It looks like we have some work to do on our grief curriculum. As much as I’d like to find some other way to protect our students from the challenging face of loss, the avenues of social media just leave them far too vulnerable to the news of tragedy and the unexpected to hope we could shield them from bad news. So, it’s better to prepare them instead—and in light of the way some adults have been handling tragedy lately, it looks like we have a long way to go.
Here’s what I hope you’ll find a way to include in your unit on loss.
People attend funerals for one of two reasons. Some will attend to honor the life and the memory of the person who is gone. It may be they knew that person from work, or school, or through some social network, but if they’re attending the funeral to honor the person who has died, it’s likely they don’t know any surviving family members. Of course, it’s still important to greet them, offer your support at this time of loss, and share some memories of the person that’s gone. But it’s really more than OK if the real reason you’re there is to remember that person, and all they meant to you.
Other people attend funerals for those who are still with us. When someone we know loses a loved one, attending the funeral is a show of support that can mean a great deal, even if you didn’t know the person who died. When this happens, it’s pretty natural to offer support to the person who has experienced loss, since they are a friend, or colleague, or someone you care about. Keeping them at the center of your thought makes it easy to know what to say, and what to do. Let your care for them be your guide, and all should go well.
Whether you’re attending a funeral for the living, or for the person who’s passed on, it’s pretty safe to say you would not use this as an occasion to bring up the mistakes and missteps of the person that’s died, and share those impressions with others. That’s not to say we should pretend those mistakes don’t exist; it’s pretty likely the survivors are well aware of the deceased’s limitations, since they’ve been an integral part of their life. But people who have experienced loss are taking a lot in, and are looking to those around either for support, or for space. Reminding survivors of the character flaws end errors made by the person who’s gone, no matter how egregious, doesn’t achieve the goals of offering support or space. In many ways, it makes the loss that much harder—and that’s not really the goal of the day.
Some may consider this approach naïve, an effort to put a happy face on a life that was less than perfect, but that overlooks the purpose of the day. We aren’t going to a funeral to render judgement, or to consider the person’s place in history; we’re there to consider what the person meant to us, and how to help those who knew them move forward. Those goals should be the sole motivators behind the feelings we share and the stories we tell. There will be plenty of time to create a balanced picture of the person’s life later on, if indeed that needs to happen at all. For now, the sole focus is on the loss, not the limitations.
Losing someone in your life is hard enough without having someone around saying “I’m sorry for your loss, but you know, they really weren’t perfect.” Perfection is a standard for discussion among historians, and that can wait. For today, let’s think about those who loved them, and how we can support their efforts to take all this in.