How I Learned To Mourn


In the several weeks since my wife passed away, so many well-intentioned friends have consoled me with, “If you ever want to talk . . .”

I would thank them, but in my heart I would mutter, “What’s to talk about? She’s dead.”

And I myself would die a little bit.

So I didn’t want yet another memorial service when I arrived in Vieques last week—my first time back on the island since Jo Anne’s funeral.

I had already struggled through a wake, a Mass and the interment service. At none of those gatherings could I bring myself to speak aloud. At the services, my daughter read the eulogy I had written.

But now the group Jo Anne and I snorkeled with wanted to honor her memory at one of her favorite snorkeling spots—a pier jutting a mile out into the Atlantic toward the main island of Puerto Rico.

I thought it would be selfish of me to deny these caring people a rite of closure. So on Tuesday morning I joined them at the pier, my heart in my throat, because I knew I would have to speak of her.

And I spoke. Without any notes, without my thoughts passing through the word processor, without sobbing:

I spoke of how Jo Anne and I had met as students at Fordham University, each of us professing love at first sight

Of her multifaceted life as mother . . . teacher . . . dancer . . . actress . . . producer … voiceover artist . . . video editor

Of how she adored fish . . . enough to create three cascading ponds at our Cape Cod home for her two dozen koi . . . and name each one

Of how she hadn’t learned to swim until a few years ago . . . and discovered, through snorkeling, a whole new world under the waves

I spoke of her 16-year struggle with breast cancer, which finally stole her away two months ago . . . days after we had celebrated our fiftieth anniversary with a bedside renewal of wedding vows

And I told the group what her mother said after watching one of Jo Anne’s first stage performances: “I never knew you were such a ham.”

"That little ham would have loved seeing all of you here in her honor," I ended, "and since you’re all standing anyway, how about giving her a standing ovation?"

And they did.

Others spoke of Jo Anne. Special stones were placed in the sea in tribute to her. And flowers were spread on the face of the waters, which were uncommonly calm that morning.

What I learned, thanks to the opportunity that these snorkelers gave me—even as they memorialized my wife—was how to mourn.

Grief, I’ve read, comprises the galaxy of painful thoughts and emotions that assault us when a loved one dies. When someone as close as a spouse dies, our own identity is altered, our view of our place in the world is disturbed. The origin of bereavement, for instance, is to be robbed, to be plundered. Isn’t that exactly what occurs when a loved one is taken?

The image below, Jo Anne seated beside her koi ponds, summons up for me the woeful knowledge of bereavement that the ancient Hebrews expressed in Psalm 137:

By the rivers of Babylon

there we sat weeping

when we remembered Zion.

On the poplars in its midst

we hung up our harps.

For there our captors asked us

for the words of a song;

Our tormentors, for joy:

“Sing for us a song of Zion!”

But how could we sing a song of the Lord

in a foreign land?

Mourning, I learned, is when I take the grief I have on the inside and express it outside myself. Only then does the poetry of Pablo Neruda begin to make sense: “My feet will want to walk to where you are sleeping but I shall go on living.”


Read my newest book, Fat Guy in a Fat Boat, in print or Kindle from Amazon:

Also available is my e-book, A Light from Within, about the small moments of our lives that seem commonplace until they are examined under a creative lens.

And my weekly reflection on each Sunday of the Jubilee Year of Mercy can be found at:

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