This is what I hope to be my final essay for the time being on this topic, as I try to exorcise my thoughts through writing so that I can try and move on to writing about other subjects. There was the goodbye, and then there was the fractured, dissonant event of death itself and how our lives either come crashing to a halt against our will, or push forward relentlessly even as we try to slow it down. All that’s left to write about is the hollow emptiness left behind.
Funerals are strange things, if you really stop to think about it. They are highly ritualised and heavily symbolic. They can be lavish and expensive. Sometimes they are little more than polite social engagements that just happen to take place around a coffin. William Gladstone (or at least it is generally believed to be Gladstone) is often quoted as saying “show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land and their loyalty to high ideals.” But the truth is that funerals aren’t about how we care for our dead. Funerals, as is often said, (and attributed to various authors) are for the living. The dead are beyond the cares of this world. The living, however, care very much.
There’s a lot that goes into a funeral. First of all, there is the religious and spiritual aspect. We might couch it in terms of guiding the soul of the recently deceased to its eternal rest, but what we are really praying for is reassurance that death is somehow meaningful and isn’t merely the end of something and the beginning of nothing. Whatever faith one may follow, the broad idea of spiritual release of the soul upon death into the arms of one’s God is a common central theme. One can delve deeply into the anthropological roots of religious belief (and write whole dissertations about it) but in essence, funerals are to reassure the living.
Then there is the family aspect. Nothing is more likely to bring extended families together like weddings and funerals. “So good to see you, I just wish it was for a happier occasion” is a frequently used expression, that I have uttered myself more than once. Whether it is out of genuine respect and a desire to support the grieving members of the immediate family and their friends, or just out of a sense of obligation, people feel obliged to gather and mourn communally. And beyond family there is the larger community, whether it’s the neighbours, current and former work colleagues, local parishioners, former classmates, casual acquaintances…
When I first came to Ireland, I was, in fact, struck by how seriously the Irish take their funerals. It seems every visit I made to my in-laws involved hearing about the funeral of someone I had never heard of before. After a while, however, I realised that this was the Irish way of life, especially in the country. And a while later, I realised that this was actually not even unique to Ireland. I had merely been lucky, to date, to attend relatively few funerals in my life.
I remember sitting in Nana’s living room listening to her and her sister discuss who was and who wasn’t seen at the funeral of a local resident. It became clear to me that, in a small town, this is as much a social event as an expression of raw grief. Certain ceremonies may be limited to family only, but a funeral mass is a public event. My friend, Dixie, who came to my rescue when I realised that I could not possibly hope to grieve and mind Hawkeye and stay sane all at the same time, pushed vitamin C into our hands on the morning of the funeral mass. “Drink up!” she instructed politely but firmly. “You’re going to be shaking hands with half of Connacht today.”
And so it felt like it. Needing to mind a boisterous three year old, I was relegated to the second pew behind Nana’s immediate family, but to be honest I couldn’t help but be relieved when, at the end of the mass, my seat sheltered me from the sea of people who descended on The Mister and his sister and aunts and uncles in the front row. I stood and greeted the family and friends who were familiar to me, but otherwise I simply sat and watched as people moved past me, wave after wave, to pay their respects to the family. Before the funeral, The Mister asked me if I remembered the trick of shaking hands without getting my fingers crushed repeatedly. When he showed me, I recalled doing this years ago at his father’s funeral, wishing I had thought to take my rings off before the service.
Ultimately, though, a funeral is about coming face to face with a new you. Like the phantom limb syndrome, it is about becoming acquainted with you as a person that is missing someone important in your life. You struggle to conceive how you can accept that permanent absence, feeling the jagged, sharp edges of that new empty space inside. The time between the death and the funeral can have an ethereal sense of unreality where a person is gone but you struggle to comprehend that the absence is real and permanent. It is the funeral where the reality is really forced upon you. A ritual where you are forced to confront that new person inside you, a person that has to go forward reforging and realigning your new world to make do without that vital connection. No matter how much you struggle to reject it, the funeral is like a capstone on a building project. Each stage of planning and execution of the entire process, from picking a casket to deciding on readings and music to watching it take place before you, is a slow step toward completing that transformation forcefully wrought on you by grief.
The most frightening thing about funerals though, is how unique they all are for every person sitting there. Everything I have written here may be true for one person reading this tomorrow, or it may be in violent opposition to the experience of a person reading it the day after. I was discussing grief and death with Vee online late one night recently in the midst of yet another night of insomnia. The Mister had stayed in Galway for several more days. Hawkeye was slumbering beside me as I struggled to convince myself to sleep. Vee was half a world away and eight hours behind me. After reading my previous essay, she was describing how, a number of years ago, she was unable to articulate her own grief when she was in the midst of it following the death of her mother. Literally unable to get the words out, all she could do was say “I’m fine” and “ok” to people, while desperately wanting someone to understand how much she was actually suffering inside.
“I was flummoxed by the fact the something so universal could also be so awful. It seemed to me the two should be mutually exclusive.”
A highly logical and well-educated person, her mind insisted that something that is experienced regularly by people all over the world since the dawn of humankind must be a process that has been rationalised and dissected by this stage, analysed and mediated in some manner that would assist everyone. Like there should be some sort of a professional medical attached to every hospital or church, patting you on the shoulder and handing you the Official Handbook to Your Journey Through Grief which explains exactly what you’re feeling and what you should say to people so that they can understand you. “Hurricane Katrina was really terrible and also a singular event.” She said to me, trying to draw a comparison to another truly awful experience which she had lived through in New Orleans. “Like we should be accustomed to and have ways to deal with common occurrences such that they are not so awful maybe? I guess it felt uniquely awful, which of course in some ways it is, but I think in my mind degree of awfulness was connected with extremity and thus rarity. Which isn’t really correct.”
I concurred with her that this wasn’t correct. Emotions don’t bow to the rules of logic. “You can make it easy to claim insurance after catastrophic events, provide support and supply networks, temporary housing, counselling, etc.” I told her. “But no amount of experience or preparation can make the pain of losing someone close to you hurt any less. And when you hurt like that, it’s normal to feel like this is the worst thing in the world. That no one could possibly understand the depths of your pain. And that is what isolates us, even though it should, logically, unite us. It is the paradox of grief.”
Our conversation meandered to the topic of experiencing such a profound loss a second time. Ever logical and rational, Vee was convinced that she would be better prepared to weather such an event the next time. “I don’t think a similar loss would hurt less now but I think I have better tools to deal with it. I might just be better able to talk about it, or, I don’t know, be a functioning person. Or maybe not be such a wreck for so long? Who knows?”
I demurred somewhat. Grief isn’t logical, I reminded her, and it isn’t a character flaw. You can’t learn your way around it and there’s nothing wrong with letting it wreck you for a period of time. “Our closeness to a person is what determines the pain, not our coping ability, I would think,” I argued.
This made Vee come back to my notion of grief as the ultimate paradox. “The person you lost is unique and your relationship to them is unique, so your grief is singular, even though the experience of losing someone, or even losing a parent, is pretty universal.”
Bleary eyed, and finally feeling like sleep was within reach, I agreed with her. “That seems spot on what I was trying to say,” I typed on my phone shortly before saying good night, my fingers clumsy and heavy with fatigue.
The Mister, always a better wordsmith than me, summed it up ever more succinctly. “Grief is the price we pay for love,” he told me after reading my first draft of this essay.
“Huh?” was my eloquent reply.
“Grief is the price we pay for love,” he repeated. “It was something Queen Elizabeth once said and what you wrote there reminded me of that line.”*
A price indeed. Without love there cannot be grief. And can one truly live without loving? Just as you cannot have light without also having darkness, and the way you cannot appreciate happiness without also knowing sadness. Life is like a series of spinning coins, the two sides always opposing but always together.
And perhaps, at the end of the dark tunnel, when you feel your way past the raw emotion and the sharp pain of loss, trudge through the numbness and fatigue, forget how to care and then remember once again, knowing that you hurt, and bled, and suffered all of that because of how much love you had (and still have) for that person, you can look up and smile through your tears and remember that fierce love and contemplate how it may just be the most precious gift in the world. To have someone love you as much as you have loved. To know that others are willing to open themselves up to the same pain so that they can love you. The depth of your own grief lets you appreciate the depth of love others can have for you. Perhaps that is how you find your way back to others, how you climb out of that isolation. Because if someone else loves you as much as you loved the person you lost, then surely you cannot be alone in the world, either in your grief, or in your love for others.