them, and they're still always weird for me. I don't think it's unusual to not feel a strong grief response at the death of an old person, especially if that person was ill for a long time. At funerals for people like that, most of the emotion I've experienced has been about being close to my family. If you generally have a loving family, funerals can be a time to reaffirm some of those connections and enjoy feeling close to them. It's possible that some of the emotions you see expressed externally are more about that than the dead person.

Similarly, when my grandfather passed recently, many of the emotions my dad and his siblings shared with me were more about change and their own identities than my grandfather. For my dad, it's about being a grandfather himself and what that means, and the reality of his own mortality.

Just some ideas that might help you think about the experience a little differently. As far as how to approach all of this, I think #1, minus the feeling of awkwardness, is a great way to go, as is making yourself busy during the reception/whatever after the service. You can make sure food, etc., are running smoothly. You can listen to stories and thank people for them, or catch up with relatives you haven't seen in a while. You can make sure that family members who are having a hard time are well taken care of -- does your dad have a plate of food, a glass of water, enough tissues?
posted by linettasky at 1:04 PM on June 12, 2013

Be the person who brings folks little cups of water, to help them rehydrate. Crying and talking to lots of people dries your throat up. Small gestures like these are seen as supportive.
posted by Riverine at 1:06 PM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm a professional funeral director and I'm here to tell you that you're overthinking this. Which is not a bad thing, but just relax and be yourself. Contrary to what we see on television and in the movies, guests barely cry at funerals. A bit at the start, maybe a few tears at the graveside, but mostly somber and stoic the rest of the time.

My advice: convey the emotions you're feeling and nothing else. Be supportive to those who are crying and distraught, but don't feel the need to be like that. You can smile. You can laugh. You can bear-hug the cousin you haven't seen in a while. Life is going on.

Also, reading your details: you live up north, they live down south. They will judge you no matter what you do. Be yourself, it will give them all something to talk about when you leave.
posted by ColdChef at 1:16 PM on June 12, 2013 [14 favorites]

Also: (and I feel compelled to write this) Don't judge the histrionics and hollerin' too harshly. I live in the deep south as well, and the way people act at funerals is part of their culture. If they swoon and pass out, if they leap on the casket, if they begin speaking in tongues during the service, just observe and chalk it up to a different lifestyle.

And take lots of photographs to take back with you to remind you where you've come from and how far you've gone.
posted by ColdChef at 1:21 PM on June 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

You can't go wrong taking ColdChef's advice. Be yourself. If people are going to gossip about you, they will no matter what you do.
posted by Cranberry at 1:30 PM on June 12, 2013

I can't tell you how blessed my family felt when an in-law was able to do the eulogy in a calm respectful manner; the rest of us were just too emotional to even contemplate that.
Relax, take in the event, and try to be a steady, dependable presence for the rest of the family.
posted by calgirl at 9:32 PM on June 12, 2013

People are different, and not everyone reacts to death by overt displays of sadness - or indeed, by feeling deep grief. When my father died I did not feel especially sad, even though I always got on fine with the guy and we were always decent to each other. I went to the funeral and my demeanour was basically appropriate to how I really felt: solemn, and supportive for my mother. She, too, did not weep or make any obvious demonstrations of grief.

You show appropriate respect and awareness of the nature of the occasion. You be yourself. In a way, that's the greatest respect you could show to the deceased: sincerity. Not pretending to be feeling something you're not.
posted by Decani at 1:13 AM on June 13, 2013

Nthing to not worry about your stoicism. I didn't cry at my dad's funeral - crying in front of people makes me extremely uncomfortable, especially when I don't know them well. Everyone handles grief differently and if someone is going to talk about you they would likely find something regardless of this. If it's your family who is upset you could talk to someone close to you and explain exactly what you've written here.
posted by fromageball at 7:20 AM on June 13, 2013

First: I am sorry to hear about your grandmother. Losing people is always a sadness.

Here is an experience I had, in which I found myself at a funeral where the mood of the moment demanded more grief than I could display, and maybe some part of what I did will work for you.

I once found myself at a funeral for someone I had heard a lot of affection-filled stories about but never met (my partner at the time's grandmother had died while we were visiting their family home). Everyone around me was kind of freaking out. It wasn't unexpected but they loved their grandma and there was a lot of sadness. I stood with the family as she lay there in her little wooden coffin.

I will now momentarily depart from the narrative into a story which will seem like it's completely insane and does not have anything at all to do with answering your question, but I promise I'm going somewhere with this.

Many years ago, Hulk Hogan made an album. As you can perhaps imagine, it is terrible. Not just garden-variety terrible, but terrible sprinkled in with the kind of self-indulgence that comes with an album made by someone who's not known for being a musician but has enough money to get an album made. There is rap. There are Jimmy Buffett-esque songs about touring. And there is Hulkster in Heaven.

Intended to be a heartfelt tribute song, it's about a fan of his - a little kid who died of cancer. Hogan knew a lot of kids like this, as meeting him was a frequent request of kids in the Make-A-Wish program, but this particular one moved him to write this song. If you clicked the link, you can probably hear the intent behind it, but you can also hear what a ridiculous pile of shit it is, and you can hear his horrible voice, and you can hear lines like, "I used to tear my shirt / But now you've torn my heart." You can hear that he talks about himself more than the goddamn kid. You can hear the line, "The world just lost another Hulkamaniac."

I had heard this song a little while before the grandmother died - some months, maybe.

We return to that cold Connecticut morning.

While people around me held each other and cried and cried and cried, I felt like my stoicism was out of place but couldn't really do anything about it besides make a sort of thoughtful concerned frowny face.

And then it happened.

As I looked down into the hole in the ground at that wooden coffin with its little wooden Star of David on it, suddenly the thought drifted into my mind unbidden:

"The world just lost another Hulkamaniac."

The thought is funny on its own, but its absurdity in the face of the slightly surreal situation made it far, far moreso. A laugh started somewhere down in my lungs. I knew full well that it could not escape my mouth. Trying to fight it only made it worse. The song was now stuck in my head. I was trying with Herculean effort to hold in this laugh and I was as determined to do it as I've ever been to do anything.

I want to be clear that the laugh was not a disrespectful one. I wasn't laughing at her. I was (trying not to) laugh at the general absurdity and my place in it - that we live in a world where grandmothers die and Hulk Hogan writes songs like that. It was also a nervous laugh, brought on by the heightened emotion of the moment.

At this point, my partner at the time sort of affectionately, reassuringly took my hand, or my forearm, or whatever, I can't really remember. I fully expected to see them glaring at me for the horrible thing I was doing, but when I glanced over at their face I only saw genuine, sympathetic concern.

Here's why: I was fighting the laugh and holding it in as hard as I could possibly hold it, but I was only sort of winning. My mouth was in a sad frown because I was half-biting my lip. I was almost certain that tears were forming in my eyes. Most visibly of all, my shoulders were clearly shaking.

It was then that I realized that to an outside observer, someone who didn't have this goddamned song stuck in their head, it looked for all the world like I was having a quiet, dignified cry.

This realization helped me relax a little, for some reason, and the moment basically passed.

So that is my advice to you: In those moments when you are expected to grieve visibly, think of some funny thing your grandmother once said - some joke the two of you shared, something that always made you laugh, and then hold in that laugh, and it will look like you are doing your own stoic version of crying.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 8:18 AM on June 13, 2013 [5 favorites]

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