Since the death of my mother a little over two weeks ago I’ve received many kind calls, notes, and expressions of comfort, as most who grieve do. Friends and loved ones respond to our loss in different ways and because of this first-hand experience, I’ve started reflecting more seriously on convention - the ways in which most of us reach out to others at a time of death and grief.
We live in a society that easily conforms to convention, especially when someone dies. We send flowers or take them by ourselves, we make a casserole or bake a cake so the family will have food to eat, we bring out our black mourning clothes, show up at the funeral or memorial service, and awkwardly murmur a few words of condolence to those who are grieving. Beyond the sentiments of a Hallmark card, there’s almost a formulary for what we do, how we act, and what we say (grief speak is another blog…).
Yet sometimes we dare the unconventional, especially when the life of the one lost to us in death is perceived in broad-ranging ways. Perhaps we choose a private rather than a public graveside or memorial service. Or we release butterflies or balloons after the interment. We may request that those who attend the service wear brightly colored clothes or a favorite color of the one we grieve.
Because we pause to rethink convention and perhaps do something different, bystanders to our grief are often quick to judge when a new way of memorializing runs counter to the “package” being sold - both literally and figuratively - by funeral providers and those who preside over religious rites and rituals, the proscribed words and gestures that may comfort us only little or (if we’re really honest) not at all in our grief.
And though there’s solace for some in the spiritual neutrality of strict liturgy, we’re not bound by convention to do everything the same way in every situation for every person. For example, many families are uniquely comforted when a family member speaks words of remembrance or a child or grandchild sings a favorite piece of music at a service. In these unforgettably comforting moments, a personal bond is honored and shared. On other occasions when we craft our own thoughts into words that are both comfortable and comforting, our prayer and praise to God flow more freely – we’re loosed from the bonds of convention through our own sense of dignity, propriety, and respect.
We’re neither duty-bound nor honor-bound to conform to convention, even if we expose ourselves to momentary criticism for how we choose to express our loss and direct our comfort. As long as what we say or do (or don’t do) is tasteful and appropriate, it doesn’t really matter if we surprise others. Their momentary discomfort will pass.
If we’re the one in charge, we’re responsible first and foremost for our own emotional well-being, especially at a time of death. We need not depend solely on traditional funeral formats, third-party ideas, or even the advice and suggestions of clergy professionals to know what will comfort us. We have only to think for a moment beyond convention to sense and feel what it is that will best serve our heart and soul.
We may need the peace of loud, lingering silence if the life of the one we grieve was noisy or destructive. It may soothe our spirit to hear taps played at the end of a service for a proud veteran who served our country with honor. Or perhaps we’re transported to a place of divine joy and oneness of spirit with our loved one when the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Messiah is sung in loud celebration of a durable saint.
If we hold dear the courage of our convictions and challenge the conventions of comfort, we’ve taken the first step toward the resolution of our grief, “The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps” (Proverbs 16:9 NRSV).
This is my comfort in my distress, that your promise gives me life.
Psalm 119:50 NRSV
Keep me this day, O God, in the convention of your comfort. Amen.