Our society is uncomfortable with dealing with death so we abandon the grief stricken.
This terrible reality was brought home to me when I helped a young couple deal with the loss of their stillborn daughter. After the funeral they were alone. Neither the funeral home nor the funeral celebrant had the resources to support them as they needed. They looked to Sands but it has almost no funding and there weren’t enough people to justify a group in their area. According the Sands’ website, there is only one support group in NSW it “is currently on hold until mid-year.”
So the couple was left to cope without the support of societal rites and customs to help them grieve.
As part of my funeral photography service, I offer a funeral book. A funeral book contains photos from the day of the funeral and can also include anything that the family wish to remember the person by including poems, eulogies and tributes. I think funeral books are really important because they are a tangible way of remembering someone, perhaps the only tangible way given our society has dispensed with graves, headstones and even the ashes on the mantelpiece. Normally I design the book, the family make changes and generally the book is finished within a month or two after the funeral. For some families I’ve noticed helping design the book is a way of dealing with their grief. However, after five months I became concerned the couple was overwhelmed with finalising the book because they wanted it not only perfect but also because they equated finalising the book with closing the brief chapter of their baby girl.
So I reached out to the couple. The wife replied “Every time I have sat down to this task, it has stirred a lot of difficult emotions. It has been a most difficult journey of healing and procrastination. I had really wished to have a more hands on role in putting this book together”.
So I granted the wife’s wish. I sat down with them in my studio and over the course of a day we modified the layout and design of the book. A photo swapped here. A photo enlarged there. It was the right thing to do but I felt sad that I, a photographer, fulfilled a role that should have been there from the outset for anyone as they start their journey of loss and learn to live with their grief.
As a society we need help, support and rituals in place to enable us to grieve alone, if we so wish, or with others. Given we are such a visual society perhaps we need to update our toolkit for dealing with grief to include designing a funeral book?
I have not included any photos from the funeral as I don’t have the couple’s consent. Maybe one day I will ask for it so the book can help other young couples dealing with a stillbirth.
Once their book was finished, I asked the couple what they they thought about my service. Their response meant a lot to me:
“It has been therapeutic to go through the book and have so many memories of the funeral, at least for us. J and I were discussing just yesterday how we could see that for some people it would be easier to pretend nothing had ever happened and how that might hurt less for some people.