L ife brings a stream of things that are bright and beautiful and alive. What bliss life can be. It can contain moments of delight and exhilaration. There are its dear little joys and familiar trivialities that involve so much to cherish and be thankful for. On the other hand, St. Thomas More said: “The world is a prison, and everyone is under sentence of death and liable to torture along the way” (A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation). So many tears, so many fears.
The earth is also a land of grief and partings, of mourning. The Preacher of Ecclesiastes had it right: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die… a time to dance, and a time to mourn.” Sorrow, especially bereavement, finds all of us. Death is the great enemy of love and happiness. If you love, you will grieve. Catherine of Siena said “he that grows in love grows in grief.” Job stated that “days of grief have gripped me” (Job 30:1). There is the suffering that inevitably touches all human love. Life is inherently tragic.
The Roman writer Petronius (27-66 AD), regarded as one of the first novelists (Satyrica), wrote: “Let us live then while it goes well with us, until there comes for us the days of mourning.” Bereavement is a universal part of the experience of love.
When someone has suffered the terrible loss of a beloved spouse, one can notice how the light has gone out in the person’s eyes, and how the person has aged. The grief involves the pain of knowing life will never be the same; everything becomes undone. There is the agony of being alone and afraid. There’s the fear of the future.
My wife has been dead for 22 years. After she died, there was the sudden silence, the aching absence. I had to work at trying to feel not so alone. I felt so exiled; lost my confidence.
Like other bereaved men, I’m spending the rest of my life trying to adjust to the reality of her death. We don’t outlive our grief. The sorrow doesn’t slip from one as a temporary burden. Time can’t heal all wounds. Time only passes. For me, the Great Sadness gave way to the unrelenting melancholy.
My strongest wish was and is that I could just walk about with her and look at things. How sweet it was to feel the light touch of her dress and the warmth of her arm—never lonely, never alone. Since my wife’s death I’ve prayed mostly to her.
When I go to the cemetery, I bring a folding chair. I sit at my wife’s graveside and tell her how my life has been going since she left. I tell her the important things, the silly things, just the things; tell her about what worries me and implore her help. I express gratitude for what she brought into my life. There’s a second century A.D. epitaph left by a mourning husband at his wife’s grave. It says: “And I myself will lie here when I die. Since with you alone I shared my bed when I was alive, so may I cover myself in ground that we share.” I find comfort in that.
A bereaved man told me he was like some lonely bird on a roof. He was echoing Psalm 102:8. Another spoke of how now he goes home to an empty house. The home became a house.
When trying to console a bereaved person, don’t use the Catholic cliche: “God must have needed her in heaven,” and don’t say you know how the bereaved person feels because when you were in the fifth grade your dog died.
Here are some suggestions for being helpful: bring/send food; the grieving person has a disinclination to eat out alone. Grief is a solitary experience, no one can heal the wound, but if a grieving person can talk about it with a good friend, s/he feels better. Anticipate the grieving person’s needs; don’t make him/her ask.
Here’s some interesting research. Resilience means the ability to recover after great adversity. There’s the ability to rebuild one’s life. When researchers study resilience, they particularly study two groups of people: holocaust survivors and bereft old widowed men who lived more than five years after the death of their wife.
Dead, my wife watches over me. In 1988, researchers at the University of Arizona at Tucson questioned five hundred widows over the age of 65, and found that half of them had sensed the presence of their deceased partner. A survey of 227 widows and 66 widowers in Wales produced a similar finding.
One can grow emotionally and spiritually from bereavement. It can make one more compassionate, more sensitive. It makes one less willing to hurt anyone. It can diminish one’s egotism. One can grow wise. Ecclesiastes 7:5 states: “The heart of the wise is where there is mourning: and the heart of fools where there is mirth.”
Our Christian faith tells us there is no permanent, definitive separation. There shall be a final reunion with one’s beloved in eternity. The bereaved and the deceased will be rejoined in an ever dearer union. We shall rise and bloom to fade no more. John 5:28: “for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out.” God keeps our deceased loved one for us, and when the day comes He will restore him/ her to us forever. “And death shall have no dominion” (Dylan Thomas). When I hear about this reunion with my wife in everlasting joy, I often have the thought: When I see her will she remember me, will she know who I am, will she still love me?”
Bereavement can happen to everyone, married or not. This losing people is a universal part of the experience of love. “But O for the touch of a vanished hand, and the sound of a voice that is still.” (Tennyson, In Memoriam A.H.H.).