July 18, 2022

Death and Emotional Labor

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

Since the pandemic started in 2020, I have “attended” three funerals online, two for elderly relatives who had cancer and one for the elderly father of a friend who had Alzheimer’s disease. Being thousands of miles away, the online option saved me the time and expense of making last-minute travel arrangements. I appreciated the privacy of watching the funerals alone, as I can get emotionally overwhelmed by other people appearing emotionally overwhelmed.

Of course, this is part of what the funeral ritual is for: to comfort the bereaved, and to be in a place where one can openly express sadness. In most social settings, there are unwritten rules that encourage us to stifle any impulse to weep uncontrollably. Typically, we try and hold back sobs and tears whenever possible. At a funeral such rules are loosened, but they still exist. This reflects Erving Goffman’s notion that we work to “regulate… face-to-face interaction” in his book Behavior in Public Places (p. 8).

Being alone, I didn’t need to manage my emotions—which might include appearing sufficiently sad—nor did I have to dress in a way expected for a funeral. As Goffman details when discussing appearance, “failure to present oneself to a gathering…is likely to be taken as a sign of some kind of disregard for the setting and its participants” (pp.25-26). Put simply, I could grieve without performing much emotional labor. Working to manage our emotions is one form of emotional labor we often do in social situations and at work to behave in ways that are socially appropriate.

Death requires emotional labor, a type of work that is often invisible, and varies based on relationships. A surviving elderly spouse might need a great deal of emotional support from their children, if they have them. They in turn also have their own grief to manage and might receive support from their spouses and children if they have them. Friends and more distant relatives have different roles in this process still, and it is sometimes hard to know how to best perform these roles.

I recall the first funeral I attended when I was a teen and one of my grandparents died. The family was seated separately from the rest of the attendees, perhaps to let us grieve in privacy. We were all quiet and somber, trying to hold it together. A friend of my grandmother’s entered the space wailing and sobbing, which felt very disruptive. Family members were then tasked with helping this woman deal with her grief, instead of the other way around.

Also, when a person appears to be in their final days, some people might hope to come to say goodbye, but this can be overwhelming for someone who might be coming in and out of consciousness. Close family members might not want to receive guests, even if these “guests” are family members or friends. It can be overwhelming to be tasked with helping visitors deal with their emotions and add to the emotional labor of the dying person and their family members.

This work begins when a person is told that they are terminally ill, an experience so eloquently described by Peter Kaufman as his own death approached:

People in my situation know that death and dying make for uncomfortable social interactions that most of us, myself included, would rather avoid. If the tables were turned and I had to chat with an acquaintance who had been diagnosed with a fatal illness, I can’t say I would act any differently. Most of us have never been taught the language to converse comfortably with someone who is dying. Small talk can be hard enough—coming up with innocuous comments to say to someone you know may soon pass away is downright unnerving. 

What to say is difficult, so we often revert to cliches, or attempt to come up with something to say that comforts the family. But words almost always fall short.

I confess to being somewhat relieved when offers to visit my dying relative were politely declined. Not knowing what to say to the person and their closest family members made me anxious, but I wanted to show my care and support. Offering to bring food seemed to be enough for my cousins. Sending texts with heart emojis seemed like very little, but one cousin told me how much it meant just knowing I was thinking of them during a difficult time. The heart texts didn’t include questions or seek anything in return, not even a response.

By contrast, someone who might insist upon seeing the person may put the immediate family in an awkward position. In the case of one family member, the hospital only allowed a small number of guests at a time and she had several children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. A distant relative demanded to see her one last time and was politely rebuffed, as it would have pushed out the opportunity of a closer relative to be with her. She was not conscious during the last few days, and the only visitors were her children, who wanted to experience their mother’s passage from life in private.

Because relationships between people are often complicated, dealing with loss creates ongoing emotional labor. Guilt for things done or not done, anger about past hurts, and ongoing grief can create ongoing work for both the bereaved and the people within their support system. And because people deal with loss differently, what provides comfort for one person might not for another.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) COVID tracker, more than one million Americans have died from COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. This leaves many more millions dealing with the emotional work of grief, loss, and support for friends and family left behind. And yet we hardly talk about this social process.

Understanding death through the lens of emotional labor helps us understand that is process is ongoing and impacts far more than just survivors, but the friends, family, and acquaintances around those who try and provide comfort for the living.


There may be intense emotional responses. Anxiety attacks, persistent weariness, depression, and suicidal thoughts are a few of these effects. Another typical response to death is an obsession with the deceased.

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