How Do You Grieve When You Can’t Attend the Funeral or Participate in Rituals?

Janna Kontzby Janna Kontz, MDiv

William Kent Krueger writes in “Ordinary Grace:”

“I had been to visitations before and have been to many since and I’ve come to understand that there’s a good deal of value in the ritual accompanying death. It’s hard to say goodbye and almost impossible to accomplish this alone and ritual is the railing we hold to, all of us together, that keeps us upright and connected until the worst is past.”

Grieving the death of a special person in our lives is one of the most difficult of human experiences. Within that difficult experience, we rely on the sympathy, empathy and closeness of family and friends. We can only lean into our grief by allowing others to hold us upright.

What happens when our closest circle of support is not able to gather?

What happens when the important ritual of a funeral, memorial service and burial can’t take place because of distance, illness or other unexpected circumstances? How does that affect grief?

Grief becomes much more internalized when we are unable to share with others. Loneliness often accompanies grief when we are unable to gather with our circle of support. Our loneliness can double and triple because we are unable to experience the physical comfort of others, such as hugs, hand holding and a sincere look into our eyes. These comforts are what help connect us as human beings and process our feelings.

The closeness of others is so important. It can be jarring for both the grieving person and for the support person if these things are unable to happen.

If we can’t be physically “present,” what can we do to help ease the pain?

If we can have any kind of ritual, we should do it. This may include a small intimate service of less than 10 people. It might look like a visitation with only the closest family members.

There was a family who could only gather at the funeral home in a small group. Others who couldn’t attend the funeral, went to the cemetery and painted the casket of their loved one with acrylic paints. By the time they were finished, the once simple box was covered with favorite scripture, quotes and pictures. It was an unusual but very healing ritual for them.

Others have had drive-up visitation where friends line up in their cars outside the funeral home and greet family through their open windows. Funerals can be streamed live on YouTube, Skype, FaceTime, Zoom or other online services.

Priests, pastors, rabbis, imams and other leaders are typically open to these different ways of participating in ritual because they want people to be able to support each other and grieve in the most helpful way.

How can a support person help?

If you are a support person for the grieving person, show up. There may be times when we can’t physically show up, but we can show up in other ways, including phone calls, texts and letter writing. 

Create a reminder for yourself to contact the person again. It could include another phone call or a text message every morning. You could be the difference between depression and healing for the grieving individual. It may be a little more work on your end, but it matters for the person to know you are there during their time of need.

If you are having difficulty coping with your grief, we can help. Hospice of the Red River Valley grief specialists are ready to help you through this painful time. You don’t have to grieve alone. Call (800) 237-4629 and ask to speak to someone in the grief support department.

Janna Kontz is a grief specialist with Hospice of the Red River Valley.

About Hospice of the Red River Valley
In 1981, Hospice of the Red River Valley was founded on the belief that everyone deserves access to high-quality end-of-life care. We fulfill our nonprofit mission by providing medical, emotional, personal and spiritual care, as well as grief support to our patients, their families and caregivers during a tender time in life. Our staff helps those we serve experience more meaningful moments through exceptional hospice care, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, wherever a patient calls home. The organization serves more than 40,000 square miles in North Dakota and Minnesota, including in and around Bismarck, Detroit Lakes, Devils Lake, Fargo, Fergus Falls, Grand Forks, Lisbon, Thief River Falls, Valley City and many more communities. Hospice of the Red River Valley offers round-the-clock availability via phone, prompt response times and same-day admissions, including evenings, weekends and holidays. Contact us anytime at 800-237-4629 or


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