Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | December 2, 2013

And yet…


Yesterday, December first, rather suddenly I found myself at a candlelit service of remembrance for loved ones lost. I found out about it just a few hours before the event. Yesterday was such a busy day. Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend: the aftermath of one holiday segues into the preparations for another, amid plenty of everyday chores. I didn’t really have a chunk of time to carve out for sitting in a church. And yet.

The house was a shambles. My mother was coming for dinner. I was helping my daughter with a monumental project. I had piles of work to do, interior and exterior, paid and otherwise, baking and cleaning, bill paying and organising. Let’s not even mention Christmas. And yet.

Curiously, it’s the holidays that make people take notice of other peoples’ losses, and make space for them. For those of us left here, bereft here, the hole is with us always. Truly. We just gradually learn how to navigate around it. I don’t mean we ignore our pain, or pretend it doesn’t exist, or fill up the empty place with food or drink or work or sex or shopping. It’s just that some days, once we somehow become strong enough, we would prefer to “get on with things”.

“The great writers keep writing about the cold dark place within, the water under a frozen lake or the secluded, camouflaged hole. The light they shine on this hole, this pit, helps us cut away or step around the brush and brambles; then we can dance around the rim of the abyss, holler into it, measure it, throw rocks in it, and still not fall in. It can no longer swallow us up. And we can get on with things.” – Anne Lamott

And yet.

The service was to be held at a beautiful stone chapel a short distance from home. It was to start at 4 o’clock, just when the sky is closing in at this coldest darkest time of year. As I soldiered my way there through the gloom I reflected that if the service had been held in some modern gymnasium of a church I would never have bothered. The heavy stone and elegant imposing carved wooden arches hold some magic of their own, in a purely architectural sense. Beauty of all sorts, from all sources, has sustained me in the hours and days and years since my husband died, in ways I did not notice in my everyday world while he was here. I am grateful for this life bathed in beauty, even if it’s this tragic turn of events that has enabled me to see it.

At the entrance of the church a man in a long dark coat warned each new arrival: the bricks are icy; the stone steps are slippery. They thought of everything! By this one gesture I felt attended to, cared for. Inside, the small chapel glowed with many candles, and glass lanterns held aloft on swooping iron stands. A swath of scented evergreens was tied to the end of each heavy wooden pew. Discreetly placed here and there were small packages of Kleenex. They really did think of everything! As a seasoned mourner, I would never deign to enter such a place without something on which to wipe my eyes and nose, but some folks might not think of such. (Amateurs! If I’ve learned anything, I’ve learned: always carry tissue, always drink water. Grief is a messy wet business.)

The ancient stained glass windows softly glowed: such intricate beauty that has witnessed weddings and funerals, such joy, such pain. Somewhere there must be a metaphor about light shining through…
I sat alone. I recognized almost no one. A man softly played a guitar. The service was very brief: a silent meditation, a few words, a poem, a reading, and then slowly, attentively were recited the names of those buried in the cemetery this year. I heard no sobs, not even any restless movement. All was silent. Each person was handed a simple white taper with a paper holder to protect the hands. Two women walked from pew to pew, each touching their candles to another, and so the flame was passed throughout the church until all our candles were lit. I held my candle in both hands and gazed down at the tiny flame as the names were read. What a lovely meditation. No thoughts. No talk of religion. The minister sang an eerie, beautiful chant: “I will show you hidden things, things you have not known.”

It was all over in less than half an hour. As each person left the church they were given a luscious dark red long stemmed rose. The minister and the Friends of Evergreen Cemetery flanked the wooden doors, shaking hands and greeting each attendant. I thanked them for the service. The minister asked me if someone I love had been buried in the cemetery this year. I replied No, my husband died in  – – – – -.

Spoken out loud, the date seems like such a long time ago. I tell you, it is not.

I did not mention that he is not buried anywhere. I did not tell them where his ashes still reside. I’ve often pondered the idea of having one specific place and time to think about him, as people do at a cemetery. I don’t have that. I think about him everywhere and always. Is that better or worse? I don’t know. And yet.

The service was lovely: so exquisite, so unassuming, so blessedly brief. I almost didn’t go because of my busy, busy day. I felt some relief when I found it would be over far sooner than I had imagined. But I think I’ll remember this day for a long time. What a straightforward, delightful gift: to create a moment to sit, surrounded by stone and beauty and light, among other people who are missing someone. To take a moment to reflect on the empty place in our lives. And yet.

I took my candle home and with it lit the candles on our dinner table. I cut the stem off the rose and put it into the arrangement left from our holiday dinner. My mother, my daughter, and I sat down to our rich supper of Thanksgiving leftovers. We talked, we laughed, we ate. Life goes on. I am getting on with things. And yet.




  1. Thanks, Carolyn. I noticed that service as well, and Paul is actually interred at Evergreen, as you know. But I was playing music with my son, his newly wed wife, my daughter, and her new wonderful boyfriend, in my living room, and that was good too. (The older daughter, also newly wed, stayed in Philly with her husband for the holiday.) As for beauty, sometimes when I hear music (which is daily) I can’t move, I can barely breathe, it is so lovely.


    • Noel, I was thinking of you, of course. I loved what you said about music: there are so many kinds of beauty, and healing. Your day sounds like the perfect homage to Paul. Funny how we take these little moments and make of them what we can. And how sadness and beauty can coexist and always, always do. Love.


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