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Friday, June 27, 2008

Words of Comfort, Words of Grief

This morning I attended the unveiling of my aunt's headstone. It has been almost a year since my aunt passed away, and yet at her graveside today, I felt the pain of her loss as if it were brand new. Her conspicuous absence has changed the shape of my family, and though we have pulled tighter together in many ways, in others we have come apart.

However, the unveiling ceremony, a traditional Jewish ceremony, is sometimes considered a marker for the end of the mourning period. So this morning we honored her memory once more with a small service, and for me, the only respite from the sadness was to lose myself in admiration of beautiful language:
Our days are as grass;
We flourish as a flower in the field.
The wind passes over it and it is gone.
And where it grew is no longer known.
- Psalm 103, Verses 15-17
Ultimately, what I remember when I think of her funeral is not the words that were spoken, either in religious prayer or in honor of her memory, but of the friends who stood by me and stood by my family.

But language and traditions are a funny thing. Maybe we say I'm so sorry for your loss because we don't know what else to say, but we also say it because we are sorry. I often find myself at a loss for words at funerals. Because sometimes words just aren't enough or they just aren't right.

In my last writing class, one of the stories presented was about one sibling informing another that their mother was ill with terminal cancer. A few times within the story, the sister would repeat to the brother, "Mom's dying!" That dialogue, in its many repeated forms, spawned an interesting discussion in the workshop about whether or not people ever use the words "die" or "death" when discussing a loved one. These words seem to hold a certain terrifying power in the context of those we care about. We lower our voices to whisper them over phone lines, and rarely meet someone's eye when we're mumbling them out.

George Carlin, who died last Sunday, said "I’m getting old. And it’s OK. Because thanks to our fear of death in this country I won’t have to die — I’ll ‘pass away.’ Or I’ll ‘expire,’ like a magazine subscription."

Here's hoping we're all signed up for one of those magazine subscriptions that keeps showing up on our doorsteps long after we've stopped paying.


Sven said...

crap, now I feel all awkward about the dead body in a funeral home remark I made earlier. Ahh well. I remember the rush of emotions when I saw my dad's headstone for the first time, about a year after his death. Here's to hoping it'll be there every time.

You know who said...


Incredible reflection, my friend.

Thank you for sharing.

Anonymous said...

The Jewish custom of the unveiling has always seemed a important one to me, one that as a staunch practicer of nothing I find incredibly touching. Grief is a strange thing because it's a living, changing entity. Marking the passing a year later honors this process as well as the loved one. It also allows you an opportunity to be a bit profound. You, my friend, are profound. I'm glad to have read this.

Justin said...

I'm sorry I couldn't be there with you, but it sounds like you're handling it as well as you can.
Best wishes Steph.

stu said...

It is kind of strange how little many modern societies think about death. Philip Aries wrote a lot on it, and was convinced that modern death is hidden away.

Good post.