Dealing with the scars left by the rituals of death

Funerals tend to take on a life of their own. There are the expected initial arrangements to transport the body of the deceased to the funeral home or whatever other institution is supposed to handle it.

Then comes the notification of relatives and friends about the death, the meeting with the funeral home about the particulars of burial vessel and service, the flowers, and the arrangements for a reception after the service.

Finally, the more difficult family details of choosing clothes for the deceased; photos for the gallery; memorabilia specific to the person who died; writing the obituary and deciding on its accompanying photo; travel and lodging arrangements for close family and friends; food; and so much more.

You have to be on your toes to not miss the important details, family and friend connections, and particulars of the service. Theoretically.

I say that because when my husband Jim died of pancreatic cancer in 2010, the whole thing just kind of happened, as far as my memory is concerned. I had wonderful friends and family who lifted me up and carried me through those few awful days of death and funeral and burial and reception.

A longtime dear friend left her life temporarily to stay with me and guide me through those first days.

I have brief memories of particulars, but a greater sense of blur. The time in my life when I needed to be my sharpest to handle such important details, I was a mess, robotically going through the motions of breathing and walking and trying to focus, and pretending to have a handle on what was going on around me.

I was clueless. Heck, I still am about many of the details. But one memory that is crystal clear to me is opening my newspaper and seeing Jim’s obituary glaring back at me. It was devastating in a way I never could have imagined.


Somehow seeing the obituary in black and white made Jim’s death real to me in a way it hadn’t been up to that point.

My career — and Jim’s for that matter — has been in newspapers. As a journalism pup, I took dictation of obituaries from funeral homes over the telephone when I first started my newspaper career. The purpose and function of an obituary is not a foreign concept to me.

But seeing Jim’s published obituary — even though I basically wrote it, submitted it, proofread it and expected it — changed me.

I have read obituaries in the newspaper since I started reading newspapers as a child. It was a way to find out about community connections, and to be able to mark in my memory who was no longer with us and who might be alone. I would listen to my mother remark on this one or that one who now would have a more difficult time getting by, and hear her make plans to help with a visit or food or some other human kindness. It was a small community. We helped each other.

Then I read my brother’s and mother’s obituaries in the newspaper — their deaths were six years apart — and people in our small community rallied to support us each time. I was still a child, forced into growing up fast.

Those obituaries were difficult for me to see, but I was younger and perhaps more resilient, and their presence did not change my reading habits. But seeing Jim’s obituary stopped me in my tracks.

I don’t look at the published obituaries often now. I don’t want to risk what I am afraid I will see — whether it’s there or not — and that’s Jim’s obituary. I know I’m being a little ridiculous about it, but I seem unable to change my response.

My funeral problems stem way beyond the written page. This “phobia” has caused me to miss many funerals I should have attended since Jim’s death; unable to make myself sit through someone else’s ritual send off and to bear such a large collection of grief.

Jim’s funeral was really beautiful, yet the finality it represented of his physical presence leaving me has scarred me in a way that is making it difficult for me to recover myself.

Each funeral that comes up is an exercise in torment. There are a couple I’ve attended that were family obligation and unavoidable on my part, but if I truly have a choice, I avoid them.

It feels so wrong on some level because I know attending someone’s funeral is a final act of love and respect, and definitely support for the ones who are left behind, yet I seem powerless to do other than I am. I cannot face those rituals and potential emotions right now.

Soon after Jim died, I told myself I couldn’t face other people’s funerals because it was all too raw for me; now I don’t want to be reminded of where I have been as I begin to rebuild myself. Regardless of the excuse I rely on, the bottom line is that I just cannot make myself do it.

That part of me is still broken.

It’s not a reflection on how I feel about the person who has died or the people he or she has left behind. It has nothing to do with any of them. It has to do with me and how deeply I was affected by Jim’s death and funeral process. The closer the people who have died are to me, the worse I am about it.

This has come up now for me because there seem to be a lot of funerals lately for people I’ve known a long time. As each one comes up, I tell myself I will make an effort to participate as a mourner; to go to the place where friends and family gather to mark the end of another worthwhile life. Yet, each time, I fail in my quest.

The latest one was a longtime friend of Jim’s.

Even as I deal with the guilt of not being able to fully face these funeral demons, I am making progress. At least I can articulate it in this journal of widowhood. But I have a long way to go to reach healing.


Julie Harris

About Julie Harris

As a longtime employee of Bangor Daily News, I have served many roles over the years, but I now have a dream job as Community Editor. I live in Hermon with my four Brittany dogs: Sassy, Bullet, Thistle and Quincy, who keep me busy in various dog sports. I was widowed at age 51 when my husband, Jim, died of pancreatic cancer.