Musings on Grief and Comfort

“Words fail me.” This saying has proven true several times in my life, usually when confronted with an extreme emotion—particularly grief.

Grief is Universal

Grief is a primal and universal emotion—it has existed for all of mankind’s history, in every corner of the Earth. Some cultures still invoke grief rituals involving keening or wailing or rending of garments, and sometimes I think these are the truest demonstrations of an emotion that comes from our deepest selves and predates our use of words.

Yet we do use words to express grief. It may seem strange that as a writer I find words oddly fragile in the face of this emotion. We say things like “I’m sorry for your loss” and “My condolences”,  and we mean them with all of our being. They are only a pale reflection of what we want to express, yet we understand them to speak much more than the flimsy words convey, and accept the true depth of feeling behind the words.

Grieving is Specific

While grief itself is universal, the process of grieving is specific to the individual. Some people grieve openly and loudly; some crawl away and sob in the dark. Some throw themselves deeper into living; others withdraw from life. Some need to talk their grief away; others hold it deep inside. Some need the comfort of people around them; others need quiet to find peace. Some recover from grief quickly; others wrestle for many years. There is no one right way to grieve—each person must make the journey through grief in their own way.

Comfort is also found in places unique to the individual. Some find it in the arms of others, while some find it in the solitude of nature. Some find it in the bustle of life, while others find it in the stillness of home. Some find it in religion, others in memories of loved ones, still others in music or art. I know in times of grief I take comfort in a frenzy of organizing and cleaning, a metaphorical attempt to regain a sense of control and make sense of my inner turmoil.

Grief is for the Living

One truism of grief is that funerals are not for the dead—they are for the living. We cannot truly mourn the deceased. After all, we would not mourn their life—since we loved them—yet we also cannot mourn their death, either. Almost everyone, whether you believe in an afterlife or believe there is nothing after death, will agree that the departed person is beyond the reach of pain, suffering, and the other cares of this world. So we gather not to mourn them, but to mourn the light that no longer shines in our life, to seek ways to fill the hole where our loved one used to be. Grief is for the living, and funeral services are where those of us left behind begin to find comfort and healing.

I saw many expressions of both grief and comfort this past week at a relative’s funeral, but there is one that has etched itself indelibly on my soul.

After the funeral service, we adjourned to a rural mountain cemetery, one of those places where the sky meets the earth and heaven seems but a step away from where you stand. We gathered around the grave as generations of mourners had done before us on that peaceful hill. The preacher began to sing. I don’t remember the words, but they are irrelevant, for just as grief is from a time before words, so is comfort.

The preacher’s strong, raspy voice rolled across the cemetery, washing grief away and flinging it defiantly to the sky and the hills. And the mountains caught our grief and echoed comfort back to us, as the ancient earth assured us that the deepest stab of grief is temporary, while the powerful bond of our love is eternal.

A place where grief finds peace




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