I missed my best friend’s funeral, and I’m still not sure how to deal with death

In my freshman year of college, I got a memorable phone call from my mother. My high school best friend had gone missing, last seen venturing out flying in a small prop plane somewhere over South America. The plane was never found. No part of wreckage ever surfaced. I never watched Lost because of it. A month later, a funeral was held in my hometown and many of my friends all took a break from their respective colleges and made the journey home for a somber reunion. I didn’t go.

I never thought much about why I didn’t go and brushed it off, assuming it was just too complicated — too expensive for the plane ticket, too short of notice, too many papers to write. But a decade later, nothing has changed. I still don’t go to funerals. This year I’ve had more opportunities. My first love, another high school ghost, mysteriously passed away in his sleep. A neighbor, who taught me to drive a stick shift and went by the name of “Tiger,” passed on after a long tussle with cancer. Two more funerals missed and I didn’t even make the effort.

I’ve started to wrestle with the question. Why don’t I go to funerals? I realize it’s socially unacceptable and I’m often bombarded with the usual questions. “Don’t you want closure?” “Isn’t it important to be there for the family?” The subtle and passive aggressive comments soon follow. “I didn’t see you at the ceremony — I guess I thought you two were close.”

Attending a funeral is one of the most emotionally challenging things I’ve done while at the same time feeling hopelessly hollow and staged. It is a tedious social norm that is taboo to break, but unlike wearing white to a wedding or unbuttoning your pants after dinner in a restaurant, it’s not easily forgiven.

I know I’m not unique and no one loves a funeral. Why can’t I just suck it up and spend the two hours wearing black and uneasily signing the guest book like everybody else?

At the core, my issue is with the complicated politics of death. Western culture has not taught me to celebrate it. Horror movies and Six Feet Under have really removed any joy from the occasion. My religious background hammered home a concept of heaven or hell that left me feeling scared and unsure in the wake of every death, even through my dog’s recent passing. What’s more, I don’t even think I know how to fear death very well. All I know is how to ignore it and compartmentalize those who are living from those who are not. Death is isolating and removed, and I remove myself from being witness to it.

I am learning how to reconcile with death, slowly but surely. When I found out about my neighbor’s passing, I received a text from her partner of many, many years. He began by saying, “Good news!” He then explained how she left and rejoiced that she was free. This struck me at my core. He began a statement announcing his partner’s death with the exclamation, “Good news!” This is an understanding of death that I want to have.

I am still not certain that I can go to funerals. The social elements, norms, and taboos really do a number on me. But my own anxiety does not mean I love those close to me any less. I ask that funerals not be seen as the measure for how deeply I care for those lost. In time, I hope to understand and learn to appreciate the rituals we associate with death, but for now, there is a lot going on in my head. What I hope for is grace and empathy in my own space of mourning.

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