My earliest associations with funerals were confusing and resulted in fear and pain. I learned that if there was a funeral involved, I was going to lose someone and I wasn’t going to feel very good about it. Just being alive and doing regular life stuff like school and family were complicated enough.


By Holly Herring

It’s impossible for me to believe that my grandmother would have even thought about putting me to bed with chocolate on my face.

Grandma was the sort of woman who boiled my shoelaces until they were sanitary.  My first memory regarding death and funerals was about my grandmother being accused of this very act. Thinking back, I am not shocked that I developed a fear of attending funerals. 

When I was very young, just turning three, my grandfather died. My grandparents were divorced which meant Grandma got to watch me while the rest of the family attended Grandpa’s funeral. I had discovered the joy of the neighborhood swingset and my Grandmother decided to take me there while my mother attended my Grandfather’s funeral. I was enjoying watching the other children swing high in the sky and I even attempted to help them by pushing. This resulted in my tiny self getting hit smack on the mouth by an older kid in a rapidly descending swing. 

My mother returned home late from the funeral and she came to check on me, napping in my bed. That’s when she saw what she assumed was chocolate all over my face. It was actually dried blood from being hit by the swing. Getting socked in the face is my earliest childhood funeral association. 

The next funeral event I remember was about the time I was six or seven years old.

I used to play with a particular classmate at lunch. She was my favorite because she would play the terrifying game of Perfection with me. Perfection was that high anxiety game of putting these shape pieces in the correct slots on a battery powered board and hitting “STOP” before the game timed out and shape pieces would explode out of the board.

My playmate went home from school one day complaining of a headache and never returned. She experienced a brain aneurysm and died. I couldn’t be sure if it was our many stressful matches of Perfection that did it. I convinced my mother to take me to her funeral where I apologized to her family for playing Perfection so much that it killed her. 

My earliest associations with funerals were confusing and resulted in fear and pain. I learned that if there was a funeral involved, I was going to lose someone and I wasn’t going to feel very good about it. Just being alive and doing regular life stuff like school and family were complicated enough.

I decided death wasn’t for me.

If you’ll recall from my previous writings, I had a really bad year several years back. It was the year that I learned never to tell myself “at least it can’t get any worse,” because yes—yes, it always can and always did. I had a good friend in my life then, however. During the first half of that year he was upright and breathing. This guy was that friend you always want when you are in crisis. He could handle anything…

…except a motorcycle crash. 

There was a funeral, of sorts, to celebrate the memory of my friend on a beach one night. The group of us who needed to band together, tightly, in remembrance piled in cars together and arrived around eleven one evening at a beach in a residential area with no lighting. I was recovering from orthopedic surgery and rode piggy-back on a friend’s back to cross the sand to our resting spot.

I recall looking around at the others from my spot in the dark and feeling very alone, suddenly. All of these people around me were people I knew, but I did not enjoy their company or trust them with my life, like I did with my dead friend. That evening after I went to bed I decided I no longer wanted to be associated with any of the other funeral goers. I cut myself off from them completely after that night on the beach. 

That year, having the negative impact on me that it did, became closely associated with my dear friend passing away and the separation from my social group all at once. Again, a funeral had left a very bad taste in my mouth. 

Death among people I knew ramped up after that. I cannot tell you how many of my friends and associates died in the handful of years since but it’s more than the number of fingers on my two hands. I had to stop counting after a while because the emotional turmoil was too great.

I could not bring myself to attend a single funeral.

Recently, I had a friend who passed away. He was far too young and the circumstances of his death were upsetting at best—he was well loved and cared for by many. Friends had talked to me about the remembrance that was about to take place for him and I told my friends I would not go. They persisted, assuring me it would be light and I would be among good people who wouldn’t let me hurt alone and unattended. 

Somehow, I decided to go.

It was crazy to think I was going to finally break through my fear and celebrate the life of someone I had known. I felt proud of myself. I had selected something nice to wear and I made sure to eat well that day and mentally prepare. I knew what time I needed to leave to get there on time. I sat down on the couch and I watched the clock. 

There I sat, watching that clock as it ticked right on past the time I needed to leave.

I watched it tick past the time the celebration began. I watched it tick past midnight. Then I changed into my pajamas and went to bed. I could not make myself get off that couch and go to that service. 

Recently a woman I knew passed away suddenly. She had been on the couch watching a Lakers game on TV with her roommate. Her roommate described her sitting on the couch with her eyes closed and her hands together, as if in prayer during the commercial at the half-way point during the game. He got up to do a couple things around the house. When he returned to the living room he said that she was sitting in the exact same fashion. He put his hand on her face and she was cold. She was three years older than me. 

Yesterday the family of my friend held a celebration of life in her honor. I knew it was approaching. I ran into her son, also my friend, the day before the celebration and he locked eyes with me when he asked “You are coming tomorrow, right? I can count on you?” A million thoughts paralyzed my mouth but I saw the look of importance in his eyes and I nodded my head “yes.”

In all honesty I knew I nodded my head in the affirmative but my feet were already moving backwards to decline. I was fully prepared to let that family down. I didn’t like it, but I knew what would happen. 

The day of the service I continuously willed my body to move forward and prepare for this service knowing I would likely sit in my car staring at it from across the street.

I borrowed a purple scarf from a friend, I got my nails painted to match, I brushed my teeth really well. I was presentable and, in theory, ready to attend this thing. I drove to the venue, circled the parking lot, panicked, sat outside and looked in. I felt my body ready to flee. 

Someone handed me a lanyard with a photo of my dead friend and a typed saying she had. I looked at it while hearing the reggae music calling from the doorway. My friend was smiling at me in the photo on the lanyard with an arm around her grandchild. 

“Never say goodbye. Goodbye is final. That’s why I always say ‘See you later’.” -AM

I walked through the doorway and sat, panic running through me like electricity touching every hair follicle. I sat near the back door and my mind was a racehorse. I was uncomfortable in my chair, I started to sweat, there were so many unfamiliar faces all around me. I wasn’t sure how much more of this I could take. 

It was then that two gentlemen that I knew came and sat with me. That sounds really supportive and nice but it only made it worse for me. A full blown panic attack began. My heart raced and my eyes began to tear up. I was really to bolt and I reached for my purse before standing. I seemed to be crawling out of my own skin and it felt horrible. I was suffering. And then it hit me.

My suffering was not worth suffering for.

If I have learned anything about my anxiety it is that grounding is what I need to give me a safe landing in present day reality, which is actually a really safe place to be a majority of the time. I give presentations on grounding at work, I teach people different grounding techniques they can use during an interview or other stressful moment. If I was a preacher, I’d probably preach coping and grounding in the moment.

So, come on Physician….heal thyself already for crying out loud.

I reached out for an ice cold bottle of water as if my life depended on it. In my head I listed five things I could see, four things I could feel, three things I could hear, two things I could smell, and one thing I could taste. I took a couple deep breaths, sipped some ice cold water and had a good look around at where I was. 

Suddenly, I found myself in the moment.

The moment wasn’t scary at all. My suffering had definitely not been worth suffering for. People were dressed in Islander patterns and saying how nice it was to see each other. The DJ donated his time and was smiling. There were happy photos all around and my friend who died was smiling at me in all of them. 

I remained at this celebration of life for almost three hours. I talked with friends, I smiled at old family photos, and I lived from one moment to the next looking for the happiness in each one.

And wouldn’t you know, I found it at a funeral. 



Photo: Pixabay

Editor: Dana Gornall



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Holly Herring
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