In a world filled with ringtones and bells, we sometimes forget the power of silence. The simplicity of merely being with another is in itself a source of comfort. As May Sarton writes, “Sometimes silence is the greatest sign of understanding and respect. It is far more consoling than words of false comfort.”

Children seem to know this better than adults. A story is told about a girl who went to visit the home of a neighbor where her little friend had died. When she returned, her father asked her why she went.

“To comfort her mother,” she told him. The father was incredulous and asked her what she could have done to console a woman who had suffered such a terrible loss.

“I climbed onto her lap and cried with her,” she said.

Rational appeals, sympathetic words or clichés could not have done as much as this simple act. Whereas many adults think that they have to say the right word or try to distract the bereaved from thoughts of the departed, the girl knew that there was nothing that could be said.

But that didn’t mean that nothing could be done. Sitting on the mother’s lap didn’t lessen the pain; it may have added to it. But it was an expression of caring and concern, a reaching out from the heart, a gesture of hope. It symbolized the continuation of life but did not diminish the anguish. The girl was right: grief genuinely shared is an important means of healing.

Yet we cannot avoid the truth that each death is experienced alone. The death of a loved one changes us forever. Never again will we be the same. But how it changes us is, in part, a choice. We can either be shattered by the experience or find ourselves annealed, like iron smelted in a furnace to make it stronger when cooled.

Someone once said that when she thinks of the world she is saddened because she knows that at that very moment snow is falling. Her friend responded that when he thinks of the world he knows that at that very moment dawn is breaking.

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