Dear Dr. Troyer,
I’m a female funeral director in my mid-30s, and I have a terrible secret.
My mother died from uterine cancer when I was 12. When I saw my mother during the private family viewing, I didn’t cry. I can still remember exactly how she looked: the dress she was wearing, the pink carnations on her casket spray, everything. My father, older sister, and younger brother all cried as they looked at her in the casket.
I couldn’t stop thinking about how her death didn’t seem real. How I had lost my mother – who was also my best friend. I covered my face with my hands because I didn’t want my siblings or father to see that I wasn’t crying.
As a funeral director, I’ve helped countless families as they view their deceased loved one for the first time. I have seen first-hand that there are many different reactions: sobbing, a few tears, shock, and even a desire not to be in the same room as their loved one. I tell them that these reactions are all normal – but I can’t shake the guilt that I feel when I think about my own situation. I’m not sure I really believe that my reaction was OK.
Is it normal to not cry when viewing a loved one? Every time I think about it, I feel ashamed.
Let me be as clear as possible: Your lack of tears in no way reflects how you felt about your mother. Lack of tears does NOT mean that you loved your mother any less.
As you have seen in your professional role, people have a wide variety of reactions when viewing their deceased loved one. Some people cry. Others feel like they are stumbling through a bad nightmare – not sure if they are awake or dreaming. Some get angry, while others feel relief. Perhaps the most common reaction is experiencing a mixture of these reactions all at the same time. These are all normal reactions to an atypical situation.
After all, viewing a loved one is a powerful experience. For some people it is one the first moments they realize their loved one is truly dead. For others it is a reunion after not seeing their loved one for years. Some of your personal reaction may have to do with your individual grieving style. Part of it may simply be the shock that you felt as you saw your mother in that context.
I’m sure it is frustrating and painful that you can help others in this situation, yet feel guilty about your own reaction. Self-forgiveness is more easily said than done. It may be helpful to visit a place of significance such as your mother’s place of final rest; you can even talk with your mother about it (yes, that’s normal too). It may also be helpful to talk with a professional about your feelings of guilt. But let me assure you that your reaction is completely normal.
Disclosure & Disclaimer
“At a Loss” letters may be taken directly from an individual or may be compilations of several people’s experiences. Although I have a doctorate in counseling psychology, my responses should not be viewed as formal psychological advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The information on this site should not replace the advice of a mental health professional with whom you are working. Please seek the advice of a mental health or physical health professional if you are in crisis or are concerned about your mental or physical well-being.