Dear Prudence

Help! I Never Got to Properly Mourn My Father’s Death.

In We’re Prudence, Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. The answer is available only for Slate Plus members.

A woman looks sad next to a funeral urn.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by ArnaPhoto/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Valeriy_G/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

Every week on Twitter @jdesmondharris, Dear Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. She’ll post her final thoughts on the matter on Fridays. Here’s this week’s dilemma and answer:

Dear Prudence,

My father died after a long, tortuous illness in March 2020 just as COVID happened. I had frankly been holding on until he was gone to release that pent-up grief and pain via the “normal” rituals of funeral and burial. But we couldn’t have those, and for reasons that are inexplicable to me, my mom and siblings chose a two-sentence obituary when that was all we had to honor him publicly.

I need to mourn, I need the ritual. But I don’t know how to do it so far past his death. I can’t be the only reader of yours dealing with this issue—how did they honor their loved ones? How did they create a space for healing?

— Grief Is a Fanny Pack

Dear Grief Is a Fanny Pack,

You are absolutely right that you’re not alone. When I shared your letter on Twitter, several readers replied to say that they’d also lost loved ones at the height of the pandemic and had to find an alternative to traditional mourning traditions. These people and others had some great advice for you.

First please rest assured that there’s no deadline to have an event to honor your father. It wouldn’t be wrong or weird or inappropriate or even unusual to organize an event a few years later:

There’s no statute of limitations on grief; they did what they had the bandwidth for at the time back in 2020 but memorial services can happen at any time. If the reader feels the need for more expressive ritual, they can coordinate a memorial celebration of life now. — @NzingaTT

“My dad’s little sister was killed in an accident, age 5. My grandma was too traumatized to hold a funeral or even mark her grave & my dad & other siblings were confused & sad. We bought a gravestone & held a memorial service almost 60 years later. Do whatever you need to.”@kcIMT122

June 2020. We’re having a party and spreading his ashes in one of his favorite places this summer. — @DanielleAlberti

I’m a hospice chaplain. I see similar situations often. No judgment for the family who didn’t choose to do much, although I think the letter writer’s outlook is ultimately healthier. But there’s no statute of limitations for a funeral or memorial service. — @travisegreene

If you do want to plan something now, or for this summer, or next year, do it. Despite the time that’s passed, it still might feel overwhelming. So if you need help, ask.

If the deceased was on hospice there may be resources there they can access, either for bereavement support or ritual planning. Or if they’re connected to a church, synagogue, etc. Get creative, enlist friends, play favorite music or read from sacred texts, novels, whatever.

— @travisegreene

I thankfully haven’t been in this position, but would be deeply honored if a friend came to me with this problem and asked me to help throw an event to honor their loved one. Lean on your friends! — @SaraLang

And remember, an event to honor your father doesn’t have to be a traditional memorial service. It can be as large or small, as public or private, as you want it to be:

My advice is to have your own personal little memorial service for him. Either on his birthday, or a day that was special to the pair of you. Eat favorite foods, watch favorite movies, or go someplace he loved to go. You don’t have to have a service to celebrate his life. — @B26127913

My grandpa died in Jan 2020 and we never got to have a funeral for him. My aunt planned a family lunch at one of his favorite places last year—everyone flew in for it and treated it like a low-key memorial service. We shared stories, gave speeches, cried, hugged. Then this year, my grandpa’s adult kids went to his favorite beach to spread his ashes & reminisce on their childhood. It worked for us because my grandma had the little involvement she wanted (still full of grief), & we got to have something to mark our grief, too. So my suggestion is to think beyond something formal or traditional. The LW should think of something or somewhere their father loved, and do something to honor him there (read a poem, sit there and cry). Or find a time to pull the family together for a meal and share stories. — @jslattx3

In Judaism a candle is lit on the anniversary and burns until it burns out. Yahrzeit candles burn for 24 full hours but since LW isn’t Jewish you can do it with any candle and I personally find it to be a very cathartic ritual. — @HurricaneMomo

Some cultures/religions have a type of memorial service at specific points after death, 40 days, 1 year, etc. Have a memorial service and invite those close to you to participate. You can even just have it in your home. — @MirjanaBalta

Final note: You say “I need to mourn” but I thought @CleverWhatever was very wise to point out, “You’re already mourning. You have been mourning. We’re enculturated to think that grief is only legible when it happens in prescribed ways. But your grief is now and has been and will continue to be valid.” So don’t feel as if you’ve wasted the past few years or somehow fallen behind. Also, someone who replied privately encouraged me to remind you that there may have been a very practical reason for the short obit. Those things can be expensive. Like really expensive. So the two-sentence one your mom and sister put together wasn’t necessarily a decision based in a shortage of care or respect. That said, if it wasn’t enough for you, that’s totally valid, and I hope you feel empowered to honor your dad’s memory now, a year from now, and for many years in the future.