I refolded my mascara smeared and soaked handkerchief. The melodic poetry. The organ music. The stories of love. The funeral of my friend was beautiful.
From weddings to funerals, sacred rituals bind us to our past. They remind us of our connectedness, of our shared joys and the shared heartbreak that no human escapes. Weddings remind me of weddings gone by— those I’ve attended, those I’ve officiated, and the two that were mine. But sitting in the packed pew on this Saturday, it was a funeral that opened my heart and carried it into my memory bank.
The life of a remarkable man was being honored this day—a loving father, devoted husband, and dedicated neuroscientist. I struggled to stay present, my mind returning to John’s funeral of five years ago this week when I was the eulogy-giving spouse.
I held my breath when the widower at the pulpit choked up. I fervently sang every verse of each hymn. I stared through the paned windows and focused my gaze on the dark green leaves shimmering against the September blue sky. Perhaps if I felt every feeling inside me, each one would elect to leave me, land on my handkerchief, and grant me relief.
As the service concluded and the trumpet blasted “When the Saints Go Marching In,” the mood of the morning lifted for a moment and slight smiles rippled through the rows of friends and family. The lump in my own throat had not yet resolved, and I avoided eye contact with fellow mourners as we filed out.
Were there any words of comfort that I could offer the one who had lost his great love? I wondered. After all, I was experienced at marriage endings. I had survived my second husband’s death and by this year I could boldly declare I was even thriving.
When a marriage ends, what words give solace? What is it that we long to hear? I remembered the emptiness and the inability to comprehend the multitude of losses for the one left behind. I remembered the hole of grief too deep and too wide to fill with any carefully constructed condolence of the moment.
I saved my would-be words of wisdom and offered him a cool drink as he made his way across the reception room. Focusing on a few minutes of wholehearted compassionate listening required no words at all.
What I might say down the road, when the wound is less raw and the pain less palpable, is that there will be days far in the future when you will weep as though the loss was yesterday. In the years ahead you will also discover that September will come again. And that in it you will find beauty, poetry, music, love. Mostly, you will find that you still have your heart, now broken open, still fully able to feel. And for that you will give thanks.