Other people’s attempts at solace.

In most Western advanced cultures, we have got ourselves into a position where it is extremely uncomfortable to offer meaningful solace to someone recently bereaved. We have our stock phrases such as “I am sorry for your loss”; “Sad to hear your news”; “ You’ll be having a difficult time.right now…”, but even to us they sound hollow and even meaningless. The recipient accepts them with as much meaning as they accept change from a pound note or dollar bill; a necessary transaction with no significance. In a way, this has its strengths. It allows normal interourse to continue with both sides managing to avoid serious engagement. And that should not be deprecated too solemnly. Normal intercourse may be just what the bereaved craves: hearing about Joan’s onions or Jenny’s bunions may be more healing than having to endure more airing of grief, anger, loneliness, despair and anguish.

So whether as comforter or griever, it may be well to be patient of these social conventions, inane as they may well be at some deeper level.

Yet I often hear bereaved people say things like: “Why can’t they just talk about him as though he were still a real person?” “Why can’t folksy something nice about him, leaving it all to the eulogy?” “What I want to hear someone say is: ‘ She was a lovely old lady. I miss her.’, as if they meant it.”

These are all reminders of something central to the grieving person - validation of the deceased. True that has become institutionalized in the last fifty years by the much wider adoption of the eulogy as part of the funeral or memorial service. It used to be considered vulgar: now it is expected and if well done, is widely appreciated. The difficulty is that it has become trapped in that institutionalisation. Yet what the bereaved family often wants above anything else is for members of the community to remember the departed as a real flesh and blood individual with value, with presence, with worth. That is not to be confused with importance or fame or public note. It is nearer the heart, the root of the person than any of that. It is a public statement of their value, their impression on those who knew them, those among whom they moved.

And of course the way that is usually best captured is by the sharing of stories. “I remember when he saw a guy draw a knife on a policeman - and how he ran towards the bobby, while most of us were running in the opposite direction.” “Do you remember when they shut the village primary school and she campaigned so tirelessly to get proper transport laid on to take the village kids to Kemgrave?” “She always, but always looked in her bag when she saw me in the street, with a little conspiratorial smile. And somehow she always found me a toffee. I adored her!” “You could see her arthritis was getting worse but not once did I ever hear her complain. That takes guts.” Such vignettes, recalled with integrity and compassion, will often bring tears from the bereaved; and the teller of the stories may think they have made things worse rather than better. The reverse is true. Yes, it has brought the deceased’s memory back, sharper, brighter - but that is a gift to be treasured, not resented.

If time and circumstance permit, such sharing may encourage the bereaved to air some of their stories - and that, people often tell me, is the most therapeutic thing of all. “They let me talk about Dad as a real person, not a disembodied ghost. I told them about when he used to take part in the fell races. Of course, they never knew him in his youth, so they were really interested…..I think we all enjoyed it.”

So solace, at its best, is neither formulaic tokenism nor sentimentalised character sketching; it has much more to do with re-presentation that allows the bereaved to hear their loved one being en-joyed again.