The dramatic is over.
The sudden death, her jaw bound up with gauze, I arrive two hours too late.
At the chambre mortuaire, laid out in a coffin of beautiful French oak, its beloved burden being sealed in zinc for the passage across the Atlantic. Not the Styx. That passage had already happened.
The church, smelling like solder from removing the zinc cover. The crowd of family, friends, colleagues, come from far away, many of them. The terrible moment when the undertakers screw the lid back on the coffin, my wife’s face slowly disappears, forever. The bishop preaching one of the finest funeral orations I’ve ever heard — and I’m in the business, too.
Out the door, into the churchyard. A few people stand to say their peace, quite well, too. I scatter beach sand on the coffin, drawing a cross. The oak coffin disappears into its vault, topped by our daughter’s flowers.
Eighteen days later, a memorial service in Paris for those who could not come before. Another wonderful homily, glorious music. The crowd says their sorrys. I’m sorry too, I reply, feeling stupid. But there are no words, are there?
The dramatic is over. The quotidian begins, the daily slog.
I go to the supermarket once a month (we buy daily needs from local merchants). I see a product, get out the cell phone to call her and see if we need it. I stop in mid-dial. I come across another product she needed a lot of, which I buy here. Bought, I mean. Quotidian grief is made up of small banal moments like these.
The throat seizes up, and I manage to stifle the tears. Most of the time, at least, in public. In private, something hits me, and I burst into sobs, wrenching painful gasps of air as the wet flows down onto my shirt. Grief is sneaky. It likes to ambush you when you least expect it. My showers are good times for these fits of loss, totally private and very wet, of course.
The day after she died, our lovely neighbor, herself as recent widow, asked how she was doing. I replied that I would come down to her apartment, if that was possible. And so I told the story in person, the first time I’d done that. Her husband has been dead for nine months, and my wife and daughter had attended his funeral (I was out of the country). They’d been married for 55 years. I asked what was the hardest part, as I was now to become acquainted with my own quotidian of grief.
“C’est le manque,” she replied. It doesn’t translate exactly. “It’s the missing.” Or, “It’s missing him.” The lack. The hole that cannot be closed. Yes, that’s it. Le manque.
Furthermore, there is the look one gets from people who know. Whereas before, others would greet me heartily, now they are tentative, as if I might get angry, or crumble into dust with the wrong approach. This is also banal. I prefer those men who simply shake my hand or place a hand on my shoulder, while looking into my eyes. Or those women who just give me a light hug. There are no words, our concierge’s son had said, wise beyond his years.
I expect that in several months, people will decide that I’ve had enough of that treatment, that I “should move on.” Already, several have urged me to think about remarrying. I remember when my mother died, as I beheld her body, I felt that the world should stop rotating on its axis, that something cosmic had happened. And as I wallowed in this sentiment, suddenly my stomach growled. I was hungry. My own body was telling me that grief is not the extraordinary once-in-a-lifetime thing that the imagination conjures up. Everyone dies, and others will grieve. The planet inexorably turns on its axis. C’est la vie.
So it was later when my father died, my best friend, my little sister, and now my wife. Life for me changed permanently when these people entered Larger Life, as it did for many others. I’ve shed many tears at their graves, and now I have a new one to tend. The sneaky ambusher also cumulates its targets in my heart. I can still choke up over my mother, gone eleven years ago. Fresh grief opens old ones.
The one verse of the Bible that everyone knows is “Jesus wept.” It happened when he was taken to Lazarus’ tomb. In light of the rest of this story, this seems out of place. Wasn’t he about to restore him to life? So why cry?
I believe that he wept because he suddenly felt the grief that death inevitably brings in its wake. If this detail were missing, then Lazarus’ death would just be a heartless instrument for proving his messianic credentials. In other words, it would be a contradiction of the kind of savior he is, not a political conqueror as many then prayed for, but the human face of God’s compassion and love. If Jesus never felt grief, he wouldn’t be one of us. And that is the absolute requirement for the kind of salvation that we can accept: it has to be on the scale of the lives that we have to live, dealing with among all the other changes and chances of this world, the quotidian of grief.
I met Melinda when she quite brusquely asked me to compose some songs for a recital she wanted to give. I did so, and our relationship grew from professional to the personal, and lasted 37 years. For her memorial it occurred to me to write one last piece for her, a hymn for all to sing. A friend pointed me to this text, which I set in E-flat minor. These words are a statement of faith in the throes of quotidian grief:
God weeps with us who weep and mourn;
God’s tears flow down with ours,
and God’s own heart is bruised and worn
from all the heavy hours
of watching while the soul’s bright fire
burned lower day by day,
and pulse and breath and love’s desire
dimmed down to ash and clay.
Through tears and sorrow, God, we share
a sense of your vast grief:
the weight of bearing every prayer
for healing and relief,
the burden of our questions why,
the doubts that they engage,
as our friends and loved ones die,
our hopelessness and rage.
And yet because, like us, you weep,
we trust you will receive
and in your tender heart will keep
the ones for whom we grieve,
while with your tears our hearts will taste
the deep, dear core of things
from which both life and death are graced
by love’s renewing springs.
“God Weeps with Us Who Weep and Mourn”
From Glory to God – The Presbyterian Hymnal; Hymn 787
Thomas H. Troeger, 1996, alt. ©2002 Oxford University Press