I am always fascinated by the things people say to comfort each other in bad times. Things like “She’s in a better place” or “He is not in pain anymore”. Things that are meant to comfort you…mostly because people don’t know what else to say and they know that no matter what they say, it’s not going to make you stop hurting. Yet we still say the comforting things. And I appreciate any comforting words that have ever been said to me in a time of sorrow. No, they didn’t stop my pain but they made me feel loved and comforted and cared for and I really think that’s the point.
Now…when it comes to death, Christians truly have some lovely sentiments to comfort each other. They talk about how the loved one is now “In Heaven” or “in the presence of the Lord” and sometimes “on a puffy cloud with a harp”. These are all lovely images and comforting words and I have always enjoyed hearing them and hoped that they really did give comfort to the person hearing them.
As an agnostic, it doesn’t really hold a lot of meaning for me because I just don’t believe in any of that. But I like the idea of it…and I like the thought of someone being comforted by it.
Thinking about all this today brings a couple of stories to mind that I felt like sharing.
For the record, I have not always been Agnostic. There was a time when I tried very hard to believe everything the bible said and live my life as close to those guidelines as I could. It was during this time that my grandfather died. I was heartbroken. I cried so hard at his funeral that I thought I was going to make myself sick. Everyone was there with the comforting words about how he was “with the Lord” and “no longer in pain”…but none of that put a dent in the pain I felt about never seeing him again. What finally brought me to a place where I could breathe again…were the comforting words of my son, who was three years old at the time. We had just come out of the church and were getting in the car to drive to the cemetery. I couldn’t get my seatbelt on and couldn’t get my keys into the ignition and nothing worked because my hands were shaking and my eyes were flooded. My beautiful, blonde boy looked at me with his giant blue eyes and asked, “Momma, why do you crying?” And I tried really hard to calm down and find something to say that wouldn’t scare him. So I gently told him, “Baby…momma is sad because Papa had to go away and I’m not going to see him again for a long, long time.” He looked at me then with knowing eyes and all the confidence his little face could hold…and he said to me…”But Momma…Papa’s in heaven, dancing with the angels.”
Now I don’t know if he heard this from someone else…or if this was just what he thought…but I had my first moment of comfort over the death of my beloved Papa. I sat there and stared into the face of my sweet child…and an image popped into my head of my grandfather…dancing the jitterbug with a flushed faced angel, whose wings were whipping about as my Papa spun her across a dance floor made of clouds. And for the first time in a few days, I laughed. And I said “That’s right, baby...Papa is in Heaven, dancing…with the angels.” And suddenly the keys fit into the ignition and the seatbelt worked and I could see to drive us safely to the cemetery. I still hurt…and there were more tears on the way…but at that moment, I felt peaceful in that funny, and so very perfect image…given to me by a three year old… And whether I believe in Heaven or angels or not…I still think of my Papa dancing with the angels.
A few years later, I had a moment where I needed some words of comfort for someone else. It was an incredibly awkward moment with a complete stranger. For those who don’t know, I am an actor at a Renaissance Festival. A couple of my characters are devout Catholics so I occasionally have the opportunity to use some of these lovely, comforting words about Heaven. At the time, I was playing a character whose husband had died. When she spoke of him, she spoke wistfully and crossed herself. On this particular day, I was talking to a patron and mentioned this husband and how much I missed him and “God Bless his soul”…etc…and her eyes suddenly welled up with tears and she covered her mouth with her hand. I felt like the most terrible person in the world at that moment and I had no idea why. She composed herself and leaned in and whispered raggedly to me that her husband had recently died. I don’t know if she realized it…but when she said this, her hands reached out toward me. I took her hands and proceeded to tell her that I was so sorry for having brought up that painful subject. She just nodded at me. I was in agony over this. I was here to entertain this woman, not make her cry. In that second, I remembered something I heard at the funeral of my very young cousin who had died from Cancer. And I found myself saying these words to this woman in an effort to comfort her and try to undo what I’d done. In a very soft British accent, I repeated the story I’d heard so long ago. “My Lady, please forgive me. I am so sorry for your loss. You know…we are only the garden. You see, our God is much like us. When he has an important guest to dinner, he wants the most beautiful flowers on his table. So He comes to us, His garden, and makes his selection. He must have had a most important dinner to have need of such a lovely flower as your husband. How honored he must have felt to be chosen to grace our Lord’s table.” I imagine I had the most pleading look imaginable on my face at that moment. I wanted nothing more than to comfort this woman. She looked up at me and the look on her face was a look of surprise. She smiled at me and said “Oh, how beautiful.” She squeezed my hands. “I had never thought of it that way. You have just made my day. Can I hug you?” I threw my arms wide and said “Oh, yes please!” and it was my turn to get teary eyed. She hugged me very tightly and when she let go, she was smiling. “Miss….” She began and I filled in the blank with “Emma”. “Miss Emma,” she said, “that is the sweetest thing anyone has said to me. Thank you. Thank you so much for that.”
I was smiling like my face was frozen and it was everything I had not to cry. “It was my pleasure, My Lady”. She squeezed my hand again and told me she was going to go find her daughter. I told her I hoped she had a wonderful day and we parted ways. I had to go backstage for a minute and get my head back together. But I will never forget the look on her face. I like to think it’s what I looked like when my son laid his little revelation on me in the church parking lot so many years before. That moment of comfort in a few simple words of comfort. That moment when you can breathe.
I recently attended the funeral of my boyfriend’s grandmother. She was a lovely woman with a sassy wit and an infectious smile. At the service, the officiate said something that struck a chord with me. He said “We have not lost her. We know exactly where she is. She is in Heaven. Something can’t be lost if you know where it is.” I smiled at this. What a lovely sentiment. More of those beautiful and comforting words for those grieving the death of a loved one. Words that make you stop and think. Words that give you at least some small comfort in your sadness. Those few little words that let you breathe again…when you feel like you will never breathe normally again.
It’s a beautiful thing that we, as humans, have such a strong desire to comfort each other. To take away the pain of another. That we don’t want those we love to suffer. I find it interesting and lovely that to find the true light in humanity, you need only look in the darkest of places.