To Ease the Deepest Pain

Listening from the heart is a gift for those who grieve.

Posted Oct 30, 2014

I was shopping in my local supermarket a few weeks ago when I ran into a woman with whom I have the saddest of bonds: Her 24-year-old son is buried a few yards from the grave of my parents.

I didn’t recognize her at first; she was heading one way in an aisle, I was heading another and both of us were moving fast. But something in her face triggered a memory and, almost without thinking, I called her name in a questioning way and she stopped and turned around.

Before I knew it, I was reaching out to give her a hug and saying, “I am so glad to see you!” and she was smiling a shy half-smile in return.

Until that moment, I had seen this woman only in the cemetery, and our encounters had been infrequent; we had met at most three or four times. And yet I feel a closeness to her that cannot be measured by the sum of our time together.

Whenever I visit my parents’ grave, I faithfully walk the few steps across the grass and visit her son’s grave, too. I say a prayer for him, as I do for my parents, and sometimes I kneel down and put my hand on the grave marker, which has a color photograph of him in his high school football uniform, without his helmet.

He was a handsome young man with dark hair like his mother and a kind, intelligent face. When I bring flowers to my parents’ grave, I always take out a few blossoms, tie the stems together, and place them on a corner of his grave marker. That is my sign to his mother that I have been there and I have wished her son well.

For some years, the identity of this young man was a mystery to me. Just before Memorial Day in 2006, when my mother was still alive, I brought flowers to my father’s grave, and I saw a fresh grave a few steps away. I thought nothing of it at first; this was a cemetery, after all; it was only natural that new graves would appear from time to time in the vicinity of my father’s grave. While I was arranging the flowers in the bronze vase at my father’s marker, however, I noticed that someone had come to visit the new grave.

To my surprise, it was a young man in his early 20s—slender, with close-cropped, strawberry blond hair and a face marked by sadness. He knelt by the grave and bowed his head in prayer. He stayed for perhaps seven or eight minutes, and then he was gone.

The presence of the young man—and his obvious grief—profoundly moved me. Cemeteries are not places where one expects to see people in their twenties, especially a young man making a solitary visit to a grave and kneeling in prayer.

When I finished my work at my father’s grave, I tentatively walked across the grass to the spot where the young man had been. A small, temporary sign at the head of the new grave had on it a man’s (or boy’s) name and the information that a permanent marker would soon be installed.

These stark facts, and the youthful visitor with the close-cropped hair, touched my heart. I wondered if the person who died had been a soldier and if he had been killed in action. I resolved to keep a respectful eye on the grave during my subsequent cemetery visits.

Two years passed; on a visit to my father’s grave just before Memorial Day in 2008, I noticed that the permanent grave marker had been installed nearby. When I walked across the grass to see it, I was astonished to find that it was beautifully elaborate and ornate, embellished with raised images including a lion, planets, stars and a crescent moon, and with text in English, Latin and a fluid script that I guessed was Arabic.

For the first time I saw the photograph of the young man in his football uniform and the dates of his birth in September and his death in May. I did the math in my head, a sobering calculation: He was only 24. I also saw the inscription: “To the Eternal Memory of Our Sweetest Son, Brother, Husband and Friend.”

The circle of his mourners was becoming more distinct in my mind; he not only had parents and friends, one of whom I had seen, but he also had a sister or a brother—perhaps more than one. And, young as he was, he had a wife, who was now a widow. In some way, I felt that I was part of that mourning circle, too.

In September of 2009, my mother died after an illness of many years and we buried her next to my father in that peaceful cemetery. One afternoon in early November of that year, my brother and I were visiting our parents’ grave with flowers for Veterans Day when we saw a small, dark-haired woman get out of a parked car and cross the grass from the cemetery road to the place where we were standing. As she approached, I said hello and impulsively asked if she was the mother of the young man whose grave was nearby. She said yes and, in a soft voice, she shared with us the bare details of his death.

As I remember them, they are these: Her son had had a mild illness, nothing serious. His doctor had prescribed medication. He took it, and he died in his sleep, at age 24.

Each time I have seen her after that initial encounter—including our recent meeting in the supermarket—I have felt the same way. She has never said it, but I feel that her heart is broken, that a part of her died along with her son. When we talk, I listen and try to say something soothing. My phrases are never adequate, of course; what words exist that could ease such intense and unrelenting pain? But still I murmur whatever syllables I can muster, if only to reassure her that I am listening and I am moved by her sorrow and her unimaginable loss.

Until I was in my early twenties, I thought that tragic and irreversible events would never affect me or the people I loved. Terrible things happened, I knew, but they happened to other people. Their sorrows would never be mine.

And then, as the years passed, reality began to crack my fragile bubble of naiveté. A friend’s father was killed in a car accident. My father had a massive stroke and was gone in six weeks. A dear friend passed after a mysterious illness; he was only 50. A bicycle accident took the life of one of my colleagues, who left behind a wife and a young son. Two other dear friends died of cancer.

Last year I met a young woman whose mother was murdered when this young woman was only two; this same young woman told me last week that her best friend was recently murdered, leaving behind a two-year-old son. In the past nine months two people I know have lost loved ones to suicide. Both of the dead were young men, and one was just 22.

I could go on and on—and I know that my list is far shorter than similar lists kept by people who live in countries ravaged by war or disease or famine or crime or corrupt and bullying governments.

Some part of me still wants the world to be the way I thought it was when I was young: No one I know and love is ever touched by sorrow or tragedy. But I am learning—from my friend at the cemetery and from so many others—that one response to the casual, indifferent, random cruelty of life is simply to listen, with patience, compassion and kindness, to the stories of those whose lives have been forever darkened by that cruelty.

When these mourners speak to us, they sustain the memory of those they have lost. We who take the time to listen cannot make their lives whole again. But we can help ease their suffering by bearing witness to their pain, however long it lasts. We pay attention to them, and our attentiveness is a promise to them that their sorrow has value and their loved ones will not be forgotten.

Copyright © 2014 By Susan Hooper

Flowers on Grave Marker and Autumn Maple Photographs Copyright © 2014 By Susan Hooper

To read another column about the cemetery where my parents are buried, click here.