The Elephant in the Room
February 19, 2019
As a Pastor and Certified Celebrant, I have encountered many families plunged into a river of grief. Sitting with them,I feel the depth of their loss and pain. My purpose for being with them is two-fold: To bring some level of comfort and reassurance; to facilitate the family’s desire to paint a verbal portrait of the deceased, preparing me to celebrate their life story during the memorial service. The goal is to honor their loved one and help the family process their grief. I am privileged to be invited into their lives.
The years I have spent with grieving families have revealed this basic truth: Dysfunction IS the new normal! Every family is normal until you get to know them and has some level of dysfunction.It is amazing the way a funeral can unearth a deeply rooted family mess,exposing the “elephant in the room”.I have encountered family meetings where people did not speak to each other.The worst meetings are those stifled by tension filled silence, where dagger glances replace spoken communication.
On one occasion, a family member became so agitated over the choice of burial site that he abruptly stood up to leave and knocked a display item off the shelf, breaking as it hit the floor. The three other family members were in mutual agreement on a burial site. I had to gently remind the man that he could not make this all about him. When he left, the family apologized for him and thanked me for saying what needed to be said. When the elephant left the room, the atmosphere cleared, and much progress was made.
I want to highlight a family I served where the strained relationships were obvious to family and friends. With the guidance and permission of a family member, I concluded that the funeral service would provide an opportunity to tactfully speak to family dynamic. In doing so, I tenderly and lovingly reminded those in attendance of the need for healing by embracing these concepts:
The deceased was a complex man. His imposing six feet six-inch frame carried a strong-willed military bearing. Though very gifted, he was insistent that his way was the right way. This rigidity obviously negatively impacted the family. There were many sides to this man. I used the analogy that all of us have multiple sides. Some of us are triangles, some are rectangles,and some are octagons. The deceased was indeed, an octagon. And one’s opinion of this man depended upon the angle you encountered. A friend of the family described him as “an acquired taste.”
Complicated Relationships… Plus…The Messiness of Grief…
Grief magnifies complicated relationships. This man was divorced and remarried and had become estranged from his children. So, when arrangements involved expenses and logistics, the latent anger and resentment inevitably surfaced. Even the issue of who should receive the Military Honors flag was contested. I have discovered that the pain of grief will bring unhealthy relationships to the forefront. Hurts are uncovered and scabs are scraped off. And all of this happened before the memorial service, which made the tension before and during the service palpable.
Complicated Relationships Plus The Messiness of Grief Equals…The Need for Healing!
The funeral or memorial service can be the catalyst for positive change. As the Director of Aftercare, I meet with people in need of working through their grief in the context of family dysfunction.
It has become clear to me that death really can bring life. Broken relationships can be repaired. Bridges can and should be rebuilt.
The sad truth is that the passing of someone with an octagonal personality can usher in peace. Families are often held captive by those who thrive on conflict and divisiveness. Their death can release the family from a toxic environment to experience a rebirth of mutual acceptance and respect. Sadly, while the family rediscovers harmony, the “elephant in the room” will require a large casket.
Greg Webber has served as Pastor to churches in Kentucky,Michigan and Virginia. He serves as The Director of Aftercare, Certified Celebrant and Trained Survivor of Suicide Support Group Facilitator for Morrissett Funeral & Cremation Service