This winter, three good friends and four admired colleagues died. As my generation winks out, there is plenty of time at funerals to think about grief and comforting the brokenhearted. It isn’t easy.
When death cuts down a life intertwined with mine, I’m depleted. Waves of pain and powerlessness wash over me and weigh me down. Premature, violent deaths are the hardest to bear. After 9/11, I went to the funeral of a young man last seen helping his coworkers down a fiery staircase. Patrick was mourned by his pregnant wife, two toddlers, parents, four siblings, and a sorrowful church full of friends and neighbors.
But even the hardest death blows can be healed – eventually. The innate cycling of emotions continues to bring good moments. In the midst of tears, a stab of joy can well up at a beautiful hymn, a kind gesture, a loving memory. Great saints may always be able to retain a deep core of divine assurance while they weep with those who weep. Lesser folk can laugh in the midst of the gathering of fellow mourners, as in the fabled Irish wake.
Healing takes place through our encounters with love and beauty. Worship, prayer, family bonding, and friends sustain us. Work and meetings engage and distract us. The innate capacities of human memory come to our aid. We can call to mind the lives of those who have gone, and more and more assimilate their lives into ours. The pain of their dying recedes into the whole of their life story. As the absent become present in mind and heart, we are healed.
“Yes, that’s how it was for me,” responded a woman at a bereavement conference. She had lost her fireman son in the 9/11 conflagration. His wife, mother, brother, and three small children were devastated. As this grandmother struggled on, she came to realize that her son would not want the family to sink into suffering. So her healing journey began when she had “pulled herself together” and turned to life again. Now she and her family and grandchildren could reminisce and laugh again. “I feel my son is with me in my heart.”
Sidney Callahan, 81, is an author, lecturer, college professor and licensed psychologist. Her most recent book is Called to Happiness: Where Faith and Psychology Meet. This essay originally appeared in the National Catholic Reporter.