- Written by Walt Sonneville Walt Sonneville
All of us have been intimately acquainted with grief, a gripping sorrow whose mental anguish can last until it is mercifully exhausted. People react differently to the sense of loss that accompanies grief.
Some sources advise that grief should be constrained, if not dismissed: What we lost were gifts, not permanent possessions. Part of us is lost if grief is not managed. Being thankful for the time we enjoyed with that which is now lost is part of that management.
Others take the view that grieving does no good if there is nothing we can do to return that which is lost. An anonymous poet (perhaps Thomas Percy, 1729-1811) wrote these lines:
Our joys as winged dreams do fly;
Why then should sorrow last?
Since grief but aggravates the loss,
Grieve not for what is past.
Shakespeare was blunt in this advice: “What’s gone and what’s past help should be past grief.”
Grief can turn overwhelming. Mary Todd Lincoln lost three of her four children and her assassinated husband.
Eventually, Robert, her surviving son, felt compelled to place his distraught mother in a home for the mentally ill, which intensified her grief and estranged her and Robert until they reconciled shortly before her death.
The Union states deeply mourned the death of President Lincoln. His funeral Pullman car travelled 1,600 rail miles over 15 days, viewed by millions. The route extended from the nation’s capital to New York state, to Indianapolis, Chicago, and finally Springfield, Illinois.
Author C.S. Lewis, a devout Christian, was plunged into despair upon the death of his wife of three years. He began to question his faith, noting his anguish in a journal that he kept to record his struggle over the loss.
He eventually reconciled the loss and his faith, thankful for the gift of her love. Lewis’ acceptance can be read in his 160-page book, A Grief Observed, published in 1963.
The awareness of the death of a loved one can be sudden or protracted. The War Department, during World War II, sent out hundreds of thousands of telegrams announcing a fatality of a close relative serving in the military.
The suddenness came as a shock to most recipients. The message was always terse and formatted.
It would read: “The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret that your son (name) was killed in action in defense of his country on (date) in (geographic location). Letter follows.” The message was signed “Adjutant General.”
It would take a month or more for the telegram to arrive. Perhaps the letter that followed was compassionate.
There are those who turn their loss into a healing process. Some of the relatives of victims of the 9/11 terrorist attack formed a group called the September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows.
They oppose revenge, believing their reaction to loss may help others grow. Their goal is to work toward peaceful responses, urging remedies for injustices that exclude armed conflict.
The more traditional healing process begins with a meal shared by mourners following the funeral service. The mood is celebratory, recalling the happy memories of the deceased.
This custom traces back to our agrarian days when farm families traveled miles to attend a funeral. They had to be fed before their return trip. These events on farms are much like a picnic in which all visitors are regarded as a comforting assembly.
Despite the implication raised by its name, a “jazz funeral” is spiritual in the music played on the march to the cemetery. Once the deceased is entombed, the jazz band returns in procession to where it originated, playing syncopated selections such as “When the Saints Go Marching In” or “Nearer My God to Thee.”
Some departed celebrities have chosen this New Orleans style of a final goodbye. They include Ed Bradley (60 Minutes TV commentator), Jim Henson (Sesame Street puppeteer), and Ike Turner (musician).
The deceased honored by such processions must be looking on with a smile.
Walt Sonneville, a retired market-research analyst, is the author of My 22 Cents’ Worth: The Higher-Valued Opinion of a Senior Citizen and A Musing Moment: Meditative Essays on Life and Learning, books of personal-opinion essays, free of partisan and sectarian viewpoints. Contact him at email@example.com.