Ask a Grief Counselor

As you and your family begin the funeral planning, grief and mourning process, a number of questions will surface. Below we have included a number of frequently asked questions that may help you, but we encourage you to submit your own question to Dr. Wolfelt if you don’t see it listed here.

About Dr. Wolfelt

Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D., is a respected author and educator on the topic of grief. He presents workshops across the world to grieving families, funeral home staffs, hospice, clergy and other caregivers.

Dr. Wolfelt serves as director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition and is on the faculty of the University of Colorado Medical School’s Department of Family Medicine. He is also the author of many bestselling books, including Understanding Your Grief, The Mourner’s Book of Hope and Creating Meaningful Funeral Ceremonies.

The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Larry King Live Show and the NBC Today Show, among others, have relied on Dr. Wolfelt’s insightful commentary on grief.


Below you’ll find a number of questions about funerals and grief that grieving people often ask. Click to read grief counselor Dr. Alan Wolfelt’s answers. If you have a grief or funeral-related question that’s not yet answered on this site, we invite you to submit your question below.

One of the most important reasons for planning a meaningful funeral is that it helps you and your family focus your thoughts and feelings on something positive. The funeral encourages you to think about the person who died and explore the meaning of their life and the ways in which they touched the lives of others.

The remembering, reflecting and choices that take place in the planning and carrying out of the funeral service are often an important part of the process of grief and mourning. And ultimately, this process of contemplation and discovery creates a memorable and moving funeral experience for all who attend.

This is a question I get asked a lot! The answer is that no one “gets over” grief. Instead, it’s something we learn to integrate into our continued living. We never stop loving and missing those who die, right? That combination of loving and missing is our ongoing grief. If we do the hard work of experiencing and expressing our feelings as they arise, however, over time our acute grief does soften. Eventually it’s not the first thing we think of every morning. This can take months or years, depending on the closeness of the relationship.
The funeral home and its staff play a critical role in the planning and carrying out of a meaningful funeral. They are the people with the training and expertise you will rely on in the days leading up to the funeral. Their advice, compassion, attention to detail and willingness to personalize the ceremony will greatly influence your funeral experience.
Meaningful funerals are made up of different parts (music, readings, visitation/reception, eulogy/remembrance memories, symbols, procession, committal service and gathering ) that, when combined, make for an incredibly meaningful experience for you, your family and friends. Even among different faiths and cultures, funeral ceremonies throughout North America often include many of the same elements. Your faith or culture may have its own variations on the elements below, and you should be encouraged to follow them as you see fit.
Grief is everything you think and feel on the inside about the death. Those thoughts and feelings might change from day to day and even from minute to minute! Mourning means to express your thoughts and feelings, to communicate them in some way. Mourning includes crying, talking to others, writing in a journal, participating in a support group, and other things. Mourning is how, over time, you begin to heal.

The funeral service you plan should be as special as the life you will be remembering. Here are a few ideas:

  • Write a personalized obituary.
  • Create a column in the guest book for people to jot down a memory after they sign their name.
  • Display personal items and hobby items on a table at the visitation.
  • Show a DVD or slide show of the person’s life during the funeral.
  • Select flowers that were meaningful to the person who died.
  • Use a lot of music, especially if music was meaningful to the person who died or means something to your family.
  • At the funeral, invite people to write down a memory of the person who died. Appoint someone to gather and read the memories aloud.
  • Create a personalized grave marker.

Your family must choose not only the type of funeral service to hold but also what will happen to the body and where it will be laid to rest.

Embalming is how the funeral home temporarily preserves the body of the person who died so it can be viewed by the family. Embalming also allows a number of days to elapse before burial and cremation, thus giving family and friends time to prepare and gather for the funeral.

The body of the person who died is the most important symbol to include in the funeral service. Whether present in an open or unopened casket, the body serves as the emotional focus for mourners and helps them acknowledge and embrace their pain. When a body or cremated remains are buried or scattered, there is a “place” for families to go when they want to feel close to their loved one.

Families who have spent time with the body have said it has helped them come to terms with the death and begin to transition from life before the death to life after the death. Although it can be emotionally painful, time spent with the body is often helpful to many people.

Most of the rituals in our society focus on children. Unfortunately, the funeral ritual, whose purpose is to help mourners begin to heal, is often not seen as a ritual for kids. Too often, children are not included in the funeral because adults want to protect them.

Funerals are painful, but children have the same rights and privileges to participate in them as adults do.

Here are ways to appropriately include children:

  • Help explain the funeral to them – Tell children what will happen before, during and after the ceremony. Give as many specifics as they seem interested in hearing.
  • If the body will be viewed either at a visitation or at the funeral itself, let the child know this in advance. Explain what the casket and body will look like. If the body is to be cremated, explain what cremation means and what will happen to the cremated remains.
  • Find age-appropriate ways for children to take part in the funeral – grieving children feel included when they can share a favorite memory or read a special poem as part of the funeral. Shyer children can participate by lighting a candle or placing something special in the casket (a memento, a drawing, a letter or a photo).
  • Understand that children often need to accept their grief in doses, and that outward signs of grief may come and go. It is not unusual, for example, for children to want to roughhouse with their cousins during the visitation or play video games right after the funeral. Respect the child’s need to be a child during this extraordinarily difficult time.

One of the essential needs of mourning is remembering the person who died. Talking about memories, looking at photos and videos, going through memorabilia, and even using the name of the person who died all help us begin to convert our relationship with the person who died from one of presence to one of memory. What’s more, remembering the past makes hoping for the future possible.

But it’s also true that remembering can be bittersweet. Not all memories are happy ones, and even when they are, knowing that the person who played such an important role in those memories is no longer here can cause us pain. Try to remember that the pain of grief is a useful pain. Experiencing it fully, one dose at a time, helps the pain soften over time. Eventually the pain of remembering usually transforms into gratitude for all the good moments we were privileged to share.

Unless you’ve attended a number of funerals, you might feel unsure about what to say or how to act. Like other public ceremonies, such as graduations and weddings, funerals generally follow a certain protocol. The type of ceremony will depend on whether or not it is a religious service and if so, which religion or denomination. It will also depend on whether the body will be present, if it is a ceremony soon after the death or a memorial service weeks or months later, and if it will be formal or informal. If you’re unsure, ask a family member beforehand about what the service will be like.

The obituary or death notice notifies the community of the date, time, and location of the funeral and visitation, if any. A good rule of thumb is to dress as if you were attending a wedding in that same venue, though colors and patterns are usually more subdued. In general, funerals held in churches are more formal. It’s customary to bring a sympathy card with a personal note inscribed to the family. Memorial donations can be included inside the card, if appropriate.

Most of all, keep in mind that you are attending the funeral to honor the person who died and to show your support for the family and close friends. The most important thing is your presence. If you attend, you can rest assured that you are doing the right thing. Try to attend all the parts of this service, if possible, which may include visitation, the ceremony, the committal, and a reception. If you’re unsure what to say to the primary mourners, it’s fine just to say, “I’m so sorry.” It’s not that you have something to apologize for; it’s just that you’re sorry they’re having to go through this painful time. Try listening more than talking. Give the gift of your quiet empathy and understanding. If you have a good memory of the person who died that you can share, by all means, share it.  The reception after the funeral is often a time for telling stories.

When possible (and culturally appropriate), I always encourage families to spend time with the body of the person who died. Your family can have a private visitation only, or you can also have a public visitation, which gives community members the same chance to gather around the person who died. Over and over again families have told me that spending time with the body helped them come to terms with the death and begin to make the transition from life before the death to life after the death. Although it can be painful at first, time spent with the body is usually extremely healing in the long run.
Everyone’s grief and mourning are unique for a number of reasons. First, each person has a unique history and personality. Second, each person had a unique relationship with the person who died. And third, each person’s current life circumstances and challenges are unique. It’s normal for people to grieve and mourn differently. As long as you are not denying or avoiding your grief but instead feeling your feelings AND expressing them—whatever they are and however you need to—you are doing your necessary, unique work of moving toward healing.

Submit Your Question

If you don’t see your question above, we will do our best to get it answered. Complete the form below to ask a question to Dr. Wolfelt. We will respond directly to the email address that you provide.

Asked & Answered

When a Child Loses a Pet

Recently our family lost our dog. My 4 year old daughter was very close to him. We got him cremated and the ashes are in a sealed urn at our house. We plan to bury him when the ground thaws in spring. My daughter wants to keep Wyatt’s ashes in her bedroom with her so she can say hi, or give him a kiss, or whatever. This seems to bring her comfort. What I am wondering is, is this a healthy way for her to be dealing with the loss, or is it odd and creepy? Is it not allowing her to deal with the loss and move on?

What your daughter desires is very instinctive and natural to her. Children have a natural way of wanting to say hello on the path to goodbye. Be assured that this is in no way “odd or creepy.” Allowing her to have his ashes in the urn in her room will actually allow her to integrate this loss into her life. Again, it is her very instinctive way of saying hello on the path to goodbye. Kids are much better at being comfortable with this than adults. She is teaching you to move toward grief, not away from it. Sounds to me like you have a terrific daughter that is allowing herself to mourn openly and honestly. Now, you get to follow her lead.