On Mourning


And, Death, once dead there’s no more dying then – William Shakespeare, Sonnet 145

Charleston’s riverside necropolis, Magnolia Cemetery

One of the worst things about getting older is that we attend more funerals



Heart attack

The causes of death of three lovely people whose funerals I have recently attended

The last one came as a shock

No warnings with cardiac events

As news spread of my pal’s death, people began to call, to text, to message, to ping

“What happened?”

Not helpful

The person is gone

Would have been kinder and nicer to just say, “I’m sorry”

Everyone says “sorry for your loss”, which, personally, I despise.  I am still struggling to know why that kind expression of sympathy flies all over me like the cheapest of suits

Why does it bother me so?

A friend tells me I think it trite

Another friend tells me I think it cliche

Will have to pray about that

Everyone says, “You’re in our thoughts and prayers”

That’s lovely, too, but, similarly, it kind of drives me crazy

A friend tells me I think it trite

A friend tells me I think it cliche

Will have to pray about that, too

But, I won’t send emoji prayer hands

That really drives me crazy

As I recently told the deceased closest’s relative, if anyone says, “It’s God’s will” or “God has a plan” then I’m available to throat punch those speakers

I am re-reading Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking for the umpteenth time

It’s such a powerful exploration of that land we all know and go to time and time again


“Grief is different. Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eye and obliterate the dailiness of life.”

Mrs. John Dunne got it right

We don’t

In her book, she writes a history of mourning.  We don’t mourn any more. We don’t offer broth and toast and quiet and stillness.  We don’t leave people alone for six months. We don’t say, “They’re in mourning.” A century ago, we all knew it meant not to bother them or invite them anywhere.  In mourning also meant that we knew as a society that they were going to be out of their minds for a while, crazed with grief

Our only nod to mourning, black or dark clothes worn to funerals

In the South, mourning used to be strictly observed e.g. Mrs. Wilkes in Gone With the Wind advising Cap’n Butler that Mrs. Hamilton will not dance as the family were still in mourning.  When Mrs. Hamilton accepts the dance, her aunt Pitty Pat faints in shock

Now, we say, “She’s handling it really well”

Now, we say, “He’s a rock”

Now, we say, “She’s keeping it together for the children”

Now, we say, “Oh, life goes on”

Does it?

Handling it?

She wants to scream her head off and tell you all to leave her alone

He wants you to know that he will never love anyone again

When there’s a death, we should just let the family be, and we should just be with the family

Just be

Just be


Hold a hand

Don’t engage in inane conversation, just be

In our age of constant entertainment and distraction, we think we should take the family on a vacation somewhere wonderful ASAP

“It will get their mind off it”


Why would they want to have their mind off their loved one?

They don’t


See, e.g., Funeral Blues by W.H. Auden, not repeated her because Auden’s Estate did not give me permission

As I write in every single condolence letter, if Jesus wept at the loss of a friend, then who are we to not?

Why do we need to move on?

How awful

As some of you know from an earlier missive, my Eighth Grade English teacher was the wife of the long time minister of the Baptist Church of Beaufort.  Mrs. Spears taught us many things, but, when a classmate’s father died, she took a group of us to the house. Before we arrived, Mrs. Spears told us to follow the lead of those closest to the deceased and let them talk.

“Just tell them you’re sorry,” said Mrs. Spears, “They’ll talk when they want to talk. If not, just stand or sit with them. They’re glad you’re there”

In the receiving line for another friend, I told her husband that I was just so sorry that she was gone

“Fifty plus years of marriage, and, now, just me”

“I’m so sorry,” was all I could say again and again as he talked

After a minute or two, he said, “I’ll miss that laugh”

“Oh, she had such a great sense of humor,” I responded. Then, I told a funny story about the deceased which the widower had forgotten

He beamed

“Thank you, Hamlin. She thought y’all were just wonnerful”

“We thought she was wonnerful, too”

The Victorians excelled at mourning and creating parkland graveyards

Be close to those who mourn

They shall be comforted

May be by you

Stand with them

Just stand with them

Put your arm around their shoulder

Hold their hand

Just be

Bring some food

Bring a cooler of ice

Bring your grandmama’s award winning pie

Bring a sad pound cake, and, if you know what that is, then you should totally bring one

Bring a casserole that can be frozen for later use

Bring a bag of paper products, including toilet paper

Bring prepared sandwiches

If you live in Charleston, call Miz Hamby’s for same

Don’t bring that slick ham platter from the grocery store deli department

Offer to help write the obituary

Offer to call anyone to spread the news

Bring flowers

I always bing cheese straws

I’m a one trick pony

Years ago, when someone died at home, a friend’s mother was overheard talking to the local florist, “Yes, that would be fine but nothing funerally like glads or carnations, hear?”

No glads

No carnations

No sprays with a toy telephone that says, “He Called.”

That is a real arrangement that I’ve seen with my own two eyes

Add the deceased and the family to the prayer list

Write the family a note on your stationery, which, I hope you have purchased from Arzberger’s in Charlotte, NC

When my sister-in-law died in 2014, the most wonderful note we revived was the most simple

Dear MP, Hamlin, Margaret, and Perrin

I am so sorry. There are no words. None. I love you all

That was it




In four months, when no one is knocking on the widow’s door or asking the children how they’re doing, or telling the widower that they’ll check on him, or remembering to call, take them supper, talk about the loved one, ask them to coffee, tell them how much you, too, missed the deceased

Let the tears flow

For the family, it will soon be as still as the Wragg Mausoleum

In those quiet moments months from now, when they can’t sleep, when they hear a song that reminds them of the deceased, they need friends

We should bring back mourning, complete with black arm bands and heavy crepe

Instead, we will say

“They’re holding up so well”

“They’re so brave”

I have heard dear friends, people whom I adore, say “Well, she never got over his death”

Nor should she

Nor should he

Nor should we

We don’t do death well anymore

We need to mourn


8 thoughts on “On Mourning

  1. Yes. Yes. Yes. And yes….. Agree and agree emphatically We just don’t seem to want to feel. Feel it..carry it with you..that is a gift given by death..feel it. Thanks for a very thoughtful piece..a lovely admonishment.❤️

    Sent from my iPad



  2. Dear one. Thinking of you every other hour. I heard Coffin deliver this eulogy for his son, Alex, in Riverside Church. It echoes so many of your thoughts. I hope you don’t mind that I post it here. And I am with you on “I am so sorry for your loss.” It grates. Lauren Bacall said her best note when her husband died was just a note that said ‘Terrible’. Those of us who mourn understand that it never ends, but that it is something to hold in our hands, and hopefully feel it turn from a giant hole into a smaller solid, something we can finger in our pocket, speak to, caress. https://www.pbs.org/now/printable/transcript_eulogy_print.html


      1. I thought the same thing. He was a marvel. We were all a little in love with him. The juiciest reverend. A pied piper of hope. I miss him dearly, too.


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