My favorite teacher was Mrs. Crawley. She was my fifth grade teacher. And, although that was many years ago, her kindness stayed with me through the rest of my school years. Her joy for learning, her love for her students and her enthusiasm and encouragement meant that even after all the other teachers I had, she was still a stand out.
Not long ago, I read that she had died. I found in her obituary the time for her visitation and funeral service. While I couldn’t attend the service, I decided I would go to the visitation.
Attending Mrs. Crawley’s visitation taught me something about what simply showing up offers family members. Because Mrs. Crawley was in her 90s at the time of her death, her visitation was rather small. Many of her own peers were already gone. A small group of visitors and Mrs. Crawley’s two daughters mingled in the quiet visitation room.
When I arrived, one of her daughters approached me to ask how I knew her mom. She was stunned and overjoyed to learn that I had been one of her students. She grabbed my hand and pulled me toward her other sister. With enthusiasm, she introduced me. We hugged one another. Their faces shone with pleasure. They couldn’t believe that a student from some 40 years ago had come to their mother’s visitation.
What this taught me…
I know that going to visitations or funerals is hard. As a funeral celebrant, I attend a lot of funerals and visitations. Even though I’m practiced at it, and it is part of my professional path, it is still hard for me, too. I see people come and go and know that they have given a gift to the surviving family members. Whether or not they knew the deceased, they chose to show up. To offer a kind word, a warm embrace, a smile. They have witnessed what that person’s life meant to their immediate family. They’ve chosen to go into a hard moment, to stand in line, to wait and watch, to sit and listen, to honor tears and stories alike.
Attending the visitation or funeral or both is an act of loving kindness. You don’t need the “right” words to say. From experience I’ve learned that there aren’t necessarily any “right” words. What I’ve learned is that unexpected gifts abound at visitations and funerals. Family members are embraced by an often larger community than they imagined. Friends and neighbors, sometimes from 30 years ago, show up and lift up the family members, celebrating the life of the one who died. Family members hear important stories about their loved one and what they meant to others – colleagues, co-workers, friends and acquaintances. At the same time, attendees have an opportunity to be a witness to loss and perhaps to learn a little bit about community; the larger community of humanity we all belong to.
When we make time to show up, to be present at a visitation or funeral service or both, we offer a kind of comfort and support that lasts longer than these services themselves. People for whom I’ve performed a service have taught me about what it means to them when distant relatives, neighbors from the old neighborhood and even grown children who knew the person through scouting or as a Sunday school teacher come.
Siblings or surviving spouses speak of friends they haven’t seen in years. For months after the service, remembering who was present offers comfort and relief. Family members learn that their loved one is not and will not be forgotten. They draw upon the presence of people who came as a resource for the darker days of mourning. And they understand anew that they and their family member were loved, admired, respected, appreciated or valued in ways they’d never imagined. Those who show up may never know how their presence buoyed the ones who are left behind.
Deb Brandt is a certified funeral celebrant, certified creative grief practitioner and professional writer. She works virtually and in-person with individuals and families as they tell their stories of grief and loss. Deb co-authored The Hollowed Heart; Inspiration for Women Awakening from Grief and Loss. You can learn more about Deb and her services at www.growingbeyondgrief.com or contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org