In a word . . . Pieta

What can you say to a mother whose only child has been killed in an accident at 20?

 

Death does lose its sting as you get older. One of the more grateful experiences in middle age is the gradual and, hopefully, gracious acceptance of one’s own mortality. That one, too, will go the way of all flesh some day.

This is helped along by the increased frequency of funerals to be attended, whether they be of members of the older generation or of some from among one’s own. Those whose lives are marked out for brevity by accident or disease. Such familiarity breeds a certain ease with death.

More difficult however is grief. Tonight Western Christians will ritually mark the grief which followed the death of Jesus on Good Friday. Orthodox Christians will do so next weekend.

Such grief is best illustrated by Michaelangelo’s extraordinarily vivid Pieta at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and its many replicas in Catholic Churches around the world.With its dead Jesus draped across his sorrowing mother Mary’s knees, it howls pain where believers are concerned.

What is remarkable is that Michaelangelo was only 25 when he completed it in 1499.

How to handle grief? That is the question. It is probably more difficult to deal with the grief others. What can you say to a mother whose only child has been killed in an accident at 20?

How can you possibly console a friend distraught at the loss of her funny, happy, companionable husband at an early age through painful illness? Or someone older who loses a loved partner?

It can mean being reduced through helplessness to mouthing banalities, because there is nothing to be said or done. And time is not always such a healer.

Worse are those situations where the bitterly bereaved end up, in the midst of their own unfathomable sense of loss, having to rescue and even console sympathisers struggling for something to say.

Feeling futile in such situations can make one perfunctory at funerals. You abide by the ritual, shake the hand, utter the cliché, and move on lest you too end up an added burden on the bereaved as you struggle for words.

Still. A brother of my own went from diagnosis to death over an eight month period in 2016. The effort in being there and heartfelt sorrow of so many at his funeral was deeply appreciated.

Just being there and going through the motions can matter.

Pieta, meaning “pity” in Italian. From the Latin pietatem.

inaword@irishtimes.com

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