Updated: Apr 17
How to say goodbye when you can’t have the funeral you wanted
The social distancing rules we’re following in the UK right now are incredibly hard for grieving families to bear. At the very worst of times, funerals are such an important way for us to come together in love and solidarity - but many families are now feeling cheated of even that painful ritual.
Crematoria across the country are imposing strict restrictions about the length of services and the number of mourners allowed and many have banned funeral ceremonies altogether.
So what can you do if you find yourself in the horrible position of having to deal with a death in the time of the lockdown?
Below are a few different suggestions that might help. They won’t be right for every family or every situation but, at a time when you may well be feeling utterly powerless, I hope these ideas might help you to take back a little control and find a way to give your loved one the goodbye they deserve.
If you can’t attend your loved one’s funeral…
Perhaps you can’t go to the funeral because you’re having to self-isolate at home – or maybe there is no funeral to attend because of rules set down by your local council or crematorium. Whatever the reason, even when you accept that you have no control over this situation, it’s natural to struggle with feelings of guilt. You want to be there for your loved one and it’s terribly painful to be told that you can’t.
Here are a few ideas for ways to create a moment of remembrance at home.
You could perform these rituals at any time – alone or with members of your household. You could also arrange to do them at a specific time, for example at the time when a direct cremation or funeral ceremony may be taking place, or in co-ordination with other mourners.
Fix a time to hold your loved one in your thoughts
You might set aside some minutes of silence, play a particular song, light a candle or do something more personal to reflect the impact your loved one had on your life and will continue to have - anything from feeding the birds to writing a list of things your loved one has taught you.
If you do this, it might be helpful to also plan what you’re going to straight afterwards. Doing something totally different – such as getting some fresh air or having something nice to eat – could help you to bring your private reflection time to a firm close. If it’s possible, perhaps you could arrange to speak to someone on the phone straight afterwards. Indeed if many mourners from different households will all be marking this moment all at the same time, you could arrange a chain of phone calls from one to another, so that you all have someone to speak to straight afterwards and feel a sense of connection. If you’re comfortable using video link technology like Google Hangouts or Houseparty, groups of you could even come together to raise a glass to your loved one in a ‘virtual wake’.
You can still order seeds and saplings from many online nurseries – even eBay is still selling and delivering plants, as are many supermarkets. Planting something beautiful in memory of your loved one – either in your garden or just in a little pot or window box – gives you an opportunity to nurture something living at this horrible time. One of the hardest things about grief is wondering where to put all that love we find ourselves left with; some people find that giving a little of that love to a plant provides some kind of outlet.
Write a letter to your loved one
You could say whatever you feel still needs saying – a thank you, a sorry, an expression of love, a promise or a prayer – anything or everything that feels right to you. When you’ve written your letter, you could put it in a safe place, read it aloud – perhaps alone in the presence of your loved one’s photograph or a candle or with other members of your household – or you could even burn or bury it as a symbol of sending your loving thoughts to another place.
Tell your loved one’s story
For many people it really helps to talk about the person you've lost - and that's what we tend to do at celebrant-led funerals. But there are many ways to reflect on your loved one's story. If you don't feel ready to tell your own stories yet, you might just listen to the memories of others - ask your friends and family to tell you some of their happiest memories of the person you've lost.
If you’re living alone, you could write down your memories of your loved one – ready to share with others when the time is right. You could start writing the kind of tribute you might have shared at the funeral and then email or post it out to others who might like to read it.
If you’d like some help with this idea, you’re welcome to email me at charlotte@charlottesimpsonceremonies and I’ll email you the information form I use as a funeral celebrant when I’m gathering the details and stories I need to write a eulogy. This might just help you to get started.
If you’d like professional support with getting your loved-one’s story down on paper, you can absolutely start work with a funeral celebrant right now – either to plan a memorial service you'll hold in a few months time, when social distancing restrictions are lifted – or to find another way to share and preserve your memories. Different celebrants will have different ideas and offer different services. One service that I offer is to work with you to write and hand-bind a life story book. This is something we could create during the lockdown – communicating through phone calls, emails and/or video calls – and I could send out the finished copies to you and your family members within the next few weeks.
Whether or not you see yourself as artistic, creativity is an essential part of being human and it’s something that I see expressed time and time again when I’m working with families to plan funerals. The planning of a funeral ceremony – the choosing of music, flowers, readings and the telling of stories – are all creative decisions that we do for our loved ones to show how much we care about them.
Right now, you might feel that the restrictions on public gatherings are crushing all your ideas and stopping you from doing your best for your loved one. But there are many different ways to express that creative urge to honour and celebrate the life that you’re mourning. From baking, gardening and knitting to painting, writing poetry or making music, finding a labour of love to work through might be just the right thing for some people. Making something for or inspired by your loved one is a way of keeping their presence and their influence alive to you.
It’s important to remember though that shock and bereavement (not to mention all the psychological and practical impacts of the Coronavirus outbreak) can also completely stifle your creativity and your ability to focus. What works for one person won’t work for everyone. Many grieving families find the stresses and decision-making pressures of funeral planning incredibly overwhelming so the pared-down simplicity of funerals right now might actually make things easier for you.
Even before this the current situation, the funeral industry has been changing. Increasing numbers of families have chosen to break with tradition and find their own ways to mark the death of a loved one. For example, some families are opting for a direct committal or direct cremation – with no funeral ceremony whatsoever – and are choosing to find alternative ways to celebrate the life of their loved ones, such as a scattering of ashes ceremony or a memorial or celebration of life event held at a later date – allowing for a more leisurely period of planning and much greater freedom and creativity.
A final note...
I really hope this blog post has hit the right note. I’ve written it because I want to help, but I’m well aware that the very notion of ‘funeral choices’ is a difficult one; if we could really choose, wouldn’t we choose not to have to have a funeral at all? When all you want is to wind back the clock and hold your loved-one in your arms and never have to say goodbye, this menu of grieving ‘options’ might just make you feel all the more hopeless or angry. I’m sorry if this article hasn’t helped you. And, above all, to anyone reading this who is bereaved, I’m truly sorry for your loss.
My heart goes out to you if you’re living alone at this horrible time and having to mourn in isolation. I can’t imagine how hard that must be. If you need to speak to someone, you can call the Cruse bereavement support line (open during office hours) on 0808 808 1677 or you can call the free 24-hour Samaritans helpline on 116 123.
And if I can help you in any way at all – regardless of whether you may or may not be considering using my services as a celebrant; even if you just need someone to talk to – please do get in touch. My number is 07792 959586 and my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m reluctantly home-schooling my children right now so I might not be able to speak straight away, but I will call you back if you leave me a message.