Good grief?

Charles 6 Comments



Posted by Tim Clark

Jenny Uzzell’s excellent GFG posting about the liminal state between death and burial has got me thinking, specifically about grief.

Grief is love that has been made homeless; I don’t know where that came from, I first heard it in “Borgen,” the Danish TV political series. It’s a striking, poignant idea – but does the love remain homeless? What home does it eventually find? Homeless people must find some sort of home eventually, or in our climate, they die. This, we know too well.

A good funeral can help people grieve; maybe a bad one obstructs a natural and necessary process. It seems to me that a good funeral affects, changes, the nature of grieving. I couldn’t – shouldn’t – hazard a guess about “from what to what,” but the liminal state between death and funeral has something to do with it, whether you use “liminal” literally or as a metaphor. To put it more simply, most people feel better after a (good) funeral.

The only definition about grief I can make is that you can’t define anyone’s grief: people grieve variously.

Down at the Good Funeral Awards gathering in Bournemouth, I went to a session delivered by Kristie West. Kristie is a young woman with the courage and insight to use a dreadful sequence of bereavement in her own family to get us to reconsider how grief does, or could, work. If you want to know more, go here.  

But for now, let me pull out her point that the pain of grief separates us from the memory of someone we love, and that the belief that the pain is what keeps us in touch is a false and obstructive belief. We don’t want to keep re-visiting pain, so in fact, she is saying, the pain of grief pushes us away from visiting memories and thoughts about someone we love who is dead. They drift away from our consciousness because of the pain we haven’t addressed.

That seems to me a big idea. My view that each of us grieves differently doesn’t allow me to agree 100%, but something more important than agreement is happening to me. I’m thinking more carefully about grief: its origin in the death of someone we love; its in-between, homeless state until a funeral, until we accept that the body isn’t the person so we can let it go; and what happens to grief after the funeral.

I fear what happens to too many people is that they are left — literally — alone with their grief. Relatives drive home, friends are still there but they don’t know quite what to do, how to behave, now the funeral’s over. Perhaps we need, for secularists, some milestone rituals, we need to re-visit our grief in some succession of resonant acts. We need to do grief, we need to heal our pain. We need to provide some spiritual depth to help people after the funeral and on into their new lives.

There we go, baby-boomers once again trying to make it ours, trying to change it all our way. “Hey man, we need new rituals.” It is sometimes said we don’t know, understand, “know,” grief well, in our culture. Anyone who has been bereaved knows grief. Our job is to do the best we can for this person’s own unique grieving state.

Some of us might need new rituals. Some of us might need Kristie’s brave insights. But you can’t define or categorise anyone’s grief. Sometimes people really mean it when they say “I’m doing fine, thanks.”

Last word to Elizabeth Barratt Browning:

I tell you, hopeless grief is passionless;
That only men incredulous of despair,
Half-taught in anguish, through the midnight air
Beat upward to God’s throne in loud access
Of shrieking and reproach. Full desertness,
In souls as countries, lieth silent-bare
Under the blanching, vertical eye-glare
Of the absolute Heavens. Deep-hearted man, express
Grief for thy Dead in silence like to death–
Most like a monumental statue set
In everlasting watch and moveless woe
Till itself crumble to the dust beneath.
Touch it; the marble eyelids are not wet:
If it could weep, it could arise and go.


  1. Charles

    Thanks, Tim. Some describe grief as an emptiness, felt almost physically in the heart or stomach regions, akin to other forms of despair or depression. It seems to me that the funeral, however good, is only one part of any healing process. It can busy grieving people with preparations. It can strike a chord through its public words and ritual. It can gather people together in a way that offers support and kindness to those grieving.

    But at the end of the day, grief is such a private thing that’s dealt with internally, its traits not only differing from individual to individual, but changing from day to day and month to month. I forget who sang, ‘you can’t hurry love’, but it must also apply to grief.

  2. Charles

    Don’t you think, Richard, that it is easy for those of us who work on funerals to over-estimate the importance of the funeral – not in itself (it must be as “right” as possible) but in the grieving process? It might be a cliché to describe grieving as a journey, but it seems true to me. I think we’ll do better funerals if we recognise that, and maybe at least sometimes refer to it in the ceremony.

    Someone said to me recently that she wanted “closure” from the funeral. Tricky to know what to say….

    1. Charles

      Hi GM, I’m not qualified to say if the importance of funerals in the grieving process is over-estimated. I’m sure most in the industry accept funerals are just one part of a grieving period spread out over time. Time itself is perhaps the greatest healer, but I have no idea what a bereavement counsellor would say to that.

      As you say, every case if individual. Stalin said ‘one death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic’. Sinister undertones aside, the commie psycho has a point in the sense it’s the singularity of a death of a person that’s shattering, not the general truth that we all die.

  3. Charles

    Gloria you beat me to it. Closure. For some people, there will never ever be closure, except with their own deaths. People are led to expect it, imagining that it means release from their grief. If only.

  4. Charles

    GM, Ru and Richard – thanks for your comments. Ref Stalin, the general and the particular – there’s a great bit in “Middlemarch” when Casaubon is told by the doc that his days are numbered, and Eliot points out there’s all the difference in the world between thinking “all men must die,” and “I must die – and soon.” It makes Casaubon even nastier, I seem to remember!

    I agree Ru, we should never lead people to expect “closure,” it’s surely a piece of wishful thinking for too many people. It seems some people are remarkably resilient to grief, and others are not, but I wouldn’t know what “closure” meant or would feel like, for anyone. A recipe for self-deception and disillusion, perhaps.

    We may feel we don’t know a lot about grief – there’s surely a lot more to it than the increasingly criticised “five stages” model – but I think it can teach us a lot, if it doesn’t overwhelm us. It can be raw and isolating, or beautiful and bond-maker between people. It is – what it is, each time it arrives.

    1. Charles

      I totally agree that a funeral, even a ‘good one’ (whatever we understand that to be) is a point along a journey and never an end. Whatever the drawbacks of the Victorian period of formal mourning it certainly served a purpose and with its total disappearance has come the assumption of society that after the funeral the bereaved family will be ‘normal’ again. I think that societies which retain some sort of ritual at various points from the death probably have something of great worth available to them. I am not convinced that ritual can be ‘invented’ but we shall see. To cross-post blatantly, this is why I disagree with Charles over the involvement of civilian FDs in the removal of soldiers re-patriated to this country to the coroner…because its not just a removal to the coroner because the people of Wooton Bassett spontaneously made it into something else…the acceptance back into their country of a dead soldier. It is a new ritual.

      One thing that my post did not dwell on, quite wrongly, was the liminal state of the mourners rather than the dead person. They are moving from one state to another and the new state is different to the previous ‘unbereaved’ state. This is why there is no going back and no ‘closure’ just an assimilation and coming to terms with the new reality

      Sorry…waffling and rushed, I know.


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