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A Survivor Coping with the Grief Triggers of a Funeral.

by Matt Pappas

I went back and forth in my head about whether to write about this topic. Ultimately I decided that not writing about it would be doing a disservice to my feelings, and the opportunity to validate others. It’s not an easy thing to talk about, or write about, this topic of the death of loved one and how triggering it can be. Understanding grief triggers is very important and validating those feelings is equally important.

Going to a funeral for someone who has been in your life for a long time, can cause a plethora of emotions to rise up quickly and all converge at once. So on top of already feeling sadness at the loss of someone you loved and cared about, you now have triggers piling on left and right.

As if you weren’t already overwhelmed, now the past makes things even worse.

For that matter, even if someone passes who we weren’t all that close too, the rush of emotions can still be very strong. The feelings of loss, abandonment, sadness, and loneliness can be just as strong regardless of the circumstances. These feelings and emotions are all very common in the life of a survivor of abuse.

I recently attended the funeral of my ex-father in law. A guy who I had known for almost twenty years.  Even though I have not been officially part of his family for several years now since the marriage ended between his oldest daughter and myself, I’ve always thought very highly of him. He was like a second father to me. He asked about me regularly and always wished me the best; there were no hard feelings or ill will after the divorce.

I would stop by from time to time so my youngest son could see his “Happy” (that’s was his nickname for his grandpa), and we would always chat for a bit, recalling past times with fondness. Sharing laughs, talking about work, just shooting the breeze, he was a kind man who always enjoyed the simple art of talking with people. He was also one of those good guys who would do anything for anybody, and took pride in living a very simple life, wanting only for his kids and family to be taken care of and happy.

He was diagnosed with lung cancer in April 2016 and left this earth in March of 2017. I knew the funeral would be tough, but I had to go.

I prepared myself ahead of time by doing some self-care, taking a couple of days off work, and validating my emotions andbe kind to yourself when grief triggers hit - quote- surviving my past feelings as best I could. As a survivor it’s always important to do that; sit with your feelings and not minimize or push them aside. Embrace what your mind brings up, allowing yourself to “feel our feels”, to be angry, to cry, to remember good times and rough times, whatever happens to come up.

As the service went on, each of his children, now all grown up, took turns sharing memories of their dad. Many of those memories were times that I was part of that family. I internally recalled a good many of my own that weren’t mentioned too, and that’s when the triggers really began to hit.

I’ve written before about how trauma is cumulative, it builds on itself, and this is another example of that. Memories of the abuse, both sexual and narcissistic, compounded with the feelings of abandonment, and loneliness hit me like a freight train.  I was recalling how I felt as a child being abused, how I felt as a middle schooler being bullied, and the invalidation at home. Most of all though it was that intense feeling of loneliness; like trying to put one more block on the tower and have it come crashing down.

Watching my ex-wife with her new husband and family. Watching the family that I was once a part of, all coming together to comfort each other. Others around me in the chairs, sitting with their spouses or family members, it was nearly unbearable. Sure I still get along with his daughters and they still consider me family, but something was different now, very different. An uneasy feeling that up until this point I had not really dealt with, but that was changing in a big way right in front of my eyes that afternoon.

Pinterest Grief Quotes

As the service began to come to a close, his only son, who is an amazing violinist, played “Amazing Grace” and “In the arms of an Angel”.  I held it together pretty well considering, but I could feel a meltdown coming on and the triggers of the past continued to be relentless. This is one of those times when anxiety tries to leverage every bit of strength it can muster, trying to use my vulnerability against me and exploit it.

After the service, we all stayed around for a while talking. I hung out with my youngest son and caught up with some people I hadn’t seen in years. I knew there was a gathering planned back at his house, with food and desserts, and I seriously began debating on whether I should attend. My son then asked me to go, and I said I would stay for just a little bit so I could be there for him. I knew in my heart what was coming and I was preparing myself to deal with it as best I could and still be kind to myself at the same time.

 

On the way over to the house, I began to put a plan together in my head of how I would handle this situation. It wasn’t that I was nervous about being around those people, most of them I had known for a long time, but again things were different now.

  • I made sure not to pull in the driveway, I parked on the side of the road so I wouldn’t get parked in when I knew I had to leave.
  • I engaged in small talk with the people there but kept my distance a bit. I was feeling out-of-place as it was and knew I wouldn’t last long anyway.
  • Rather than eating the food that was there, I politely declined, and just sipped on a drink. I wasn’t feeling very hungry anyway, and I needed to allow myself the ability to slip out as soon as I was ready.
  • I played with the cats and the dog for a bit. Animals are great for helping to calm nerves and trying to relax. This also allowed me to blend in and not draw too much attention to myself.
  • I tried not to focus on the memories of the house I spent so many years at, opting instead to focus on some mindful breathing and taking short trips outside for fresh air. Even though it was raining, I used that to my advantage as well; listening to rain drops hit the pavement, the trees, and taking in the smells of a spring rain. Being fully present in my surroundings was key.

When I knew I had enough, and the triggers were just too much to bear, I gave my son a hug and quietly slipped out the back door. It felt like an eternity walking to my car, even though it was only about 20 yards from the house. I closed the door and drove away, knowing that I did the best I could.

I can’t really say if/when anyone asked about me afterI left, but I would imagine at least someone did. After all, I will always consider his kids to be a part of my family, even if things are different now for me.  On the drive home I listened to a podcast, remembered some verses that I recall in times of sorrow, and did my best to validate all of my feelings.

I spent the evening with my older two kids and shared some laughs along with dinner. I’m glad they were there that evening to help brighten my spirits a bit.  The emotions were still present but their intensity began to subside as the hours ticked by and the day came to an end.

So here I sit, finishing up these thoughts about triggers, survivors, and funerals. I’m hoping this post speaks to you in some way, perhaps gives you some things to consider using if you are confronted with a similar situation, or just validates you if “you’ve been there before”.

I spent the weekend relaxing, writing, and doing some things that I enjoy and taking care to not shame myself for the emotional onslaught I endured throughout the past week. I’ll carry on, life goes on, but things are different now.

If you’d like more information on working through grief, check out my free eBook for Abuse Survivors – Download your copy of Surviving Grief. 

-Matt

Pictures courtesy of Pixabay. Social media images created by Matt Pappas.

 

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5 comments

Barbara Joy Hansen May 3, 2017 - 4:35 pm

Dear Matt, first of all I want to commend you for being willing to put your thoughts on paper to share with us. I also want to offer my condonlences. When I first read what you wrote I said to myself, WOW! Reading what you wrote brought lots of conflicting thoughts as you can imagine. I thought about when a grandfather that had molested me for years died at age 101, I had decided years before I got the phone call from my mother that I would never be able to attend his funeral. She didn’t ask me why & I had not yet told her what he had done to me. So until I began to pen my book, Listen to the Cry of the Child, those thoughts & hidden shame was kept dormant like a mouse hidden & stinking under the rug! When my father in law took his own life, we were all in shock! I only saw my husband cry once & for decades he was unable to talk about it until recently with his family. Then, when I got the phone call from my husband when I was attending a prison conference in Louisiania that my mother went to be in Heaven I wept! She & I were so very close & I didn’t know how I could exist without her? When I came home a couple days later I was unconsolable. After her memorial service, I began grieving deeply with sounds coming out of me I had never made that my husband didn’t know what to do with me so he called my brother, a therapist. His advice was to allow me to grieve, hold me & just love me. My dad went to be with my mother a year later. Now I felt like an orphan. But then I thought about the wonderful years & memories they gave me as loving parents & over the years as they aged the pain they went through, I realized I wouldn’t want them to come back on earth because Heaven was where you felt no pain & your tears are gone. I also remembered that Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died & that no one processes through the stages of grief in the same order or at the same pace as someone else. A grief denied is a grief unhealed. God carries us through the storms helping us to survive when it would otherwise be impossible for us to function under the emotional roller coaster of grief. So I want to thank you for pushing through & attending your father in law’s funeral & being there for your son, his grandpa. When we grieve, we join Him in lamenting beauty that has been brokoen & we anticipate the day when we will all be restored.

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Matt May 8, 2017 - 12:08 pm

Thank you so much Barb. You too are such an inspiration. The work you are doing both in the US and abroad in support of survivors and those who have been endured other traumatic hardships is amazing and inspiring. Thank you also for the encouragement and support of this post, it was indeed a very rough experience in ways that I hadn’t initially anticipated but I learned a lot about myself through it.

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Barbara Joy Hansen May 8, 2017 - 2:45 pm

Im.glad we can be an encouragement to one another! Only a survivor can fully understand another. It’s kinda like speaking anotyer language. Putting one foot in front of the other & moving forward is a huge learning process! I’m so thankful I’m not stuck anymore, Matt & that we both have courage to move beyond abuse! I know that my book as well as my Beauty Out of Ashes Support would be of great help to you & those who are following us. Some of us are just a little ahead of the other which is good because we can lead the way for the other survivor.

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Matt May 8, 2017 - 3:23 pm

You are so right Barb, we both definitely get where each other is coming from and I understand the impact of your work and how important it is to not only you but to so many who need it. One day at a time! 🙂 I’m so looking forward to scheduling a podcast with you to talk about your trip, your book, and the amazing work you do for survivors everywhere.

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Brenda Yuen August 16, 2017 - 6:41 pm

Hi Matt,
I can so relate to this topic. The funerals of both of my parents were nightmares for several reasons, and I was triggered at my mother’s because of the attendance of a family abuser, and the neighborhood abuser. My siblings and mom’s side of the family were also triggered because they knew about the family abuser and were part of one of those dysfunctional family “secrets” that almost everyone knew, but no one ever talked about. I sought support from my siblings and my father, only to be shutdown, shamed, and silenced. During the three years between my mother’s death and my father’s, I sought counseling and began to understand what the dynamics were in my own family system. When my father died, despite the fact that I’d told the family abuser I would out him if he showed up again (I just wanted to grieve the death of my parents without all the abuse circus taking over…), the family abuser once again was forced upon me. I was able to handle it better (thanks to therapy), but I could not believe my family could treat me as they did (they all sat on one side of the chapel, leaving me and my family alone on the other, as if we were diseased; one of my sisters called me a bitch when they took me into the family room to belittle me for asking the family abuser to leave; going to my sister’s house following the funeral was a nightmare because no one spoke to me…my husband texted to me asking me “is this how it’s going to be?” so we gathered up and left. Thank god I have no more parents to lose, but no matter: my family shuns me and tomorrow is the seventh anniversary of that shunning! It’s kind of interesting, given that the abuser has suffered no ill effects from my family, but the fact that I spoke up and shared my feelings? Completely unacceptable. I think funerals are landmines for survivors. There is so much triggering, denial, coercion, and displaced anger that survivors really need to be mindful before they ever walk in the door! Having gone through the experience twice now, I feel like it’s a special interest of mine and I think it’s so important and even VITAL to discuss. Thanks for bringing this topic up — it’s too important to dismiss.

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