Q: A good friend took a selfie with her deceased father (someone I knew and loved), then shared it with us at a bar later. How should I respond when a photo of a deceased person is waved in front of my nose as casually as a vacation shot?
Hmm. Like you, I would find that to be a very interesting choice. It would be hard for me not to have a visceral response, even if it wasn’t verbal. I would be thinking, “Really? That’s not appropriate, and I would never take a funeral selfie with a member of my own family. What are you thinking?”
That would be my personal response. But it’s in my professional training to reserve judgment and seek understanding. So, here’s what my professional side says.
First, I have to acknowledge that this behavior is partly a product of how we live our lives today. We are run by phone alerts, capturing images and sharing moments via our devices. There are people who record funerals on cellphones now, to reflect on them later themselves or with others. It may feel like taking a funeral selfie isn't much different from hiring a professional videographer, because everyone is a photographer or videographer now.
Second, let’s recognize that this girl has just lost someone really significant to her, and she’s doing whatever she can do to relieve the pain. She may not care what everyone at the bar thinks.Behaviors happen for a reason. We don’t always know what a person has endured leading up to a death. We all experience a moment in time where we snap for some reason, and if other people witness it, it’s not always pretty. Also, anyone who has been through it knows that there is some relief in death, particularly for caregivers after a long illness. People experiencing that relief may act out in seemingly odd ways.
On a deeper level, our instinct is to preserve and protect ourselves, so this could be her protective mechanism. It might be like people who laugh when they are nervous. It doesn’t make any sense because the moment isn’t funny, but that's their coping mechanism. If your instincts tell you that’s what she’s doing then I would not even address the behavior, but instead check in with her to ask how she’s feeling.
Or maybe she has a reason behind her actions. You say you knew her father, but do you know the full nature of her relationship with him? Maybe he jokingly told her when he died to take a funeral selfie. Maybe he just had a weird sense of humor and she’s reflecting that in her own way. I went to one funeral where everyone wore a Hawaiian shirt because the deceased wore those his whole life. But if you walked into the funeral without that context you would feel it was totally inappropriate.
Ultimately how she chooses to celebrate or mourn her relationship with her father is up to her. But if you are close to her, and concerned about how others perceive her actions, you may be feeling the protective urge to help her out.
If you have a close relationship then you might reach out with a gentle redirection. I mean, if it were my sister or cousin I would pull her aside afterwards and say, “Stop with the photos. It’s not cool, not everyone is getting it.”
If you aren’t that close, you could instead try saying something more tactful to her privately like, “The way people around you are perceiving this is different from what you might be wanting.” Use it as an opportunity to help her see another perspective. It could help her create a better way of sharing that moment.
The greatest way to change someone’s behavior is not to tell them they are wrong, but to give them options so they don’t feel they need to defend themselves. Create a dialogue that invites her to share her thinking. And also remember that a death is like a wedding - no matter what someone does, others will have a different (and likely fairly strong opinion) about what they should have done.