I have few regrets in my life. I have made some dumb decisions and said, and done, many things I wish I hadn't . But I do have one major regret. A decision that I would reverse in an instant with the benefit of hindsight and experience. It was the failure to attend the funeral of a dear friend's mother many years ago. I didn't attend because that would have required taking a day off work to travel to and from the funeral. Ironically, I have seldom been accused of an overdeveloped work ethic.
I did not really know the lady who died. But her daughter was, and is, a very close friend. Until the sudden death of my own mother I hadn't truly realised what funerals are all about. I thought they were mainly about the person who had died. But there is another major aspect to a funeral. It is about showing support and solidarity for those who are most bereaved by the death of a close loved one. It is being there for them when they most need others to show they care. It is to show them they are part of a network that feels their loss and wants to help alleviate some of the pain. It is a communal sharing of grief for those who remain.
I hated funerals as a young man. But I realise it was more fear than hate. A fear of a lack of control over my own emotions. A fear that I would betray my staunchness. That tears would well up and stream down my cheeks. That my face would display my emotions. That I was not hard and aloof and stoic in the face of grief and loss. What a dumbass.
I attended the funeral of a past student several years ago. He died of cancer at a young age. He was a student who had a big impact on me because he was a real battler with a great positive attitude. He was a person who stood out in uniqueness for a fantastic attitude, rather than natural ability.
The eulogies from his friends and family were heart-wrenching. The tears were streaming down my cheeks. But I realised that my colleagues around me were responding in kind. We were all deeply saddened. Our obsession with staunchness in our culture can sometimes take the form of the ridiculous. There is nothing wrong with displaying genuine grief and sadness. There is plenty wrong with pretending to deny genuine feelings. There is nothing wrong with genuine tears. There is plenty wrong in feigned emotional indifference.
I have attended many funerals in recent years. The generation ahead of me is passing. Many wonderful people who were a huge part of my youth. This is the natural cycle of life. As we age, death and loss become more familiar. In our youth we prefer to deny such realities. Death is for the aged who are somehow a different species. We prefer not to think that the frail and bent folk shuffling along the footpath on their frames may soon be us. The death of a young person feels an anomaly in the order of life.
I have come to appreciate the poignancy of such occasions as funerals. It is a rare chance to reflect on what is truly important in life. It is a chance to reflect on how inconsequential most frustrations and irritations actually are. The stresses and strains of work become irrelevant. Tiny, tiny eddies in the stream of life. I have lost my fear of funerals and my fear of my own emotional reaction. I have realised that using work commitments as a reason not to attend a funeral is a bizarre and sad inversion of values. It is not about revelling in misery or indulging in histrionics. It is about being there, as much for the living, as the dead.
We have a weird belief in male staunchness in New Zealand. That apparent emotional indifference in the face of grief and sadness somehow portrays strength and toughness. It is not about wearing your emotions on your sleeve. But it is about showing sadness when sadness abounds. We laugh heartily at great humour. We are quick to display anger. Aggression is often seen as manly. Yet displaying grief and sadness is often perceived as weakness. The lesson I have learned is to be present at funerals as much for others as for the deceased. And not to fear displaying grief.