I am heartened, as I grow older to witness an increase in community support for those who suffer great loss. It brings to mind the days of old when friends, neighbors and loved ones would encircle those in mourning and support them with not only gifts of food, house cleaning and assistance with funeral preparation, but their simple presence in times of need.
My 25-year-old daughter and I recently stood in a long line in a local funeral home to express our sympathy to friends of hers who had lost a child. “This is hard,” she whispered tearfully. “I don’t know what to do.” How many of us have at least thought those very words?
A quiet conversation ensued following her emotional comment in which we both agreed there was no right or only way to support a loved one in grief, though for us platitudes and advice were strictly forbidden. Each individual must find his or her own way through the heartache and pain of grief. We are simply there to walk beside them, reassuring them that they are not alone.
My wise young daughter, who chose to be a gentle, quiet presence for her friends that day offering them her hugs and tears, agreed that the community support of which she was a part was an important factor in the healing process.
We all have been witness to examples of how community can come to the aid of their grief-stricken members with national and international media coverage of the compassionate support offered in recent years following such tragic events as 9/11, shootings such as at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut and even following natural disaster events such as Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Communities stunned by these horrific events rose collectively from the ashes to step forward in support of those victimized by their losses. The ceremonies, services and legislative changes bring me great hope for the direction in which our culture journeys, as I witness the compassionate outpouring of love for the bereaved.
But on a more personal level, what can we do for our own community members or loved ones in mourning? Identifying those compassionate responses from national and international events offers us a palate from which to paint our own style of support. I have learned that if I listen and watch for cues as to what is needed by the bereaved I can then offer my support. Being present is a gift we can all offer.
Funerals, I think, level the playing ground for most. Even those with the toughest exteriors find their way to expressing their deepest emotions when supporting the bereaved. One gentleman I know, whose beloved wife had died after a long battle with cancer, was embraced by many friends at her packed funeral Mass. “I love you,” he was told over and over. The grief-stricken widower recalled how deeply meaningful that emotional support was to him and to his healing.
“Just the outpouring of love from the people is what made it okay. There was a lot of love going though the place that day,” he said of the community support at his wife’s funeral ceremony. “It just hit me at the funeral … I am surrounded by some very good people,” he added.
Those good people were by his side as he ministered to his wife as she lay dying. They were there as he said his goodbyes. They were there to help him bury his beloved with rich and meaningful ceremony and song. And many will remain by his side as he learns to navigate his grief and discover how to live his life without his wife.
A beautiful Catholic hymn written in the ‘70s by Richard Gillard titled, “The Servant Song,” speaks to the grace of community support in the lines: “We are pilgrims on a journey, we are travelers on the road; We are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load. … I will weep when you are weeping; When you laugh I’ll laugh with you. I will share your joy and sorrow till we’ve seen this journey through.”
As pilgrims on the journey, helping each other bear the load, we can acknowledge, as my daughter so honestly did, and even lament the fact that supporting someone in deep grief is troubling and not a little difficult. But we must rise up and weep — and laugh — with them as they move toward healing. It takes a community of hearts to support those who must walk the long and weary road of grief.