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Grief/Loss

12 Tips for Coping with Survivor’s Guilt

By Grief/Loss

People who survive traumatic events are sometimes plagued with questions. Why did I survive, but my friend didn’t? Could I have done something to prevent this? The events repeat in their minds, and for some, survivor’s guilt settles in. In short, survivor’s guilt is feeling guilty that you survived an event while others didn’t. This could relate to many possible events, including a car accident, war, or surviving an act of violence.

Not everyone will experience survivor’s guilt, but many people will, to varying degrees. Today, let’s talk about ways you can cope with survivor’s guilt and come to a place of healing. If you’d like to learn more about survivor’s guilt, its causes and symptoms, please read Understanding Survivor’s Guilt.

Before we begin, if you have been struggling with survivor’s guilt for more than six months, go ahead and schedule time to talk with a counselor. If you can find a counselor who has experience in trauma, they may be an especially good fit to help you work through your grief and guilt.

12 Tips for Coping with Survivor’s Guilt

1. Give yourself time to grieve and accept what you’re feeling

Grief is hard at any time, but when grief is compounded by traumatic circumstances, it’s important to give yourself time to process. Not only are you processing what you feel, you’re also processing the events you witnessed. It’s going to take time and honesty. Acknowledging what you feel is a great first step, and no matter what you feel, it’s perfectly normal. Guilt, anger, relief, sadness, confusion – all of these are natural responses to what you’ve experienced. It’s okay to feel this way.

2. Talk about your feelings with those you trust

We are not meant to walk through life alone. We need each other, especially after something traumatic. While the person you talk to may not completely understand what you’ve gone through, they can offer a listening ear and encouraging words. Sometimes, just knowing that you’ve been heard and putting your thoughts and emotions out in the open can be therapeutic.

3. Take care of yourself

Grief takes a toll on us, mind and body. That’s why it’s so important to take care of ourselves during times of loss and emotional distress. So, find ways to exercise regularly (low impact is perfectly fine). Take part in relaxing activities. Eat nutritiously. Make sure to get plenty of rest. You need a healthy body to help you process what’s in your mind and heart.

4. Remind yourself that you can handle sadness and loss

While we often don’t feel like it, human beings are incredibly resilient creatures. We have the ability to “bounce back” from difficult circumstances. But first, we have to remind ourselves that we can overcome the sadness we feel. While we are not necessarily born resilient, we can cultivate it and come out of our struggles better and stronger. You can find meaning and happiness again.

5. Remember that you’re not alone

At times, we feel like we are the only one struggling. Everyone else seems to have it together. But that’s not the case. Every single one of us struggles with something, and for many of us, we struggle with the same thing. In March 2019, two survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting and the father of a victim in the Sandy Hook school shooting all committed suicide. Each one of them dealt with a form of survivor’s guilt – they may have felt alone, but they were not alone. Neither are you.

6. Grieve those who died

You may know the person or people who died well, or you may not know them at all. But no matter the case, you can mourn their loss in a way that is personal and meaningful to you. We don’t have to know people personally to value their life and to pay your respects after their death. By grieving for those who are gone, you honor the life they lived while also working to heal your own heart.

 7. Accept that there may be no answers

We all want to know why something happened. We run ourselves ragged trying to understand something. But, unfortunately, sometimes there are no answers. We may never know why the gunman chose that day and place. We may never understand why that illness took our family member. And we may never understand why some live and some die. Don’t get lost in the “whys” – instead, focus on living your life to the fullest, as a way of honoring those whose lives were cut short.

8. Do something with your guilt

It may seem like your survivor’s guilt has no purpose, but you can make it purposeful. Educate others about what you’ve gone through. Raise awareness about causes of death. You may feel passionate about stopping drunk driving, eradicating school shootings, or finding a cure for cancer. Alternatively, you can find more quietly personal ways to do something with your grief. Create a memorial for the person who has died or remember your loved one through acts of kindness.

9. Try to stick to a daily routine

When life feels like it’s out of control, a daily routine can ground you and give you a sense of stability. Figure out what works best for you and stick with it. Add in relaxing activities and exercise. Go to bed at the same time each night, making sure to get plenty of rest. And make time to process through your emotions – don’t ignore them. If you want to find healing, you must face what you feel.

10. Find ways to express your feelings

Sometimes talking about our grief isn’t enough. Maybe our words don’t fully say what we want them to say. Or they don’t capture the depth of what we feel. This is why creative expression is an excellent way to process the painful feelings we encounter, especially during times of grief. For example, you could: draw, paint, scrapbook, keep a grief journal, take photographs, garden, write, cook, compose music, or restore a car. Give it a try – see if it works for you.

11. Embrace life

As hard as it may be, celebrate your survival. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having survived a traumatic event. In fact, your family is likely very grateful that you did. You’ve been given a gift that others were denied. Don’t push it away – embrace it. Most of all, remember that you can be grateful for your own life while also feeling grief for those who died. These two feelings can co-exist. You aren’t negating the importance of other lives because you are thankful for your own.

12. Consider joining a support group or speaking with a counselor

If you have been struggling with survivor’s guilt for more than six months, it may be time to speak with a counselor. They will help you wade through the complex web of thoughts and emotions inside you. Also, if you’re comfortable with it, join a support group. Speaking with others who have a shared experience is an incredibly helpful exercise and may be just what you need.

Survivor’s guilt is a form of grief. There is nothing wrong with it; in fact, it’s a normal response to what you’ve witnessed. But you can’t stay where you are. Dr. Alan Wolfelt, a nationally respected counselor and grief expert says, “You don’t get to go around or above your grief. You must go through it. And while you are going through it, you must express it you are to reconcile yourself to it.” So, pluck up your courage and begin the journey of facing your grief. In the end, if you do the work of grieving, you will find renewed purpose and meaning in life.

*If you have had suicidal thoughts, please seek out help. You may not feel like it, but you are irreplaceable and have something one-of-a-kind to offer the world.

Understanding Survivor’s Guilt

By Grief/Loss

In a world filled with events beyond our control, we try so hard to make sense out of the senseless. Cancer, car wrecks, wars, mass shootings, and natural disasters are just a few of the events we grapple with on a day-to-day basis. And with each new event, a new set of people are at risk to suffer from survivor’s guilt. But what is survivor’s guilt? And how can we better understand it so that we might help ourselves and those around us?

What Is It?

In a nutshell, survivor’s guilt occurs when a person has survived a life-threatening situation while others did not. It is a type of grief, a way of working through complex emotions after a traumatic event. This form of guilt was first documented after the Holocaust when those who survived concentration camps felt guilty that they lived through the horror while others perished. Since then, we have found that survivor’s guilt is more common than was previously thought.

According to Nancy Sherman, PhD, survivor’s guilt begins with an endless loop of “counterfactual thoughts that you could have or should have done otherwise, though in fact you did nothing wrong.” In other words, survivors think they could have done something to prevent the tragedy from happening, when in most cases, they could not. Often, it is accompanied by thoughts like, “Why not me?” “Why did I survive, and they didn’t?” “I shouldn’t have lived; they deserved to live more than I do.”

Survivor’s guilt is made even more complex by the fact that its effects aren’t universal. Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will deal with survivor’s guilt. Additionally, of those who do experience it, the severity will vary from person to person. Some people will work through the guilt quickly while others will find themselves bogged down by it.

It has been suggested that certain factors may increase a person’s likelihood to experience survivor’s guilt. A few examples are a history of depression, low self-esteem, childhood trauma, or unresolved past losses. But the most important thing to remember in the midst of it all is that feeling survivor’s guilt is a normal response to traumatic events. There is absolutely nothing wrong with feeling it, but it’s important not to stay there.

Themes

With survivor’s guilt, people may feel guilty about different things. So, in a sense, there are different buckets or themes that people fall into, depending on why they feel guilty.

Guilt about surviving – This one is most typically associated with survivor’s guilt. It revolves around the idea that a person stayed safe while others suffered. They feel that they don’t deserve to be safe and should have been hurt or even killed with everyone else. The person questions the fairness of the world.

Guilt over what you “should” have done – This aspect of guilt plagues people who feel like they didn’t do enough to help or to stop events from unfolding. There’s a sense that they should have known it was going to happen and tried hard to prevent it. Or, in some cases, a person may have tried to save someone’s life and failed. There’s a sense of responsibility and failure.

Guilt over what you did – Some may feel guilty about their actions. From pushing others out of the way while fleeing an active shooter to killing someone in a drunk driving incident, a person may feel guilty because of their own actions.

Guilt that someone died for you – For those who were sheltered from harm by another person, there is guilt that the person died saving them.

Those suffering from survivor’s guilt may experience any one of these themes or even a combination of them. As we seek to understand survivor’s guilt, it’s important to know that people feel guilty about different things, and no two people will manifest survivor’s guilt in exactly the same way.

Rational vs. Irrational Guilt

In most circumstances, we cannot take responsibility for another person’s fate. But, in some cases, the guilt may be rational while, in others, it’s irrational. For instance, there may be a time when our actions did impact the death of another person. For example, if a drunk driver survives a car wreck but kills a pedestrian. This is a type of rational guilt.

However, irrational guilt is tied to something that we did or didn’t do, or perhaps something that we feel that we should or shouldn’t have done. Even if you believe that someone’s survivor guilt is irrational, don’t try to minimize their feelings. They feel what they feel, and remember, it’s completely normal and natural to experience some form of survivor’s guilt after a traumatic event. In no way should you make someone feel that survivor’s guilt is an unhealthy form of grief – it’s not. It is only unhealthy if it isn’t dealt with or becomes overwhelming or obsessive.

Who’s Susceptible?

Everyone. We all grieve in different ways, and for some, grieving will include processing through survivor’s guilt. While those who have a history of depression, childhood trauma, or unresolved past losses may be more susceptible to survivor’s guilt, absolutely anyone could go through it. Survivor’s guilt is also more common in children, teenagers, and others with less developed coping skills.

In general, survivor’s guilt is more common in the following situations (some events may be more familiar than others):

  • After surviving war
  • When a child dies before a parent
  • After surviving an accident (e.g. plane crash, car wreck, freak accident, etc.)
  • After surviving cancer or another life-threatening illness
  • When a parent dies from complications of childbirth
  • After surviving an act of violence (e.g. shooting, assault, etc.)
  • After a fellow drug-user dies of an overdose
  • When a sibling dies, especially in the case of an illness
  • After receiving an organ transplant
  • After causing an accident in which others died
  • Guilt for not being present to save someone’s life

What Are the Symptoms?

Now that you have a better understanding of what survivor’s guilt is, it’s helpful to know what to look for in yourself and others. From person to person, the symptoms will vary, but the most common are:

  • Flashbacks
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty sleeping (including nightmares)
  • Lack of motivation
  • Feeling disconnected or numb
  • Intense fear
  • Physical pain (headaches, stomachaches, palpitations)
  • Depression and/or anxiety
  • Suicidal thoughts

In addition to these symptoms, a person experiencing survivor’s guilt will wonder why they lived and others died. They will also wonder if they could have done something to prevent the deaths of others. If unaddressed, survivor’s guilt can have a significant impact on mental and emotional health, but it may also serve as a catalyst. Some people transform their feelings of guilt into an increased sense of meaning and purpose. They look for ways to assist others who are dealing with the aftermath of traumatic events.

Having a better understanding of survivor’s guilt, its causes, its challenges, and its symptoms will help you identify it in yourself and those around you. If you take nothing else away, remember that survivor’s guilt is a form of grief. It is natural and normal to feel this way. The most important thing is to begin processing your grief and move toward learning to reconcile yourself to the loss you have suffered so you can heal.

To learn about coping methods, please read 12 Tips for Coping with Survivor’s Guilt.

Sleeping Tips for the Grieving

By Grief/Loss, Living Well

The best bridge between despair and hope is a good night’s sleep.”  – E. Joseph Cossman

Sleep is essential for human beings. Without it, our minds and bodies quickly begin to show the negative effects of sleeplessness. Times of grief are especially difficult. The word “bereaved” means “to be torn apart,” which is an appropriate description for how we feel internally when we lose someone we love. Because grief is a struggle, we must take care of our bodies to ensure that we have the energy for the coming grief journey.

Dr. Alan Wolfelt, a nationally respected grief expert, counselor, and author, puts it this way: “Good self-care is important at this time. Your body is the house you live in. Just as your house requires care and maintenance to protect you from the outside elements, your body requires that you honor it and treat it with respect. The quality of your life ahead depends on how you take care of your body today. The ‘lethargy of grief’ you are probably experiencing is a natural mechanism intended to slow you down and encourage you to care for your body.”

Grief is Hard on the Body

Grief doesn’t just affect our minds or our emotions; it takes a toll on our bodies. Physical symptoms differ from person to person, but one of the most common physical experience is a disruption to sleep habits. This may mean that you have trouble falling asleep or that you fall asleep easily enough but wake up in the middle of the night and then can’t get back to sleep.

Just like we need sleep when recovering from illness, we need sleep when recovering from the physical and emotional strain associated with losing someone we love. A few reasons why you might experience difficulty sleeping while you are grieving:

  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Stress, worries, anxiety
  • Bad dreams or anxiety about having bad dreams
  • Trouble sleeping in the bed (for those who have lost a partner)
  • Other disorders like depression, insomnia, or PTSD

Oftentimes, questions plague us. Could I have done more? What if we’d sought treatment sooner? Should I have seen that this was going to happen? What comes next? How am I going to work and take care of my family? And so on.

The Importance of Sleep

If you are grieving, and you don’t get enough rest, then it’s even harder to deal with the complicated feelings associated with grief. You may be more easily overwhelmed, feel more irritated, get angry more quickly, become hostile or depressed, feel hungrier than is usual, and generally feel less friendly. On top of that, your immune response is weaker, which leaves you more susceptible to illness.

So, what happens when you don’t get the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep each day?

The science is a bit staggering and alarming. According to research, long-term sleeplessness can lead to accelerated aging, decreased bone density, and an increased risk of stroke, obesity, heart disease, and cancer. Sleep is incredibly important to our overall health and well-being in addition to being essential to healthy grieving.

Now that you know, what’s next?

6 Tried & True Tips

Create the ideal sleeping environment

Our bodies and minds need time to unwind before we can fall into a deep, restful sleep. The ideal environment is going to vary from person to person, but a few tips from the experts are:

  • Block out as much light as possible (use an eye mask, if necessary)
  • Leave your phone in another room and refrain from using it for at least 60 minutes before sleep
  • Keep the room cool (60-68 degrees) – we sleep better at cooler temperatures
  • Consider adding a white noise device (to block out sudden changes in sound or city noises)
  • Make sure your bed is comfortable – good mattress, pillows, blankets, etc.
  • Avoid doing anything stimulating, frustrating, or anxiety-inducing just before bed (or in your bedroom in general; you want the bedroom to be associated with peace and rest)
  • If you have lost your partner, you might rearrange your room, get a new bed, sleep in a different room, or get a body pillow to help with sleeping

Set a nighttime routine

Grief throws our lives and routines off balance, which is why we need to re-establish them to help with our rest. Routines give us a sense of peace and calm. We know what’s coming, and we enjoy the comfort of regularity. So, determine what the best routine is for you. Perhaps you dim the lights an hour before bed, read, snuggle with a furry friend, journal, or listen to soothing music. Find what best fits you but make sure that it is a relaxing, non-stimulating activity.

Stick to a regular sleeping and waking time. And if you haven’t fallen asleep after 20 minutes or so, get up. Read, meditate, work a puzzle – choose a relaxing activity. You could even practice breathing exercises to calm your mind and lull you to sleep. However, make sure you don’t turn on the tv or look at your phone. Research shows that the artificial light from screens actually reduces your melatonin production, which then affects your sleep.

Avoid caffeine and alcohol in the evening

We all know that caffeine is a stimulant, and if you’re trying to sleep, it’s best not to have it in your system. It takes 3-5 hours for your body to eliminate just half of the caffeine you consumed. One study even found that consuming caffeine within six hours of bedtime reduces your total rest time by one full hour.

And alcohol, while it does help you relax, actually suppresses melatonin, a key component to restful sleep. Research shows that drinking a moderate amount of alcohol an hour before sleeping will reduce melatonin production by almost 20 percent. To read more about the negative effects of alcohol on sleep, click here.

Avoid naps as much as possible

If you are already having trouble sleeping, a nap can really throw things off and mess up your established routine. Instead, stay awake until a decent hour and then fall into bed. Think of it like jet lag. When you are jet-lagged, you stay awake as long as you can so that the next morning, you can rise with the correct time zone. In some cases, especially early on in the grief journey, it’s important to take naps, but when the naps begin to interfere with your nightly rest, change is needed.

Engage in some form of exercise

Did you know that regular exercise improves sleep? The research shows that it does. Exercise reduces stress and improves mood, which is important while you are grieving. Studies have even found that daytime physical activity may trigger a longer period of slow-wave sleep, which is considered the deepest and most restorative stage.

If you already participated in a regular exercise routine before the death of your loved one, try to continue. If you did not practice a lifestyle of exercise, start out small. Take a walk, ride a bike, or pick up some small hand weights. Even moderate daily exercise can help you sleep better and improve your outlook on life.

Don’t be afraid to get help

Perhaps you’ve already tried all of these tips, and nothing has worked. Don’t be afraid to make an appointment with your doctor. They may have other resources available to you that will help. Deep, restful sleep is critical to rejuvenating your body throughout the grief process. But in addition to that, sleep is necessary for you to live a healthy life, physically, mentally, and emotionally.

10 Family-Focused Pet Remembrance Ideas

By Grief/Loss, Pets

Pets have a special place in our hearts. When we lose one of our furry family members, every person in the family is affected, some more than others. As a parent, following the loss of a pet, it’s valuable to help your child learn how to mourn and grieve the loss. For many children, losing a pet will be the first experience they have with the pain of loss. Helping children remember, memorialize, and properly grieve a beloved pet teaches them how to process grief in a healthy way so they can do it again the next time the pain of loss visits them.

According to Dr. Wolfelt, a noted grief educator and counselor, “Any child old enough to love is old enough to grieve. And many children love their pets with all their hearts. As an adult, if you are open, honest and loving, experiencing the death of a pet can be a chance for children to learn about both the joy and the pain that comes from caring deeply for pets or for people.” This is a lesson they will take long into their adulthood and will pave the way for healthy grieving habits.

Let’s discuss 10 family- and kid-focused ways to remember and memorialize a pet that will help focus your and your child’s grief in productive and healthy ways, allowing everyone to say goodbye, process the pain of loss, and move toward healing.

10 Family-Focused Pet Remembrance Ideas

Before we begin, it’s important to take your child’s age into account when selecting any of these activities for your family. You may do some with a younger child and others with an older child. Or, if you’re comfortable with it and feel that it’s right for the entire family, do them together. The most important thing is to allow your family the opportunity to mourn and express the feelings of sadness that may be growing inside.

Share Stories

Let’s start off with something simple, easy, and good for everyone – sharing stories and allowing each family member to tell stories about the family pet. Tell the funny stories that you all know. Remember the moments when the dog knocked over the card table, dumping the contents, or laugh about the times you bathed the cat, making him look like a drowned rat. This activity will make you laugh and cry, but most of all, it will bond you together in your grief and allow each of you to talk about your feelings for your pet.

Plan a Memorial/Burial Ceremony

While funerals do not bring an end to grief, they are an important rite of passage and give us a certain measure of comfort. If this is the case for you, chat with your child about planning a small burial or memorial ceremony for your household pet. This could be as simple as having a small family gathering with a few words spoken, or you could invite friends and neighbors to take part, turning the event into a full celebration of your pet’s life. You could choose to bury your pet with his favorite toy or bedding or even invite your child to make an item to bury with your pet. The ceremony would allow you as a family to reinforce the importance of your pet’s life while also intentionally marking its death.

Create a Memory Album

Memory is a funny thing. After a period of time, we begin to forget – what our old house looked like, what our first grade teacher looked like, what our childhood pet looked like. That’s one reason why visual reminders are so powerful. They help us recall what we might otherwise forget.

To create a visual reminder for your kids, consider gathering up photos of your pet and allowing them to each create a scrapbook. Or you can create a scrapbook for the entire family, allowing each person to participate in its creation. Alternatively, you could place photos of your pet in a special place in your home. You could even create a shadow box and fill it with your pet’s collar, tags, photos, or other special keepsakes. In some ways, creating this type of memorial gives your kids something tangible to hold onto or look at, which is incredibly valuable during the grieving process.

Keep a Memento

Children often find safety in objects, like security blankets or a favorite toy they take everywhere. The same might be true as they grieve the loss of a pet. For instance, a child might find it helpful to keep the pet’s collar or sleep with its favorite toy for a while. Alternatively, you could place a photo of your pet next to the bed or help the child make a bracelet or necklace that spells your pet’s name. All of these will help younger members of the family feel that their feelings matter. If your child doesn’t want to do any of these things, that’s just fine. We all grieve in different ways.

Put Together a Memory Jar

Sometimes we just need a little reminder of the good times when we’re in the midst of the hard times. Consider having everyone in the family write down some happy memories of your pet and place them in a jar or bowl. Then, when someone is really missing your pet, you can pull out a memory and smile at happier times. This activity will allow everyone the opportunity to recall the good times and process what they’re feeling in the safety. You can either write down a memory for a child too young to write or have them draw a picture instead.

Create a Tribute Video

For some, a visual reminder is incredibly helpful. If it’s best for you and your family, put together a tribute video of your pet, using photos, audio, or video elements. Invite your kids into the process, and you might even add in a few family stories, like remembering the day you brought your pet home or some its more infamous escapades. Then, take time to watch it together as a family, allowing each person the opportunity to remember, smile, or cry if needed. Also, a video can be watched when the kids are older if they want to reminisce about your beloved pet.

Get Creative with Writing and Drawing

For some children, drawing a picture or a pet or writing a letter to a pet are helpful exercises. It helps them feel that they are communicating their feelings to the pet who is gone, and as with adults, sometimes you just need to get something off our chest. Another option is to write poems or short stories about your pet, perhaps giving them fun and amusing adventures or just writing down your feelings. Either way, creative expression is a helpful activity for anyone who is grieving and will help you process the loss.

Make Remembrance Jewelry

This is a simple activity that may help your child feel close to your pet at times when grief hits. You could order a special necklace or bracelet online that has a paw print or a photo of your pet. Or, you could involve your child in the jewelry’s creation by gathering beads, pendants, and other materials. Then, you can spell out your pet’s name or use charms to customize it.

Read Helpful Books

Books are a great way to teach children. That’s why we use them in our homes and in our schools. Story is powerful and can teach important lessons in a simple way. Consider finding a few books that will help your child deal with the loss of your family pet. A few books to look into are “The Tenth Good Thing About Barney” by Judith Viorst, “I’ll Always Love You” by Hans Wilhelm, and “Cat Heaven” or “Dog Heaven,” both by Cynthia Rylant. These are just a few to get you started. Check out your local bookstore or shop online to find an option that’s good for your family.

Mark the Anniversary

By taking time to mark an occasion, we acknowledge that date’s importance to our lives. We do this with birthdays, anniversaries, and other life events. Consider whether it’s appropriate and helpful for your family to mark the anniversary of your pet’s loss. That could be at the one-year mark or it could be the one-month mark. Either way, sharing a story, reading a book, or looking at photos can help your child realize the value of remembrance and that your pet was a valuable and irreplaceable part of your family.

No matter what you decide to do, that most important thing is to talk about your pet with your child, often and with love. Let your kids know that while the pain will eventually lessen and perhaps go away, the happy memories will always remain. When the time is right (best not to rush this), you might consider adopting a new pet — not as a replacement, but as a way to welcome another animal friend into your family.

Remembering Our Loved Ones Through Photos

By Explore Options, Grief/Loss

When you photograph a face… you photograph the soul behind it.” – Jean-Luc Godard

Today, we can’t imagine a world without photographs. They capture the moments of our lives – both the special and the mundane – and create a record for years to come. They help us remember what has come before, and they elicit powerful emotions.

In actuality, photography is a relatively new invention. The first photographic process was introduced in 1824 by Nicéphore Niépce. Building on his initial work, many other scientists and inventors improved photography over the years. However, it was George Eastman who first brought the camera to the individual. In the 1910s, the first 35mm camera became available to the public, and people began to go “Kodaking” (spending the day taking pictures with friends).

We have come a long way from glass plates, daguerreotypes, and negatives. Now, most of us carry a camera with us everywhere we go because they are built into our cell phones. That’s quite the innovative leap, especially since it’s been just over 100 years since the first camera became available to the public.

But despite its relative newness, we are fascinated with photography. Photographs have found a place of prominence in our lives. They give us something that the generations before us didn’t experience in the same way. They give us a unique way to remember our loved ones after they’re gone and recall the memories we shared.

So, How Do Photographs Benefit Us?

1. They connect us with our past.

What I like about photographs is that they capture a moment that’s gone forever, impossible to reproduce.” – Karl Lagerfeld

Looking at photos of loved ones often elicits a sense of connection. With people we know, we remember the person in the photo and how they made us feel. With people we never met – like ancestors – there’s something special about looking at family even though you never met. After all, without them, you wouldn’t exist.

2. They remind us of people, places, feelings, and stories.

The best images are the ones that retain their strength and impact over the years, regardless of the number of times they are viewed.” – Anne Geddes

While a picture may be worth a thousand words, it captures a very specific memory. Whether the photo is of friends, that crazy family vacation, or your high school graduation, it will remind you of people you’ve met, places you’ve gone, and feelings you’ve felt. Every picture tells a story. And in some cases, you’ve forgotten the story until the picture gives it life again.

3. They help keep a certain memory sharp.

With my father’s passing, I realized just how important images of him are to me. The photo[s] also made me think, what do my children have to remember me by?” – John Wineberg

Oftentimes, when we lose someone we love, we fear that we will forget them. That’s one reason why photos are so precious – they give our loved one’s face and any cherished memories a sharper focus in our minds. With a photo, we are less likely to forget what a loved one looked like. We are less likely to forget some of our favorite memories. In a way, a loved one lives on through the pictures we have of them.

4. They remind us that there were good times in the midst of the bad.

The best thing about a picture is that it never changes, even when the people in it do.” – Andy Warhol

In life, unexpected things happen. A spouse leaves. A best friend moves away. A loved one dies. Photos capture a single moment in time. Perhaps, when that best friend moved away, things became difficult, and it took a while to find a new friend. But just the same, any pictures you have with that friend are precious. Despite the changes in life and people, photos remind us that good is interwoven with the bad.

5. They express emotions that words cannot.

The whole point of taking pictures is so that you don’t have to explain things with words.” – Elliott Erwitt

Sometimes words are just not enough. They don’t adequately capture the essence of what you feel. But for many, a photo can do just that. It expresses what your lips can’t articulate and helps you say what’s in your heart. And on the other side of that, photos elicit deep emotion from us. They remind us of something or someone we love and just how precious memories are.

How Can Photos Help Us Honor Our Loved Ones?

A healing and meaningful funeral is about honoring and remembering a life lived. Pictures are an excellent way to tell a loved one’s unique story. There are a variety of ways that you can utilize your favorite photos in a final tribute:

  • Put together a memorial DVD (or ask the funeral home to do it).
  • Create a collage or timeline.
  • Print off some of your favorites and give them as a remembrance token at the funeral.
  • Make your own memory wreath.
  • If there is a gathering or reception, place photos in prominent places or use as centerpieces.

These are just a few ideas to get you started. Think on it. Whatever will honor your loved one’s memory most, do it. Every picture you have captures a moment of your loved one’s life. And that life is worth celebrating.

Do Animals Mourn?

By Grief/Loss, Pets

As human beings, mourning is hard-wired into our makeup. When we lose someone or something that we love or depended on, our natural reaction is to mourn that loss. But is it the same for animals?

In the case of the elephant, the answer, in some ways, appears to be yes. Sensitive, tender, and caring beasts, elephants have a highly developed ritual for mourning loss. While we won’t have the discussion of whether or not animals can feel love, we can all agree that they experience deep social bonds, either with others of their own kind or with humans.

In many ways, we can learn a lot from the mourning rituals of the elephant. Let’s take a deeper look.

First, let’s define mourning.

According to Dr. Alan Wolfelt, a nationally respected grief counselor and educator, grief and mourning are two different things. Grief is internal and refers to our thoughts and feelings after a loss. On the other hand, mourning is a shared, social response to loss. It’s how we acknowledge death and honor and remember those who have died.

Second, let’s talk about the six needs of mourning.

Now that we have a clear definition of mourning, let’s talk about what Dr. Wolfelt calls the 6 needs of mourning. Wolfelt says: “Everyone grieves and mourns differently, but there are some steps along the way that we all must encounter. I call these the ‘six needs of mourning.’ You might think of them as your ‘to-do list’ as, slowly and over time, you work on actively expressing—or mourning—your grief. Meeting the six needs of mourning one day at a time will help you move toward a life of meaning and purpose again.”

The six needs are:

  • Acknowledge the reality of the death
  • Embrace the pain of loss
  • Remember the one who has died
  • Develop a new identity
  • Search for meaning
  • Receive support from others

Now, let’s discuss how elephants appear to instinctively work through these six needs.

Before we begin, it’s important to know that elephants are smart, sensitive creatures. They live in groups, self-medicate with plants, protect animals or people in trouble, and some even paint! They are complex and beautiful. Of all animals, they have the most well-documented mourning rituals. So, how do they instinctively work through the six needs of mourning?

1. Acknowledge the reality of the death

When a family group comes across the bones or body of a dead elephant, they stop and investigate. Typically, they take time to touch the bones and tusks with their trunks. Often, they are quiet and cover the body with leaves and grass (almost like a form of burial). If the dead elephant belonged to their family group, they will stay with the body for days or weeks at a time. All of this behavior is quite similar to what we do as human beings. We touch the body of our loved one, care for them, and often spend time and sit with them until it’s time for the funeral.

2. Embrace the pain of loss

Based on the findings of many animal researchers, it’s safe to say that elephants become very upset when one of their own dies. Martin Meredith, an elephant researcher, says: “The entire family of a dead matriarch…were all rumbling loudly. The calf was…weeping and made sounds that sounded like a scream…. They then began to throw leaves and dirt over the body and broke off tree branches to cover her. They spent the next two days quietly standing over her body.” Elephants shed tears and sometimes won’t eat after losing an elephant in their community. That certainly sounds like embracing some kind of pain.

3. Remember the one who has died

As human beings, we celebrate and remember the life of someone loved in many ways. Funerals. Memorial events. Traditions. Elephants have an amazing memory, and long after any member of the group has died, the remaining members do not forget them. For instance, one researcher played a recording of the trumpet call of an elephant that had died. The elephant’s family went wild with calls, looking for the dead elephant. Its daughter continued to call, looking for its mother for days. The researchers never did this again – the reaction and remembrance were so strong.

4. Develop a new identity

When we lose someone we love, we must go through the process of finding and accepting our new identity. Perhaps, you were a wife and are now a widow. Or, you had 6 cousins but now have 5. We must process the change that has occurred in our lives and find our new normal. For elephants, that means finding a new identity in the family group. If the matriarch has died, who will take her place? If a calf has lost its mother, who will care for it now? The group’s entire dynamic changes. They must find a new identity, which they do, and life moves forward.

5. Search for meaning

After a death, we often begin to ask ourselves questions like “Why did this happen?” “What does this mean for me now?” And while elephants certainly don’t search for meaning in the same way that we do, they do seem to understand that life is meaningful. Following the death of an elephant, its family may stay nearby for weeks. The surviving elephants often stand vigil or will revisit the gravesite over the coming weeks. They appear to place high value on their dead, seeming to recognize that life is precious.

6. Receive support from others

Just as we need support from others when we lose someone we love, elephants also mourn together. They often approach a dead elephant together, in a huddle, sniffing and examining the body. And while some may return on their own, they are often together. Depending on which of their family group has died, they then rearrange their group dynamics, which allows all the elephants to find the new dynamic for the group.

Isn’t it interesting how Dr. Wolfelt’s tenets for mourning can be seen in the animal kingdom? Perhaps the six needs of mourning are more instinctual than we might have previously thought. While it’s certainly not the same as human mourning, it is intriguing to think about what may be going through an elephant’s mind as it pays homage to the dead.

You might ask, are there other animals who exhibit mourning rituals?

Absolutely. None are nearly as complex and well-documented as the elephant, but particularly in creatures who are quite social, mourning rituals are often present.

For example, dogs will whine, lick, and stay beside the body of a dead canine friend for hours. They even mourn human beings, as was the case with Hachiko, an incredibly loyal dog whose story captured the hearts of millions (see photo above). Dolphins and whales will keep their dead safe from predators and will carry their dead young for days. Gorillas and chimpanzees also exhibit certain mourning behavior, particularly mothers who continue to carry their dead young, caring for and protecting them for weeks or months. Young chimps who lose their mother may become very depressed and refuse to leave their mother’s side.

While we can’t definitively say that elephants grieve, we can say that they do take part in mourning rituals, just like we do. There is something necessary about acknowledging death and honoring life. Unlike most species, as human beings, we have the privilege to truly know those around us at a close, personal level and honor the losses in our lives. Elephants never forget the ones they once knew – they remember. As should we.

Creating Memorial Keepsakes with Funeral Flowers

By Grief/Loss, Meaningful Funerals

One way that extended family, friends, and co-workers show their love and support in times of loss is by sending flowers and condolences to the grieving family. By offering a gift, others are able to physically show their loving care and send a message of support. While the flowers bring comfort to the family during the ceremony, what should be done with the flowers afterward?

One special way that funeral flowers can be repurposed is by creating unique and personal memorial keepsakes. These keepsakes are one way that you can honor your grief and your loved one’s memory. Dr. Alan Wolfelt, a nationally respected grief counselor, author, and educator, says: “It is not instinctive to see grief and the need to openly mourn as something to honor, yet the capacity to love requires the necessity to mourn. To honor your grief is not self-destructive or harmful, it is courageous and life-giving.”

A memorial keepsake may be part of a healthy grief journey for you. A way to honor your grief through creative expression. The keepsake may be long lasting, or it may have a shorter term of use. It may be something you keep for yourself or share with others who are grieving or had a relationship with the person who is gone. The choice is entirely up to you and your wishes.

Creating a Memorial Keepsake

Depending on which option you choose, you will need to dry and/or press the flowers in order to use them. After the flowers are ready, you can start on the task of creating a keepsake.

Candle

A memorial candle with dried flowers is a beautiful keepsake option. As you create the candle, you can reminisce about your loved one, and when the candle is complete, you can light it in their memory. In the days and months to come, you can find comfort in your memories every time you enjoy the candle.

Potpourri

Our sense of smell is closely linked to memory, more so than our other senses. With that in mind, as you create potpourri out of leftover funeral flowers, choose spices and oils that remind you of your loved one. That way, every time you pass by, you can find comfort in the familiar scent.

Bookmarks

If you are a reader or your loved one was, creating a memorial bookmark with dried flowers might be especially meaningful. Every time you take refuge in the pages of a book, it will be like your loved one is enjoying the pages along with you.

Ornaments

If you particularly enjoy Christmas time, making a memorial ornament may be just right for you. You can make ornaments from a variety of materials, one of which is funeral flowers. When you place your specially made ornament on the tree each year, it will be a small reminder of the person you love. Also, these would make excellent gifts to other friends and family who value your loved one.

Bracelets

If you would prefer to make something that you can take with you anywhere you go, a bracelet may be the option for you. There are many ways to make bracelets out of funeral flowers, but two of them are with resin or with polymer clay. With your specially made memorial bracelet, you can remember your loved one no matter where you go.

Pressed Flower Initials

Pressing funeral flowers into the initials of your loved one is a beautiful reminder of the person who died and their impact on your life. With its simple beauty, you can display this work of art in your home and fondly remember the person you love.

Pressed and Dried Flower Phone Case

These days, almost everyone carries a cell phone with them. That’s why this idea is so practical. You can make a protective case for your phone that showcases the beautiful flowers given in love and support. Each time you look at them, remember that you’re not alone. People care about you and your family.

Pendant

Wearing memorial jewelry is a growing trend. For those whose loved one was cremated, cremation jewelry is available. However, in addition to or instead of cremation jewelry, you can create your own pendants with dried flowers. Any time you want to remember your loved one, you can wear the pendant you made in their honor.

Coasters

You can design some beautiful coasters with dried funeral flowers. With these, you can create something that not only pleases your eye but helps you fondly remember your loved one. And each time a guest comments on them, you can share a story about your loved one’s life.

Shadow Box

By creating a shadow box with dried flowers from the funeral, you can create a large piece of art to admire. You might even consider placing a favorite photo of your loved one in the box as well. These items together will create a lovely tribute.

If you should decide to repurpose funeral flowers, these ideas are only the beginning. There are so many options available to you. It’s just a matter of choosing the one you like most. Another benefit to these craft ideas is that you can share them with others, inviting them to join you in remembering someone loved.

For the Less Craft-Inclined Person

For some of us, the idea of creating a memorial keepsake is a bit too much to think about. That’s perfectly fine. We are all different and will grieve in different ways. For those who are less craft-inclined, you can:

  • Give any remaining funeral flowers to friends, relatives, and co-workers
  • Donate the flowers to a church, workplace, retirement home, or hospice care facility
  • Place them at the gravesite of another loved one
  • Keep them to enjoy in your own home

6 MORE Things You Should Never Say to a Grieving Person

By Grief/Loss, Helping a Friend in Grief

Sometimes – perhaps most of the time – we just don’t know what to say to our friends, family, children, or coworkers who are grieving. We want to offer words of comfort, encouragement, and love. But there are some things we just shouldn’t say. Our hearts may be in the right place, but people cannot see our hearts. They cannot decipher our good intentions. They can only interpret what they hear and what they see: our words and our body language.

In 6 Things You Should Never Say to a Grieving Person, we talked about the power of words. Our words have the ability to hurt or to heal. They are a powerful tool. We can use our words for building up or tearing down. We all know this is true. So, let’s use our words wisely, kindly, and for the encouragement and building up of those around us. Below is a list of a few more phrases that should be banished from our conversations with people who are grieving.

6 MORE Things You Should Never Say to a Grieving Person

“How’s your family holding up?”

While this question is not innately bad, take the time to ask about your friend or loved one first. Ask “How are you?” and then ask about family members. By asking about family first, you indicate that the family’s feelings are more important than the individual’s feelings. Dr. Alan Wolfelt, a respected grief author, educator, and counselor, offers this advice: “Keep in mind that your friend’s grief is unique. The death of someone loved is a shattering experience.  As a result of this death, your friend’s life is under reconstruction.” Take time to ask your friend about their family, but first, be intentional about asking how they are doing in their own individual grief journey.

“Your loved one wouldn’t want you to be sad.”

You may be trying to lighten the mood and add a little levity, but in actuality, this comment trivializes the grief felt by the bereaved. You are telling them that their grief is a bit silly, and their loved one would say the same thing. Instead, allow people to grieve. Dr. Wolfelt encourages us to “Allow your friend to experience all the hurt, sorrow and pain that he or she is feeling at the time. Enter into your friend’s feelings, but never try to take them away.

Give them the freedom to express whatever emotions are present. A grieving person needs a safe space to release and process through their emotions. Rather than tell them how they should feel, allow them space to express their true feelings and support them as they begin the healing process. Instead, you might say “There’s no need to apologize. It’s OK to be sad. I know you miss him/her very much.”

“It was his/her time to go.”

This is similar to saying, “He’s/She’s in a better place.” When a person is grieving, it doesn’t matter that it was their loved one’s “time.” While the death of a grandparent or even a parent feels more in the natural order of things, some people are grieving a loss that feels unnatural, like that of a sibling, a child, or a friend. The fact that it was “their time” doesn’t offer the comfort and compassion that your grieving friend needs.

Always remember, grief is made up of many complex and often conflicting emotions. Offering clichés to a grieving person is like trying to put a bandaid on a gaping wound. They just don’t work. Dr. Wolfelt puts it this way, “Words, particularly clichés, can be extremely painful for a grieving friend. Clichés are trite comments often intended to diminish the loss by providing simple solutions to difficult realities.” Your intentions may be good, but coping with a loss, even when the loss is expected, is still a complicated process. The best thing to say is “I’m so sorry about your loss. He/she was such a special person.”

“How did he/she die?”

The only reason to ask this question is to satisfy your own curiosity. And in the end, the question will only make you seem nosy. Instead, focus on your grieving friend’s feelings. They need to hear you say, “I’m so sorry for your loss” or “My heart hurts for you.” For some, talking about the details of a death won’t be difficult, but for others, it will be excruciating. It’s best to wait until they decide on their own to share.

Dr. Wolfelt offers this advice from his years of experience: “Helping begins with your ability to be an active listener. Don’t worry so much about what you will say. Just concentrate on listening to the words that are being shared with you. Your friend may relate the same story about the death over and over again. Listen attentively each time. Realize this repetition is part of your friend’s healing process. Simply listen and understand.”

“You have to be strong for (insert person’s name).”

It is a common misconception that it’s best to move away from our grief rather than to move toward it, but strong-arming your way through grief isn’t very effective. In fact, “being strong” often causes people to push their feelings away and compartmentalize what they feel. Suppressing our emotions is never healthy and can lead to anxiety, tension, and emotional distance from the very person you want to connect with at a difficult time. Perhaps you are a parent, and you feel that you need to “be strong” during a time of loss for your child. So, you put on a happy face and mostly pretend that nothing’s wrong, even though you are broken on the inside.

The problem is, when children see that your words contradict your actions, behavior, and facial expressions, they instinctively learn that “being strong” is more important than “being real.” Instead, demonstrate to your children what healthy grieving looks like. Talk about what you are experiencing. Develop traditions that honor your loved one. Tell stories. Visit the graveside. Allow yourself to cry. All of these are great ways to model healthy grief over the loss of a loved one for a child.

Having walked with many families through the grief journey, Dr. Wolfelt shares this advice for talking with children about death: “Sometimes, adults don’t want to talk about the death, assuming that by doing so children will be spared some of the pain and sadness. However, the reality is very simple: children will grieve, anyway. Adults who are willing to talk openly about the death help children understand that grief is a natural feeling when someone loved had died. Children need adults to confirm that it’s all right to be sad and to cry, and that the hurt they feel now won’t last forever.”

We should not encourage people to “be strong” when that means ignoring what they feel. Certainly, we don’t want them to fall apart for weeks on end and forget all their responsibilities, but we should give them permission to grieve. Ultimately, the person you feel the need to “be strong” for doesn’t need you to shelter or protect them from your pain. They are going to have to learn to deal with pain; it’s part of life. Instead, they need someone to walk beside them as you both grieve.

“I’m sure it will be better soon.”

When someone is grieving deeply, this comment may be frustrating. The grieving person may be thinking that they can’t imagine ever feeling better again. Your presumption that they will be better “soon” can seem insensitive. They may even feel like you are judging their current emotional state. In his teachings, Dr. Wolfelt shares that grief is individual and can take a long time to process. He encourages: “Don’t force your own timetable for healing. Don’t criticize what you believe is inappropriate behavior. And while you should create opportunities for personal interaction, don’t force the situation if your grieving friend resists.”

The reality is that grief can be one of the darkest times in a person’s life. To a griever, telling them things will get better (and soon!) translates to, I don’t understand the pain you are going through right now.” Instead, if your intention is to offer comfort, you can say, “I’m here for you for as long as you need me.” Or you can even offer to help alleviate some stress: “I know this is hard, and I’m here for you. Can I bring dinner to your house tomorrow night?”

All in all, the most important thing you can do is offer support to your grieving friend in the best way you know how. You may stumble a bit with the words, and that’s okay. But take the time to carefully consider your words and say what is most beneficial, even if you feel awkward. Your friend will appreciate your efforts to be sensitive, kind, and supportive in their time of grief and need.

12 of the Best Books on Grief

By Grief/Loss, Helping a Friend in Grief

The most beautiful people are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have still found their way out of the depths. These people have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”  – Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

The grief journey is long and difficult. We all need a few road signs along the way. That’s why learning from the stories of others is so powerful. You can pinpoint where you are and learn what next step to take. While every grief journey is different, we can all learn from each other’s pain. If you have recently lost someone you love, or you know someone who is grieving, spend a few moments considering these 12 books on grief. Any one of them could have an impact on a grieving heart.

12 of the Best Books on Grief

1. Resilient Grieving: Finding Strength and Embracing Life After a Loss That Changes Everything (Lucy Hone, Ph.D.)

Written by psychologist and resilience/well-being expert Lucy Hone, this book explores humanity’s resilience and ability to grow even in the face of traumatic loss. Hone began her own resilient grieving journey after the loss of her 12-year-old daughter, and in her own words, “This book aims to help you relearn your world…to help you navigate the grieving process as best you can – without hiding from your feelings or denying the reality, or significance, of your loss.”

2. I Wasn’t Ready to Say Goodbye: Surviving, Coping and Healing After the Sudden Death of a Loved One (Brook Noel and Pamela D. Blair, Ph.D.)

Considered a classic guide, this book was featured on ABC News, Fox and Friends, and many other shows because its message resonates with people. Focused specifically on sudden death, the authors understand that a sudden death could mean any type of relationship or circumstance. Because all of our lives are different, they touch on tough topics like suicide, the death of a child, homicide, and depression. This book provides survivors with an anchor through the storm of grief.

3. A Grief Observed (C.S. Lewis)

C.S. Lewis is considered an intellectual giant of the twentieth century and one of its most influential writers. Widely known for his classic children’s series The Chronicles of Narnia, he is also the author of many theological works. Written following the death of his wife to cancer, A Grief Observed is an honest record of a man who has lost his beloved and must wrestle with life, death, and faith. You will find his words relatable and real – reflecting the honest struggle we each face in grief.

4. Please Be Patient, I’m Grieving: How to Care for and Support the Grieving Heart (Gary Roe)

From the heart of award-winning author Gary Roe, this short but powerful read focuses on how family and friends can support and love someone who is grieving. Drawing on his experience as a hospice chaplain, Roe shares how we can learn to support those who are grieving, know what to say and not say, discover how to be a help and not a hindrance, and many other helpful suggestions.

5. More Beautiful Than Before: How Suffering Transforms Us (Steve Leder)

Pain cracks us open. It breaks us. But in the breaking, there is a new kind of wholeness.” With these words, Rabbi Steve Leder, leader of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, lays out the essence of his book. It is the suffering, the breaking, that occurs during times of grief that leads us to live more meaningful lives. He outlines three stages of pain – surviving, healing, and growing – which lead us to find meaning in our suffering and new hope for a life that is more beautiful than before.

6. Healing After Loss: Daily Meditations for Working Through Grief (Martha Whitmore Hickman)

Offering daily meditations for those who are grieving, this book has offered comfort since 1994 and continues to be a sought-after classic. Each daily meditation is brief but powerful, intended to bring comfort and encouragement to any reader. Drawing on her own experiences of grief, Hickman creates a book that is relevant to all, no matter the loss or the year. With more than 1,300 5-star ratings on Amazon, this one is worth a look.

7. It’s OK That You’re NOT OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand (Megan Devine)

The basic premise of the book is this: there is nothing wrong with grief. As Devine puts it, “Grief is simply love in its most wild and painful form. It is a natural and sane response to loss.” Using her own loss as an example, she talks about how difficult it is to grieve in our current culture and the importance of building our lives alongside our grief – learning how to reconcile our lives to it – rather than seeking to “get over” or overcome it.

8. Understanding Your Grief: Ten Essential Touchstones for Finding Hope and Healing Your Heart (Dr. Alan Wolfelt)

Dr. Alan Wolfelt, respected grief counselor and director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition, packs a lot of helpful information into this relatively short read. He discusses the difference between grief and mourning, the factors that make each person’s grief unique, and the need for mourners to treat themselves with compassion. In addition to a wide range of information, the book also includes journaling sections to allow you to engage and write down your own thoughts and feelings.

9. Chicken Soup for Soul: Grieving and Recovery (Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, and Amy Newmark)

Filled with the stories of other grievers, this book is both inspirational and comforting. As you read through the stories, it’s easy to see that every grief journey is different and every loss unique. Through the poignant and relatable stories shared, you will find yourself appreciating life and receiving strength and support from the lives of others.

10. Life After Loss: A Practical Guide to Renewing Your Life After Experiencing Major Loss (Bob Deits)

Drawing on more than thirty years of experience in helping people cope with major loss, Bob Diets provides practical help with navigating the unknowns of grief and helps you find a different, but no less meaningful, life following a loss. Filled with compassionate insight, Life After Loss is considered “one of the classics” (Dr. Earl Grollman) and a “roadmap for those in grief” (Lawrence J. Lincoln, MD).

11. Safe Passage: Words to Help the Grieving (Molly Fumia)

Written by a grief expert and grieving mother, Safe Passage gently and lovingly guides you through the stages of grief and toward hope and healing. In her own words, Molly Fumia says, “On the path toward healing, I learned two surprising lessons. The first is that grief is the most patient and persistent of all of life’s companions. The second is that grief is an ancient, universal power that links all human beings together.” In Fumia, you will find a compassionate and steady friend.

12. Living When a Loved One Has Died (Earl A. Grollman)

In the pages of this book, Earl A. Grollman, an internationally recognized bereavement counselor, explores the various emotions associated with mourning, the pitfalls to avoid, and how to process and work through the complex emotions of grief. Grollman gently guides the reader through learning how to heal in their own way because we each grieve differently. No two people grieve in the same way, so now two grief journeys will look the same. Find comfort and learn how to move forward.

No matter where you are in life – grieving or not – these books are a fount of compassion, guidance, and information. Whether you need the information now or later, remember that there are those out there who have experienced something similar to you, and you can find courage in their stories.

7 Key Topics to Discuss with Children Before a Funeral

By Grief/Loss, Living Well

The funeral, a ritual that has been with us since the beginning of time, is here to help us embrace the life that was lived and support each other as we go forward.  As caring adults, we will serve our children well to introduce them to the value of coming together when someone we love dies.” – Dr. Alan Wolfelt

If your child is attending a funeral for the first time, you may feel a little bit like you’re on pins and needles. While you don’t quite know how they are going to respond, it’s best to prepare them ahead of time. As human beings, we naturally find a measure of comfort in knowing what to expect. This is true for children as well as adults. Just as we prepare our children for the first day of school, for a big move, or for the coming of a new sibling, we must also take the time to prepare them for a funeral.

Your child learns their patterns of behavior from you. The way your child initially views funerals will depend on you and your explanations. By discussing important topics in advance, you can prepare your child and help calm any anxieties.

7 Key Topics to Discuss

1. Discuss what they will see

Your child may feel a bit anxious at first, so try to give them as accurate a picture as possible. Look up the funeral location on the internet and show them what the venue looks like. Will there be a casket or urn? Flower sprays? Show your child pictures and explain the purpose of these items.

Also, depending on the beliefs and values of the person who has died, funeral ceremonies may differ. The funeral of a Catholic person will look different than that of a practicing Jew or an agnostic. You may not always be familiar with some aspects of the ceremony, but if you do know what prayers or rituals to expect, discuss their meaning and purpose with your child.

2. Talk about the emotions they may see in others 

Your child is no stranger to emotion – they feel things every day – but they are probably not used to seeing adults expressing sadness or crying. So, explain to your children that funerals typically elicit emotion. In fact, it’s part of their purpose – to give people an opportunity to publicly mourn (outwardly express) the loss they feel. In the eyes of society, the funeral is an acceptable place to express yourself emotionally. As a result, people display different emotions. Tell your child that they may see some people crying because it’s sad when someone you love dies. They may see other people who don’t look sad, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t. We all show our emotions in different ways.

3. Assure them that their own emotions are normal

Every child will respond differently when confronted with loss. Some are more likely to cry while others seem unfazed. However, it’s important that a child knows that whatever they feel at the funeral is normal. If a child had a close and intimate relationship (as is the case with a parent or sibling) with the person who has died, they may need to cry themselves. Let your child know that this is okay, and it’s good for them to cry if they feel sad. Don’t try to prevent them from expressing their grief. Instead, allow them to feel what they feel. In the long run, it’s better to allow a grieving child time and space to grieve than to make them think their feelings aren’t acceptable or normal.

4. Explain what death is

Naturally, we want to protect our children from what we think could be harmful. However, having an understanding of death is not harmful; it’s necessary (as much as we might wish it wasn’t). In most cases, a child trusts their parent(s) more than any other adult, which is why this information should come from you. Before having a discussion about death, it’s important to take your child’s maturity level into account. Consider how they’ve responded to the death of a pet or an insect or how they respond to stressful situations.

In general, help your child understand the physical aspect of death – the person’s body doesn’t work anymore, and they no longer need it. Depending on your spiritual beliefs, discuss what happens to the person’s soul after death. Be simple, concise, and clear. Don’t be afraid to use the words dead and died. In fact, it’s better not to use euphemisms. For children, euphemisms can be confusing, so tell it like it is in gentle terms.

5. Explain burial & cremation

While your child may have many questions, the most important thing to emphasize is that because the person is dead, they don’t feel pain. When explaining what a casket is, you can also talk about burial. Again, use simple but clear language. Talk about how a hole is dug in the ground, and then the casket (with the body inside) is placed in the hole. Then, everything is covered again by dirt. Your child may ask why this must be done. In whatever words you think best, explain that after a person dies, we must take care of the body with respect and care.

As for cremation, again, make sure they understand that the person feels no pain. As you discuss urns, you can also discuss cremation, how it works, and that the body becomes cremated remains (ashes) after the process is finished. The words you use should depend on the age and personality of your child.

6. Prepare them for seeing a dead person

Seeing a dead person for the first time is often difficult. If you and your child are planning to attend an event where the body will be present, let your child know in advance. Talk with your child about how the dead person will look. You could say they will look like they are sleeping but their chest won’t move because they aren’t breathing. If your child expresses a desire to touch the body, let them know that the person may be cold or hard. Above all, don’t force your child to view or touch the body. You must give them a choice. Some children will want to say goodbye or express love through touch in this way. Just remember, forcing a child to do something they aren’t ready for can do more harm than good.

7. Teach them about funeral etiquette

Every aspect of the funeral will be new to your child, which is why it’s important to discuss funeral etiquette. By doing this, you will also alleviate any fears they may have and help them feel more comfortable. Discuss why we typically wear dark clothing – to symbolize our grief and sadness. Make it clear that they must be respectful in their behavior during any services they attend. You know your child’s behavior tendencies – specifically call attention to what they should not do.

Keep in mind, children are children, and there will likely be a few mishaps, especially if they are under preschool age. If their behavior is distracting to others or begins to disrupt the people around them, you may have to remove them from the service for a quick break. Explain that we need to be considerate of others and that this is a very important time for many people who loved the person who died. You may also offer your child a quiet activity to keep them occupied during the service, such as a coloring book.

Answer Their Questions

Now that you’ve worked hard to prepare your child, it’s time to answer their questions. Answer as best you can. Be honest and straightforward. Let your child’s questions and natural curiosity guide the discussion. They aren’t looking for euphemisms – they are looking for information. As they ask questions, they are processing the death and what it means.

Some questions you may hear:

  • Why do people die?
  • When do people die?
  • Is death forever?
  • Where do you go when you die?
  • Can I still call them?
  • What happened to him/her (the person who died)?
  • Did it hurt?
  • Am I going to die?
  • Are you going to die?
  • Why do we put them in the ground (if it’s a burial)?
  • Are you sure it doesn’t hurt (referring to cremation)?
  • What if I want to talk to them?

Ask If They Want to Participate

According to Dr. Alan Wolfelt, respected author, educator, and grief counselor, participating in actions after the death of a loved one helps us give expression to our grief. He says, “Mourners often don’t know what to do with their grief…. Funerals are made up of a number of ritualistic physical actions, all of which give mourners a way to literally move through the funeral process (and thus through this difficult time of their grief).”

For children, especially those who have lost someone significant in their lives, you might consider inviting them to light a candle in remembrance at the funeral ceremony. You could purchase two identical stuffed animals, placing one with the person who had died and giving one to the child. Thereafter, if the child wants to feel close to the person who is gone, they can hug the stuffed animal close. You could ask if the child wants to draw a picture to place in the casket. If not a picture, some other item. By inviting children to participate, you validate their grief and show them that they, too, are important.

For more helpful information about children and funerals, take a moment to read Life Lessons Children Can Learn at Funerals.