A gentle word, a kind look, a good-natured smile can work wonders and accomplish miracles – William Hazlitt.
After someone we love has died, we can feel that suddenly our world has changed. Nothing is secure and dependable anymore. Life becomes ambiguous, the earth can suddenly open and swallow us up without notice, and the future is unclear. The uncertainty grief causes can be utterly overwhelming.
In my own experience, it has always been the feeling of uncertainty that hits me hardest and so, impacting more acutely on the pain and the longing.
Uncertainty can rub us up the wrong way and ruffle our feathers. For example, our world has changed significantly over the past few years. I’m thinking of how COVID has changed how we relate to one another. And in more recent times, the aggression experienced by Putin and the unjust war he has inflicted on his Ukrainian neighbour; how the world at large feels threatened by his volatile behaviour. And my youngest, who has recently finished school, and how unsure he is as he struggles to find his footing in the world. It seems we’re not at our best with uncertainty. We prefer life to be predictable, I suppose. We plan, organise, create strategies and proposals, choosing to be safe as possible despite our yearning for freedom.
So, when someone or something comes along to reassure us in our uncertainty or aid us in our longing for security, we find solace in that gift and receive it gratefully. And it is a gift.
The most common complaint I hear from those who are grieving is that of loneliness. For example, after losing my father last year, my mother frequently comments on how lonely she feels, despite having people around her for a lot of the time. And then others who feel like friends and neighbours are giving them a wide berth; I expect because people don’t know what to say or how to behave.
Perhaps there is far too much emphasis on what we should or shouldn’t say when what matters is that we’re there. Our presence alone is enough.
Often, people do want to talk to someone about their loss. They have no desire to avoid the subject. And one of the reasons for this is because we, as human beings, find a great deal of solace and security when we are amongst others. We are communal beings, after all – and so, a reassuring smile can be far more effective than an awkward conversation. A touch. A hug. Eye contact. Or just simply being.
My eldest son (about ten years old at the time) would come into the kitchen when I was studying for my theology degree in the late 90s. He would just sit with me. He wouldn’t say a word. He knew I was working, but it was enough for him to be there. It was enough for me too. I appreciated his presence. We didn’t need to speak because we were still communicating and reassuring each other, just by simply sitting in each other’s company. We were each other’s anchor hold.
And this is how I see my Celebrancy.
After officiating funeral ceremonies, people sometimes comment on my smile after leaving the chapel. One lady very recently said, “I found your smile immensely reassuring.” Others have commented on my resolve to listen to the detail; for being there throughout the whole process. And they are grateful because these things matter to them. A smile and my interest in getting it right bring with it a sense of support, hope, and reassurance when they’re feeling vulnerable. People rarely comment on what I said about the person whose funeral it is but will say things like, “you were like a family member.”
“Thank you for listening,” and,
“Thank you for the time you spent with us.” These things provide a firm foundation from which to grieve.
Vincent Van Gogh wrote that ‘For my part, I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars…’ For him, it seems, the stars were a surety. They were there. They were the same yesterday as they are today and will be the same again tomorrow; probably why a good many people like the idea of naming a star after a loved one.
We mustn’t underestimate the immense reassurance we can bring by simply taking an interest – in being present.
I encourage you then to be that certain presence in our world, that reassuring smile, the listening ear. Don’t worry about what you will say. ‘Tis much better to do a little with certainty and leave the rest for others that come after you.’ – Isaac Newton
I need reassurance
I need confirmation
A daily reminder
And a weekly gesture
Simply because I am weak,
I want you to know that I need attention
Lots of it
And I want you to find my cool spot
When I’m a burning flame.
And if you call me needy
I don’t think you need me.
I need love
I need affection.
Your attention is my goal
Give me your protection.
– Pedro Munoz