My uncle passed away in January. I was able to day-trip (a 3.5 hour drive each way) for the small family funeral and wake. Some of his favourite music was played, one of his favourite poems was recited, we poured over old photos of him through his life, and we scoured the books lining the walls of his library looking for those we’d read before. I was very glad to be there to support my aunt and to remember my uncle well, in all his aspects, and to share him with others who knew him well.
Soon after I realised it was the first family funeral I had attended in 15 years. This speaks largely to good fortune: in the 15 years I lived outside Australia, only three of my relatives passed away. But being far from family when death occurs is a common experience among the globally mobile.
Back in 2013 I was invited to speak to a group of high school students at an international boarding school on the subject of death. For one week, their health teacher had allowed all her classes to choose between several optional units, including first aid, bullying/violence, and basic psychology. This class, with students from China, South Korea, Thailand, and Eastern Europe, chose a unit on death and grief, and I was invited in as a guest speaker.
I am in no way an expert on death, but I have a lot of experience walking with Third Culture Kids through grief experiences. Loss is a constant and ongoing part of international life.
We went over the Five Stages of Grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. We talked about what these stages might look like, and some words/phrases/attitudes often linked with each stage. We talked about how grief is different when we are far away from the people we are grieving. We talked about the many other losses we grieve, especially those connected with international living – moving away, friends moving away from us, physical or emotional distance between us and our relatives, etc.
I shared several personal stories with them. I talked about the deaths of my two paternal grandparents and the big differences in those grief experiences. When my Grandma died, I was still living in Australia, and I spent several days in her home with my family for the funeral. When my Grandpa died, I was living alone in China, and I didn’t go home for the funeral.
My grandparents were wonderful people who lived very full lives and were well-loved. While I was obviously sad to lose them, to no longer have them as part of my life, and to lose the opportunity to know them better as an adult, neither loss was particularly traumatic. The importance of telling the stories was, rather, the difference in the grief experience and grieving process in each case. This was something that resonated strongly with the students, most of whom were living far away from their families.
The students also shared their own stories. Some talked about the deaths of dearly loved grandparents they hadn’t been able to properly grieve — and perhaps didn’t know how to properly grieve — due to the distance separating them. Others talked about deaths that hit closer to home: friends, nearer relatives, even people who shadowed their lives after memories had faded. Many talked about the difficulty of having no one to share these experiences with, having no outlet for their emotions and memories. It was a poignant conversation and a powerful experience.
More than anything, it instilled in me the difference that presence makes during times of grief, and especially when losing loved ones through death.
During the pandemic over the past two years, lack of presence surrounding death has sadly become a much more common experience. Due to hospital regulations, many people have been unable to be with loved ones in person as they pass. Others have been unable to travel to see their loved ones during illness or for funeral gatherings, due to border closures and travel restrictions. What has always been difficult for the globally mobile suddenly became impossible for many, even those in the same country or city!
I lost my Nana at the start of the pandemic after a long illness (not related to Covid-19). I knew it was coming, and that I probably would not be able to afford the time and money to return to Australia for her funeral. But when the time came, I did not even have the option. New border regulations meant that if I did go, I’d be isolated until after the funeral anyway.
When we think about funerals, how can we be sensitive to the needs of the globally mobile (and anyone who has difficulty attending), especially during pandemic conditions when this is so common? I have five suggestions for planning funerals that help support those who are grieving, whether in person, from a distance, or both.
1) Remember who the funeral is for
While we strive to honour the departed loved one during their funeral, the function of funeral services, memorial services, and wakes is largely to provide comfort and an outlet for the grief of those they left behind.
After my uncle’s funeral, my aunt told me about a conversation they’d had years earlier in which he passionately declared that he never wanted a funeral held for him. She planned one anyway, because it wasn’t for him. It was for her, and for everyone else who cared about him, to gather and say their goodbyes. Creating space for those goodbyes and for the sharing of memories is incredibly important for the grieving process each person is going through.
2) Give as much warning as possible
Give people time to make arrangements, whether to get time off work or to arrange childcare and/or travel. The further away people are, the more important this is. Sometimes a funeral can be delayed several weeks to make this more manageable for people far away. If the actual funeral must be held quickly (there are many reasons for this), consider having a memorial service later, to provide an opportunity for shared grieving.
On the other hand, I have also been in situations in international communities where it was important to hold a memorial service quite quickly. For example, when schools begin their summer breaks, these communities tend to scatter around the world. The bottom line for any funeral or memorial should therefore be knowledge of what is best for the communities grieving the person who died. This might mean holding more than one memorial, spanning different times and places.
3) Include children
Small children are often kept away from funeral and memorials. A two- or three-year-old child, however, can of course be very attached to a person and in need of participating in shared grief. While this may look different for children, it is good and right to include them in the community as we grieve together for the person we have lost. This is no less true for children who live far away from their relatives.
When I was about three, my great-grandmother (whose engagement ring I later wore as my own) passed away. I was not included at her funeral, and I was extremely upset when told I could not go! I said to my parents (quite indignantly, I’m told) that I knew and loved her too. They thought this was a good point, and from then on children were always invited to our family funerals. When my Nana died last year, her three great-grandchildren (ages 2, 3, and 5) all travelled with their parents to be at her funeral. There are now pictures of them dancing and playing in the grassy field outside the wake, which are precious to everyone. Attending the funeral helped the five-year-old in particular understand that her great-grandmother had died, even though she rarely visited, because she was there as part of the community event marking her Nana’s life.
4) Make sure the real person is represented
Every funeral should look different, because every individual is different. My sister and I agreed that the eulogy given by my uncle’s eldest son was powerful to us because we recognised our uncle in every line. The man he described was the man we remembered. The music and poetry he loved (things we all knew about him) had a prominent place in the service.
Those who are physically distant already feel far away from the event of a funeral, and the space it holds for shared grief. If eulogies and other elements of a funeral or memorial are generic and/or do not represent the real person their friends and family know, this can be alienating. This makes those who are physically far away feel alone in their grief.
5) Create space to share memories of the departed loved one
This can be formal or informal. The important thing is that everyone has a chance to stop and remember who this person has been to them, and how this person has impacted their life. I really appreciated that my uncle’s service included a time of silent remembering after the eulogies, where we were given space to remember him individually while listening to music he loved. This time allowed memories triggered by what I’d heard to bloom into full consciousness, giving me stories I wanted to share. Later at the wake, it was a delight to share those stories with those who knew him, and to hear their stories in return. Spending time looking through photo albums my aunt had prepared (complete with dates and captions) was also very powerful. So was going through his beloved library of books, remembering him that way.
These moments are often what is missing for those who are far away when funerals happen. A livestream of an event, when available, is rarely interactive; it doesn’t allow those who are far away to engage in sharing memories and actively reflecting. But there are other virtual options to help provide this space for those who can’t be physically present. Group video calls, shared online documents, word clouds, virtual post in note boards, virtual memorial tools, and so much more can be creatively utilised to allow those who are geographically separated to collaborate in honouring and sharing memories of a loved one who has died.
One other thing to keep in mind: if only one person is missing and unable to be at a funeral, keep them in the loop. Most people in this situation feel the distance keenly, feeling isolated and left out. Most want to hear about what’s happening, want to share in the process, and especially to share in the storytelling and group remembering that accompany funerals, memorials, and wakes. So call them, talk to them, share stories with them. Being the only one away can be very lonely, as I and the international students I mentioned earlier can attest to.