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Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.
Essays and Blogs Concerning Mental and Emotional Health

A Funeral

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. Updated: Feb 2nd 2008

I went to a funeral today. My wife's grandmother passed in her 80s after a difficult illness. I am not a Catholic, but my wife's family is. The service was according to Catholic ritual and it was very moving.

Yesterday evening we attended a rosary; my first one where I was present for the prayer part. I knew intellectually about the power of the repetition of prayer but it was another thing to experience it directly. It was ... soothing. It also helped that the priest's voice was very mellow and gentle and non pressurized.

Funerals are always hard even when you did not know the person who died very well, mostly because you are around people who did and their grief is visceral. I did my best therapist routine ... meaning that I tried to give tissues to people who were crying and to be a shoulder for people who needed it. And when they cried, I started crying too for a little while.

The testimonials have great power. People are so moved by their loss. I've felt loss for my own loved ones at past funerals, but it is another thing to witness another's grief from a more detached perspective. One after another, family members spoke about their loss. It was deeply sad at first, but then the tide turned and people started sharing happier memories. It wasn't anything anyone said. I think the group just needed to have a break from the pain for a while. One cousin started to speak about how she was grateful to her aunt and uncle who had nursed grandmother through her illness and started to say what a burden it must have been for them ... and then quickly reversed herself as though it was taboo to have acknowledged that it was difficult to have cared for grandma. I'm not sure why but no one challenged her on that reversal. It was spoken and then it passed and I for some reason thought it was significant.

There was a viewing of the body this morning and more crying, and then a trip to the church for prayer, and finally the cemetery, more prayers, flowers passed out and one by one laid on the coffin before finally we said goodbye and went away. The whole thing is so scripted and I guess that is precisely what makes it powerful. The predictability of that ritual and the fervent belief and faith behind it; the promise that the ritual conveys. I am an outsider to this particular faith, but I feel its power when I'm around it and I react to it in complex ways.

Post funeral, a wake and then a gathering at the home where grandma raised her family. It was empty of furniture and occupied mostly by card tables and loaned coffee makers and a few air mattresses. Grandma was the social center of this particular family and it is uncertain how the family will reorganize itself now although certain that the family will do so in some manner. The mood was loving and hopeful sitting at those card tables in the empty house. I think it will work out. I'm trembling as I write this. It has been a long day.

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. was Director of Mental Help Net from 1999 to 2011. Presently, he is an Oakland Psychologist (Lic#PSY25695) in private practice offering evidence-based acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and addressing a range of life problems. Contact Dr. Dombeck by calling 510-900-5123, send Dr. Dombeck email or visit Dr. Dombeck's practice website for more information.

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