I Didn’t Cry at the Funeral – and I Feel So Guilty

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Barbara’s 20 year-old daughter died in a car accident 3 years ago, but there was one painful memory that she continued to think about on a daily basis.

Her daughter’s death had been a terrible shock, and she vividly remembered following the funeral director into a private room to see her daughter for the first time. Her husband immediately began crying – but Barbara didn’t. The entire experience felt like she was floating through a nightmare. Some details – like the dress her daughter was wearing and the color of her nail polish – were burned into her memory. But Barbara could not remember how long she stood by the casket or what she said.

She didn’t cry at the funeral either.

Barbara remembered wondering what other people must think about a mother who doesn’t cry at her own daughter’s funeral. It wasn’t until she went to her daughter’s gravesite alone 3 months later that Barbara felt the tears rolling down her face.

Now it was three years later and she was sharing the memory (and her feelings of guilt) with her counselor. It had taken 3 months of seeing her therapist before Barbara could muster the courage to reveal her guilt about not crying earlier. Even though she felt comfortable with her therapist, Barbara still worried about whether she would be viewed as a callous and uncaring mother. Thankfully, Barbara’s therapist helped her understand 2 important facts:

  1. There are many reasons why people don’t cry in response to a loss
  2. A person’s grief behaviors don’t necessarily indicate the closeness of the relationship

Let’s review several reasons why bereaved individuals may not cry when faced with the loss of a loved one or during funeral rituals. 

1) You’re in Shock

Shock is one of the most common and normal reactions to the loss of a loved one — especially when the loss is unexpected. You may experience numbness or a sense of walking through a nightmare. As with Barbara, feelings of sadness and crying may only surface after the sense of shock has passed. Shock is a normal reaction, but can be problematic if it last too long.

2) You’re Taking Care of Others

There are so many details and tasks to take care of after the death of a loved one. Perhaps you are the oldest child or surviving spouse and most of the decisions are up to you. This may include planning the funeral as well as other financial and legal matters. Or maybe you are trying to care for other family members who are having an especially hard time with the loss. Whatever the reason, it is possible to focus so much on all of the tasks and responsibilities that you don’t have an opportunity to express your grief.

3) You’re Trying to be a ‘Strong’ Example for Others

You may assume that you need to hold your grief in because you need to be strong for other people. This is a common response for parents or other adults who don’t want to show their grief in front of children. Unfortunately, children copy the adults and may learn the lesson that they should not express their grief. It’s OK to grieve (including crying) in front of children. You may choose not to express every thought or emotion around children, but please teach them that it is OK to express their grief.

4) You’ve Convinced Yourself the Loss Isn’t Painful

Grieving is painful and can often cause you to feel out of control – and no one likes to feel that way. You may think it is easier to attempt to convince yourself that the deceased wasn’t important or that their loss doesn’t affect you. It is better to acknowledge your loved one’s role in your life and the pain that results from their death. This acknowledgement may involve crying … but it may not.

Your loved one may have even planted this seed. They may have made statements like, “Don’t waste your tears on me,” or “You should just throw a party!” This is one form of “Disenfranchised Grief” – which is when you are told that you don’t have a right to grieve a loss.  The truth is that it is natural to grieve when we are separated (physically and emotionally) from those we love. We may be relieved that they are no longer in pain, but that doesn’t change the fact that we want to be with the people we love and death prohibits that.

5) Crying Doesn’t Fit Your Grieving Style

I’m a big fan of Ken Doka and Terry Martin’s descriptions of different styles of grieving. Based on their work, some individuals grieve through thinking and acting (“Instrumental Grieving”) instead of through the expression of emotion (“Intuitive Grieving”). Instrumental grievers are less likely to express their grief through crying – but would express it in other ways.

6) You Weren’t Connected to the Deceased

As I mentioned, grief is a natural response to being separated (physically and emotionally) from our loved ones. But many people become disconnected from family members before death. For example, your parent may have been absent, abusive, destructive, and a source of pain in your life. To survive and heal you may have needed to cut ties with that parent. And I suspect that you went through some grief when you cut those ties (e.g. grief that your parent couldn’t be a part of your life, grief that your parent wasn’t like other parents, grief that life isn’t fair, etc.). Consequently, when that parent dies you may feel little or no grief. For you the disconnection had already occurred and there wasn’t any relationship left to grieve.

There are many reasons why you may not cry or grieve the way you think you should – especially immediately after a loss. I hope that you recognize that you aren’t unusual or uncaring simply because you didn’t cry. There are many different and healthy ways to express your grief – and it’s never too late to start.  

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