The First 24 Hours of Grief

The First 24 Hours of Grief: Information You Really Don’t Want

When we face the loss of a loved one, we feel lost and alone. No matter how many loved ones we have around us, how supportive they are, nor how many times we have been down this road, we feel a loss that seems surreal. We might wonder if this is just a bad dream. It is for such a time that I write this. Thus, we have the subtitle, Information You Really Don’t Want. I hope this may help guide you during a time when you don’t know what to do next. You have some serious decisions to make, if you and your loved one have done some funeral pre-planning, you are ahead.

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Please take this as what I intend it to be…suggestions…not written in concrete, but that you can print on paper if you need. I have been involved in planning a lot of funerals, and have seen some decisions that turned out better than others. I offer this as suggestions from a friend.

Some of you will have support from family, friends, church, and such. Some of you have had the chance to come together and will be mutually supportive. Others will find themselves on emotional pins and needles planning a Memorial or Funeral with near strangers. Over the years I have seen families come together for each other, and I’ve seen a few families come apart. Some experience divisions that last for many years.

If your loss happens in a hospital setting, you should be allowed an hour or so with your loved one to say goodbye, or whatever you need to say. If there are some things left unsaid, it won’t get any easier, and perhaps a quiet private place in the hospital is a good place.

If your loss has happened in a Nursing Home, a Hospice Residence or in your home under the care of a good hospice company, they should allow you and your family to take as long as you need. If that is the case, I hope they have also helped you prepare yourself for this moment, and are very likely to be at your side right now. Depending on the state and county, the coroner’s office might have to come. Please don’t feel like you’re being interrogated or under suspicion. Because of the world we live in, these people have their job to do.

The next hurdle will be the selection of a funeral home. In the case of an unexpected death the authorities (county coroner) might require an autopsy. If that is the case, your decision of a funeral home might be delayed a few days.

You will need to rely on a Funeral Director who might have been a stranger until now. Most Funeral Directors that I have met are very caring individuals.

The choice of a funeral home for your loved one should be yours. Many people choose the funeral home based on who took care of another loved one. It’s okay to ask. Ask friends, family members, and ask why they would choose the funeral home they mention. If you have a few days to prepare and think about this, it’s okay to call and “shop for prices” if you need to. Though some might take exception to this, it will be a considerable expense for some…and it’s okay to shop if you need or want to do so.

My brother shopped for our Mom’s funeral services. She had always shopped. I’ve seen Mom spend more on gasoline than she saved, driving to the next town to buy a bag of sugar, or flour that was on sale.We felt that it would have been a great disrespect for her if we had not shopped!

Mom had not pre-planned her funeral, she didn’t do funerals well. In fact, she was not emotionally able to attend her father’s funeral, nor my father’s…her husband of almost 50 years. My sisters went shopping for Mom and bought her a new dress…that was good for them, and she would have liked what they picked out for her, and the fact that they shopped together. The hairdresser who fixed her hair in the Nursing Home the last couple of years of Mom’s life asked permission to fix her hair in the Funeral Home…one last gift for Mom. We liked that, Mom would have, and I believe it helped her hairdresser say goodbye in her own way.

Let me mention here that cremation is becoming more popular, in our area, in recent years. The cost may be one of the primary reasons for that. Direct cremation (within hours to a day or so after the death) is the least expensive. A memorial can then be conducted at the location and time of your choosing. Funerals can also be done, after embalming, with cremation following. I might also add that generally speaking, the difference between a funeral and a memorial service is the presence of the body. It is called a funeral service when the body is present, a memorial service if the body is not present. I write about the pros and cons of cremation in a different article.

If you choose direct cremation, keep in mind that unless special arrangements are made, when the funeral home picks up the body of your loved one, that is the last time you will see him or her.

We asked for a brief viewing in the hospital for one of my wife’s brothers, and she gives me permission to share this. His death was unexpected. My wife and her brothers and sisters, and his wife were not prepared for his sudden death. We chose direct cremation primarily for financial reasons. I hope that we were as mentally prepared as we could be for the way that their youngest brother would look that day outside the hospital morgue. It was not pretty, but those of us who chose to see him that way felt a closure that I don’t believe would have been possible any other way. Closure is a strange word to me, if I ever get it figured out… I hope to write on that. But I think we felt closure that day. Some of us wanted and asked for that brief viewing, others chose not to, and we were all okay with both. The next week we had several good pictures of him at the church where we mourned his death and remembered his life at his Memorial Services. We didn’t allow that last sight of him to be our last memory of Stanley.

If I were standing beside you walking through this with you, I might say something like this. “This is about your loved one, but it is for you. Please do what you need to do in your grieving process. The funeral or memorial is for you.”

Whether traditional funeral and burial, funeral then cremation, or direct cremation is your choice, the usual procedure is to meet the Funeral Director at the Funeral Home later that day or the following day to finalize plans. If your loved one has pre-planned their funeral, you will want to have those wishes with you when you meet. If you are having a funeral you will probably need to take the clothing your loved one will wear, including underwear, socks, shoes…whatever you think he will look most comfortable in. If you have too much difficulty with selecting the clothing, a family member may be willing to help, or the Funeral Director can help. Sometimes the funeral director will ask for a recent picture, so they can get their appearance just right. If you have chosen your funeral director well, he/she will become your best friend during this time together.

Also, videos are usually offered by the funeral home. You take the pictures that they will scan to make a video for your viewing as well as for family members who might not be able to be present. Sometimes a family member is computer savvy enough to do a wonderful job with a Power Point or similar presentation, and would love to do so.

If your loved one was a member of the Armed Forces of the United States, they have earned the right to military honors at their funeral or memorial. Some Veterans groups organize an Honor Guard to provide as much or as little honors as the family desires. They can sometimes provide a chaplain to conduct a portion or all the service. A 21 gun salute is sometimes done. A flag to cover the casket can then be folded with military precision and presented to the next of kin. Your Funeral Director can help you contact the proper military personnel for the flag and for military honors. Taps is another honor that may be offered, usually electronically. There is also an organization called Bugles Across America that offers volunteers who play taps live with a bugle or trumpet for Veterans funerals and memorials. You may find information about that at www.buglesacrossamerica.org if you are interested.

Who gets to choose? I hope this paragraph is not needed in your family, but there are some decisions that must be made. I hope that either you are together in your decisions, or will choose to lay aside all differences and come together for each other in the coming weeks and months. In most states the decision making order goes something like this: if there is a legal spouse he/she gets to choose, if there is no spouse the children(of legal age) choose, then parents, then siblings (usually the majority rules in case of sibling disagreement). Whew…I sure hope I don’t get in the middle of something with this paragraph!

Hopefully, I have given you enough suggestions for the first 24 hours or so. Let me now encourage you to have a family meeting. One of you will become a natural spokesperson and may use the Funeral Pre-Planning form that follows to guide the group through the process of making difficult decisions that we all wish we didn’t have to make. One of you will turn into the scribe to write down appropriate information.

Let me encourage you in one more thing. Have the funeral or memorial. I realize that it is hard…no that is an understatement. Funerals and Memorials are very hard. It is my observation that, though your grieving has already started, the Funeral or Memorial can move you farther down the journey than giving in to denial and deciding to not have anything. I’ve heard too many people in grief support groups regret that they had nothing.

At the same time, I defend your right to do whatever you have to do in order to survive the day. If that means an extra-large quantity of tissues, sitting in the back and refusing to look at the body, even to skipping the services altogether like Mom did. You have the right and I am giving you permission to do whatever you have to do in order to survive the day. This might seem unusual…telling you that you should have the funeral, and then saying that you don’t have to go. There’s just something about knowing that there was no service to attend that seems to linger and cause more difficulty further down the road.

I sum this up this sharing one more personal experience. I was at a funeral for a family member. The first thing the preacher said was, “I know that none of us want to be here today.” I think I understand his sentiment, but I wanted to say out loud, “There is no other place I want to be today. Here beside my family as they grieve is where I want to be.” While I sometimes wish that grief didn’t hurt so much, the only way through grief is to grieve. I want to be there with and for my family and my friends during times just like that one. Yes, preacher, I wanted to be there.