On laughing, crying, grieving and dying
Grieving and mourning are poignant things we have to live with, but avoid self-pity
(In memory of Peter George — cherished friend, staunch Hamiltonian, proud Canadian)
The Bible contains many expressions of grief and mourning.
None is more poignant than the words spoken by King David on hearing of the death of his son. “The King was shaken, he went up to the upper chamber of the stairway and wept, moaning these words as he went ‘My son Absalom! Oh my son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you! O Absalom, my son, my son.”
There is a difference between grief and grievance.
We need to keep them clear and far apart, or we shame the love we are honouring. To be ‘mad at god’ or other people; or to imagine that we are singled out for trouble; or to cling tenaciously to sorrow and blot out everything else is not genuine anguish, it is merely an occasion for indulging grievances. It confuses grief with self-pity. The poet Robert Frost wrote: “Out through the fields and woods, And over the walls I have wended, I have climbed the hills of view, And looked at the world, and descended, I have come by the highway home, And lo, it is ended, Ah, when to the heart of man, Was it ever less than a treason, To go with the drift of things, To yield with a grace to reason, And bow and accept the end, Of a love or a season?” D.H. Lawrence asserted: “Ah, if you want to live in peace on the face of the earth,
Then build your ship of death, in readiness,
For the longest journey, over the last of seas.”
In the memorable passage, opening his autobiography Speak Memory, Vladimir Nabokov wrote about the parallel between the time before we are born and the time after we die.
He told of someone fearful of time, a chronophobiac, who sees home movies of his family before he was born and is disturbed by the recognition that no one missed him. He sees his cradle, the one in which he would soon be rocked and sung to, and it bears to him, “the smug, encroaching air of a coffin.”
He added that the world existed before us and will exist after. But we are not horrified by the time before we were born, for that time was not first given and then snatched away.
It is the loss of what we have been given, not the objective state of death that we fear. Life is measured by what we have had the chance to grasp.
Jewish tradition suggests that visitors to a house of mourning, should not address the bereaved until first spoken to.
Words should be uttered when they are helpful and useful, not when they are apt to enhance a person’s sense of desolation or anger. I believe that holding one’s tongue is wise. Speech may be silver, but silence is golden.
One of the myths about loss is “that when you are grieving, there is never any joy, laughter or smiling,” according to George A. Bonanno, Chair of the Department of Clinical Psychology at Teacher’s College, Columbia University. He noted that in his interviews with the bereaved, people were crying one moment and laughing the next, after recalling a memory for example. There has been solid research that laughter connects us to other people, “It’s contagious and makes other people feel better,” he said.
Not long ago, a woman died who was both my close friend and cherished companion. At her funeral I read a poem that touched many hearts. I am pleased to share it with you.
“Music I heard with you was more than music,
And bread I broke with you was more than bread, Now that I am without you, all is desolate, All that was once so beautiful is dead. Your hands once touched this table and this silver,
And I have seen your fingers hold this glass,
These things do not remember you, beloved,
And yet your touch upon them will not pass.
For it was in my heart you moved among them,
And blessed them with your hands and with your eyes,
And in my heart they will remember always,
They knew you once, O beautiful and wise.”
•“Bread and Music” by Conrad Aiken (1889-1973)
Retired McMaster University President Peter George died April 27. Rabbi Bernard Baskin dedicates this essay to his memory.