As a widow, I belong to several virtual support groups for the bereaved. While I seldom post anything, I often read and relate to the voices of utter despair from the darkest corners of their lives. Yesterday, I read an account that particularly resonated with me, from an agnostic widow after suddenly losing her husband of 20 years. Her experience was posted by a closed grief support group moderated by Grief Beyond Belief on Facebook.
Reading her experience, I was reminded how our different belief systems can leave grieving and hurting people without the support we really think we’re offering to them during difficult times such as losing a loved one. Most of us just want to help, in some way. But, these are moments of turmoil in the lives of those directly affected. They may cling tighter to their faith or question everything about it and the comments we make regarding our own beliefs, or what we perceive are their beliefs, can leave them feeling more isolated and lonelier than ever before. Best practice, in my opinion, is to listen to them carefully and refrain from offering faith-based sentiment as comfort unless we’re certain that what we are saying correlates with their own sentiment in that exact moment.
This self-described agnostic widow shared her husband’s uncertainty in faith and the afterlife. She explained that was a factor in why she chose to have his body cremated and forgo an obituary, memorial or funeral service. She then proceeded to question her decision, “Am I disrespectful?”
In short, No, you’re not disrespectful. You’re human. I understand the crushing need to completely ignore the entirety of the world and their needs surrounding the death of such a beloved life companion. I understand the overwhelming desire to shut down any such gatherings of people in relation to my husband’s death and grieve privately and without ceremony. These things are huge… and overbearing and demanding on someone who has just lost a cornerstone of their life. I’ve been told that they are necessary for closure.. But, frankly, I don’t give a damn and I don’t agree.
When my husband died, I knew his wishes were for his loved ones to perform whatever ceremony and burial they needed to feel at peace. I didn’t hesitate in relinquishing all of the decision-making to the person it would matter to the most: his mother. Whatever she wanted so that she could move through the whole process easier is what would happen. Period. Otherwise, I would have likely handled things similar to the grief-stricken widow who questioned the respect of her decisions in a facebook post to strangers. No obituary. No funeral or service. A cremation and a ceremony-free dusting of ashes in the forest.
My mother died quietly, five years before my husband. There was no announcement, obituary or otherwise. There was no service or funeral.. just a plastic box full of ashes that I stored in my closet until I finally put it in the casket with my husband and buried it. I didn’t know what else to do with it. I guess I could have spread the ashes somewhere… But, where and why? It seemed fine enough tucked away behind the coats in the dark. It kept her near.. yet, still so far away.
I experienced that death and the afterlife as a grieving child the same as I experienced the death of my husband and the afterlife as a grieving wife. Neither was any easier than the other because of how we handled our mournful afterlife as people who’d experienced the death of a loved one. The gathering of people paying respects to my husband, nor his fancy blue casket, gave me anything more than the absence of those things for my mother. I was still struck with the deepest blackest emptiness that humans know. The darkness and agony still came keening in waves carried by the wind across the earth. I reeled in disbelief and stared down this new reality, bewildered and scared and alone.
And that’s the reality: No matter how many people show up, no matter what they say or do… No matter what decisions you make in afterlife arrangements.. You’re going to feel alone. You’re going to make choices based on that. It’s for your own survival.