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5 Coping Strategies that Help you get through a Funeral

Maybe we got it the wrong way round. Many of us feel the need to find ways to cope, so we can “get through” or “make it through a funeral” – while maintaining as much of our composure as we can. What if we took a different approach? A funeral is a ritual that allows us to face the reality of death and start processing it. The death of a loved one is often excruciatingly painful. A funeral is a ritual that is meant to help us cope with the loss. We come together with people who were in one way or another connected to the person who died to share memories and celebrate the impact they had on us. This gathering as a community not only provides comfort and support but has the potential to help us heal. Ideally, a funeral provides an opportunity to express emotions and thoughts in a safe space. And for many, it is an important first step on their grieving journey.

What if we feel or fear, though, that the difficult emotions arising after our loved one’s death are or might be completely overwhelming us? Or maybe we weren’t all that close to the person who died and are anxious because we are uncomfortable with public displays of emotions and/or at a loss how to best support those who are deep in their grief. Maybe we feel the need or even an obligation to be strong for someone else at the funeral or are dreading it because we may have to face people that we don’t feel comfortable being vulnerable around. Whatever we are feeling in regards to the funeral ahead, it is human. We are not alone.

This blog post will provide some coping strategies that will hopefully help you on the day of the funeral as well as before and after. We also have some tips on how to “control” your emotions at a funeral.

Controlling your emotions at a funeral

“It is such a secret place, the land of tears.”

– Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “The Little Prince”

The only way out is through. This is certainly true when it comes to emotions and particularly grief. There are no shortcuts and there is no set timeframe. It will take however long it takes to process and integrate the death of a person we loved. Those who have experienced it already can testify that we cannot prepare ourselves for the intensity of grief. It will almost certainly hit us by surprise and come and go in waves. Funerals are usually an event that triggers the first tidal wave of grief. We might see or feel it coming and it can fill us with fear or dread or deep discomfort. 

We may have internalised one of society’s unwritten rules: Refrain from public displays of emotion – at all costs. This is almost considered common courtesy. If we absolutely have to cry, we can do so at home or maybe in the privacy of a loo cubicle. If there is one exception to this, though, it is funerals. Out of all occasions, a funeral will be the place where one will be met with the utmost compassion and understanding for not having it together. There is no shame in crying or even sobbing and wailing at a funeral. However, due to and depending on our conditioning, most of us will feel highly uncomfortable crying in front of even a close friend or family member, let alone a whole congregation of bereaved.

We are not at the mercy of our emotions, even though it might feel that way when grief hits us hard. If we want to find a healthy balance between allowing some of the emotions that will undoubtedly arise during the reception and funeral service and still maintaining enough composure to not feel all too vulnerable, here are some tips:

  • Make time during the days or hours before the funeral to be with your emotions in private or a safe space with someone you trust. Accept and welcome your grief as best as you can and allow yourself to cry those tears.
  • Breathe! We can regulate our parasympathetic nervous system through our breath. Deep and slow breaths help us to slow down racing thoughts, decrease anxiety and calm down our bodies. You can count to four on your inhale, hold your breath for three seconds and count to six while you exhale. Generally, people find counting helpful as it gives them something to focus on. If you are emotionally too wound up for it, a quiet conscious sigh can also help us to relax. 
  • Emotions pass – if we don’t fuel them with our thoughts. Worrying and engaging in worst-case scenarios of how we won’t be able to cope is not helpful. Being concerned about what others might think of us doesn’t serve us either. It is also none of our business. We don’t want to focus on judging others for their emotional response or lack thereof either as it is, again, none of our business and might just lead to us judging ourselves rather harshly. One of the most helpful things we can focus on instead is accepting ourselves where we are at and being kind towards ourselves and others as we navigate this human experience. We can draw inspiration from the life of the deceased and comfort from the gratitude we feel for all the love, experiences and memories we got to share and create with them.
  • We can ground ourselves in the present moment and somewhat detach from our thoughts and emotions by focusing on things we can perceive with our senses. Looking around and starting to name the things we can see, hear, smell and feel in our heads can be very helpful for that.
  • Sipping water slowly can help when there’s a lump forming in our throats and – alongside blinking slowly or alternatively opening our eyes widely for a few seconds – directs our body away from forming tears.

“Tears are just energy coming out of your eyes.”

– wisdom of a Buddhist monk

5 coping strategies for getting through a funeral

  1. Funeral Coping Strategy: Talk about it. Having even just one confidante to open up to about how we truly feel and what’s going on in our heads and hearts can be hugely beneficial to prepare ourselves mentally and emotionally for the day of the funeral. It helps to be honest about our fears and anxieties, so we can have them acknowledged by someone we know will be compassionate and understanding and not judge us. Apart from receiving emotional support, it might also lead to us gaining a different perspective that’ll help us manage our emotions better.
  2. Funeral Coping Strategy: Be kind to yourself. Dealing with the death of a dear loved one is one of the hardest things we will ever do. Nobody expects us to function like we normally would. We are human and we don’t need to be perfect. So, let’s be kind to ourselves.
  3. Funeral Coping Strategy: Showing emotions is okay – as is not being able to show emotions. There is no right or wrong way when it comes to grieving. Everyone is on their individual journey and we are all just trying our best – even when it might not look like it from the outside. Some of us might dread the funeral because they feel utterly uncomfortable crying in front of others but know they won’t be able to help it, others might feel despair for wanting to be able to show their sadness and benefit from the support and comfort provided by the grieving community but not be able to shed any tears. Let’s normalise both and allow whatever comes naturally to us: Crying and not being able to cry just yet – both are legitimate ways of coping.
  4. Funeral Coping Strategy: Ask for the help and support you need. Asking for help is one of the bravest things we do in life. And generally, we will find that we are not too much for others or needy but that people who care about and love us are more than happy to support us when we are in need. To help us cope on the day of the funeral, we can ask one or two trusted family members or friends to be our immediate support system. If we are the person that gives the eulogy, our support person might stand up there with us or sit in the audience, available to be our main point of focus and maybe offer us an encouraging smile. If we lost our husband/wife/life-partner and we feel too overwhelmed by grief to also be the main emotional support for our child(ren) on the day of the funeral, we can ask their favourite aunt or uncle or another person they know well and trust to be there for and comfort them. If we have a particularly difficult or complex relationship with one of the guests that are attending the funeral and know we have to face them, we can ask for someone to stay close to us and help us navigate the conversation and distract or deescalate if necessary. Maybe all we need is having someone close by to provide comfort through their presence, squeeze our hand from time to time and breathe deeply and slowly with us when the funeral becomes too overwhelming. Whatever it is, we probably know best what will be most helpful for us on the day and are allowed to ask for it.
  5. Funeral Coping Strategy: Take breaks. We don’t need to perform or entertain at a funeral or exert ourselves. If we feel reclusive and subdued we are not obliged to chat to as many guests as possible. It is acceptable to choose how much and to what extent we want to engage with other funeral guests. It is also okay to take breaks. If we know we’ll cope better after having a cry in private, we can take a 10-15 minute break and find a secluded spot to allow tears to flow and take some calming breaths.

Coping before the funeral

As briefly mentioned above, it pays off to take time to be with our emotions. We have to face them at some point. If we consciously choose to do so before the funeral, it might prevent us from experiencing the tidal wave of our grief on that day. We could, for example, create our own small ritual to say our final “goodbye” to the person who died without anyone else present or connect with our emotions through journalling or in meditation. We might choose to browse through a photo album or read a postcard, letter, email or text messages we once received from the deceased. Anything that will consciously trigger our grief and allow us to be with whatever emotions arise – sadness, anger, despair, feelings of abandonment, anxiety,… – in private and without any pressure or obligations can help make the funeral a bit easier. To calm our nerves on the evening before the funeral, one could practice self-care by drawing a hot bath or watching a movie we find comforting or soothing.

Coping after the funeral

For most people, the funeral is just the first step towards processing the death of their loved one. The grief over losing someone dear to us doesn’t pass in a day or a week. Oftentimes, it can take many months or in some cases even more than a year to come to terms with the new reality – life without the person who died. You might find our blog posts on “Understanding the Grieving Process: How to cope with the death of a loved one” and “The Power of Mourning Rituals and How They Can Help us Cope With Grief” informative and helpful as they cover questions like “How to cope with grief after the funeral?” and “What helps us overcome grief?” Some people find it helpful to attend a support group or talk to a therapist. The kindest thing we can do for ourselves after the funeral is to accept that grieving is a process that might take a while and be patient with our hearts and minds while we come to terms with our loss one day at a time.At Safe Hands Funeral Plans, we have a Bereavement Support Team that can talk to your family when the time comes. Having a funeral plan in place takes a lot of stress and pressure off our loved ones and is one of the most helpful things we can ever do for our family. End of life planning might not be easy to talk about for you, but our team is trained to be professional, compassionate and respectful while providing direct and practical advice. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us.