Book Review: When We Must Say Farewell

Jul 22, 2011 | 0 comments

When We Must Say Farewell, a book by funeral director Karl E. Jennings, provides great insights on the power of funeral rituals to heal grief. This slim volume, subtitled, “Rethinking why and how we live by the way we say farewell to those we love,” introduces Acute Loss Management (ALM) to thanatology (death studies).

Jennings, who is also co-founder of the Healing Farewell Centers of America, posits that seven phases of loss create a foundation for a healthy grieving experience. He breaks the ALM process down into overlapping steps that address emotional needs (Hearing, Sharing, Seeing), relational needs (Gathering, Connecting) and spiritual needs (Reflecting, Celebrating). These reactions to a death are most effective when undertaken within the first 10 days after hearing the news.

Jennings writes beautifully of his own experiences with life and death, both as an individual and as a funeral director. He has seen many people who don’t allow themselves to fully grieve and process the loss. They don’t want to deal with death – but on the other side of the coin, they don’t deal well with life.

“Wanting to get this over with is not something that will happen in a one hour meeting, three days of funeral ritual, or one solid month of wishing it was over. You get over it by not going around it, but by going through it; and anyone who tells you otherwise doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” writes Jennings.

“When we neglect the dead, we are at the same time sending a message to the living that they don’t matter that much either. When we fail to allow ourselves to be confronted with the final reality of life, we also fail to provide a context for the significance of love, forgiveness, joy, peace, pleasure, happiness, sadness, and hatred. Hate in the face of death is exposed for the shallow self-centeredness it often is.”

While I don’t necessarily agree that viewing the body is a requirement for effective emotional healing, Jennings makes many good points about funerals:

  • Physical engagement of the dead is the moment when the spirit made flesh becomes the flesh made spirit. One will never last; the other can never be destroyed.
  • A funeral should be an instrument of healing for the living, not a veiled attempt by the dead to settle a score.
  • Attending a funeral, we convey with our willingness to be with someone in the darkest hours of their lives says, without use of words, they are loved and their loss matters.
  • Transience and a lack of community connection results in little if any ritual at the time of death. Those who have deep roots in their community must include them in their healing process.
  • When we find meaning in our shared loss, we are comforted because we know we are not alone.
  • The painful journey of reflecting on our losses are a path to enlightenment. Losses are actually gifts in disguise that will be with us forever.
  • Loss is made meaningful when it affirms life.

When We Must Say Farewell offers important insights about the grieving process and the seven steps toward wholeness. The book provides compelling reasons for holding a ritual to say goodbye to those we love – and for dysfunctional families who have complicated issues with their deceased as well.

Congratulations to Karl Jennings on a valuable contribution to the discussion. You can find out more at

A Good Goodbye