Her father was 100, having played golf into his 90s, and, until recently, still making visits to the town library, heading home with a bag of books for company.
Buried in a family plot, where headstones named ancestors etched in time, his family and the children of his old friends gathered to pray and reminisce, catching up on the years between childhoods shared and the surprise of being grandparents themselves.
In that same town, where I lived for 25 years, I once asked a young priest how he found words to temper the grief of children burying parents or devoted husbands or wives, leaving a cemetery, walking alone.
He did not sermonize. He shrugged. “I can’t promise the absence of heartbreak,” he said. “What matters is not what I say, but being there, sitting in a hospital room, rocking on a front porch with a grieving husband. It is presence that counts.”
I’ve never forgotten his words, and a recent column by journalist David Brooks brought them to mind again. Brooks, recalling a “remarkable blog” he had read, quoted the mother of two daughters, one thrown from a horse and dying from her injuries and another, hit by a car, surviving, but facing a series of surgeries.
The family wrote of their experiences, of lessons learned through grief, of how some friends sustained them with a “ministry of presence,” while others, perhaps fearing to intrude or not knowing what to do, did not show up to hold a hand or bring a casserole.
Most of us want to say or do something to ease the pain of grief, to shed a glimmer of hope on dark times, and this is when the young priest’s words matter. He knew his theology could not explain away every tragedy.
Better to “sit simply through moments of pain and uncomfortable darkness,” Brooks wrote, “and grant those who suffer the dignity of defining meaning” to their loss.
That doesn’t mean the rhythm of life can be ignored. Someone has to take out the garbage and go to the store, help with carpools and put food on the table.
When my mother died, two days after Christmas, friends put away ornaments and lights, carried our Christmas tree to the curb, then planned and brought lunch for those who came to her funeral.
After Brooks’ column was printed, letters to the editor with postscripts to his words filled a page, a veritable list of “Dos” and “Don’ts” at a time of grieving.
“Don’t begin any sentence with the words, “At least …,” one reader wrote, “as in: “At least the taxi didn’t kill both [of them.]”
“Don’t assume because a period of mourning has passed, grief is over. Sorrow has no timetable. Your presence may well be most needed when the house is silent and empty, when the company has left.”
One woman, writing from her experience as a breast cancer patient and survivor, spoke of the importance of honesty, alive and well, between friends and those who are sick or sick at heart. We need to be free to “tell friends what is helpful and what is not, when we need to be alone and when we could use company,” she penned.
It was bittersweet, yet consoling, to hear Dr. Sam Matthews of Marietta’s First United Methodist Church, speak of his parishioner and friend, Jay Whorton, at Jay’s funeral earlier this month. The two had spent several evenings planning the church service. Jay chose hymns with “soul” and Scripture readings, ushers and suggested a favorite dress his wife, Laura, might wear.
The church, filled to the rafters, sheltered a congregation bearing witness to the gift of presence, to a community of broken hearts, having lost a loving husband, father, grandfather, an irreplaceable friend.
Judy Elliott is a longtime resident of Marietta.