In a world filled with gadgets and apps, we sometimes forget the power of silence. The simplicity of merely being with another is in itself a source of comfort. As May Sarton writes, “Sometimes silence is the greatest sign of understanding and respect. It is far more consoling than words of false comfort.”
Children seem to know this better than adults. A story is told about a girl who went to visit the home of a neighbor where her little friend had died. When she returned, her father asked her why she went.
“To comfort her mother,” she told him. The father was incredulous and asked her what she could have done to console a woman who had suffered such a terrible loss.
“I climbed onto her lap and cried with her,” she said.
Rational appeals, sympathetic words or clichés could not have done as much as this innocent act. Whereas many adults think that they have to say the right word or try to distract the bereaved from thoughts of the departed, the girl knew that there was nothing that could be said. But that didn’t mean that nothing could be done. Sitting on the mother’s lap didn’t lessen the pain; it may have added to it. But it was an expression of caring and concern, a reaching out from the heart, a gesture of hope. It symbolized the continuation of life but did not diminish the anguish. The girl was right: grief genuinely shared is an important means of healing.
Yet we cannot avoid the truth that each death is experienced alone. Gerald Larue, the spiritual leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Los Angeles, writes about the death of his grandson who had not yet reached his second birthday. More than a year after the infant’s death, he said, “We cope in our individual way, and our coping mechanisms fluctuate. I cry often. I am angry – at whom or what I am not sure – but I am angry, for death has robbed me of someone who means so much to me. I am despondent and distant. I need closeness and warmth. I ache, I feel resigned. Moods and changes flow. I think I am in control now, but there are moments when I watch children at play at a recreational center and I feel sad and angry, for I will never be able to take my grandson there. I am flooded with mental images and the images bring pain and tears.
“Now, somehow, life goes on. The world spins on its axis, days fade into weeks, and weeks into months. Time will heal the wounds of loss, but the scars of separation remain and the memories of a beloved and loving child do not fade.
“Time is precious, but time is only valuable when it enhances and nourishes living. My grandson touched me, and I can never be the same again.”
The death of a loved one changes us forever. Never again will we be the same. But how it changes us is, in part, a choice. We can either be shattered by the experience or find ourselves annealed, like iron smelted in a furnace to make it stronger when cooled. We can think of the world as a place where always an infant is being born.
Someone once said that when she thinks of the world she is saddened because she knows that at that very moment snow is falling furiously. Her friend responded that when he thinks of the world he knows that somewhere at that very moment there is dawn break.