“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Matthew 5.4
In addition to my longer, weekly meditation/post, I will be posting a new category on a small comfort- which is just what it sounds like- something small that comforts me. Today’s post will serve as an introduction to this series of posts.
When I was newly widowed, a friend who had lost her husband a few years earlier, would instant message with me, often late at night, and mostly listen to me as I tried to process what had happened. “Is there anything at all that comforts you?” she asked one night. “Chocolate?” “A cup of tea?” “No…nothing.” And I wasn’t playing the victim or being overly dramatic. I too was hoping/grasping for anything that might provide even a moment of comfort and relief from my sorrow. And there really was nothing. It was a space in time when I felt absolutely no sense of comfort.
Food, which many of us look to for comfort and sustenance, often in times of stress- was tasteless. I had no appetite and survived mostly on Ensure nutrition drinks in those first few weeks. Other distractions didn’t help either. I couldn’t watch a show online (I didn’t own a television at that time) because I couldn’t focus long enough on anything else except the fact that I was trying so hard to grasp and understand: “My 33 year old husband is dead.” My brain was totally occupied with processing my sudden loss. Even sleep was no comfort. I stayed up very late, afraid that if I lay my head down on the pillow before I was ready to fall asleep, I’d imagine what had happened in his final moments. Even as I lay sleeping, unconscious, I tasted and was fully aware of my fresh sorrow. And in the morning, a sick blanket of grief would hang over me as I opened my eyes and thought, “This is still real. It wasn’t a dream. I have to get up and live through another day of this.”
How ironic all of the cards from my well meaning Christian friends seemed, “Praying that you feel God’s comfort.” I did not. That is not to say that it wasn’t present or available, but when you are numb, you do not feel anything. I thought of all the times I had written that myself on cards for the bereaved or people who were struggling and I felt foolish. I thought about a song I’d written and recorded with my husband one day in our Brooklyn living room for a friend whose mother died instantly in a car accident. It was called, “Comfort:” “I have no words for your sad news today./ I have no wisdom, I have no beautiful phrase./ ‘Cause what I say, falls so inadequate, /so we send flowers- ’cause we’re helpless in this. / Oh, there’s only one hope we have…oh, and only one thing I can ask. That you would have His- comfort, invisible, wordless, let it be like water, pure and mysterious- like the light as the sun’s going down on us, comfort- comfort you now.” It had just the one verse and chorus and then repeated because- what more was there to say really? It was, ironically, the last song I’d ever written- and certainly the last song I’d ever recorded with my husband. I had even forwarded it later to another friend to send to her newly widowed friend. And here I was, now the widow myself- finding that the wishes for comfort solaced the comforters more than the griever.
When my husband died, the friend whom I’d written the song “Comfort” for wrote me this:
“As I have been feeling so sad these last couple days, it is your songs that replay in my head over and over as comfort…I pray that somehow those words and notes that you always so beautifully wove together will comfort you a little now.” But they didn’t. With music as a focal point of our relationship and marriage, it would be years before I could pick up my guitar, or even listen to contemporary music. I had a two year old, so I stuck with kids’ music- nursery rhymes and Laurie Berkner.
In an email I sent out to hundreds of friends and family with the funeral information, I signed it simply, “I am lost. There is no comfort.”
I am able to write about small comforts today because, like anything else, when you have known their absence, their presence is all the more sweet. I can remember vividly the first food- a sandwich a friend made me- that tasted delicious. Or what it felt like the first time I was able to watch an old episode of Arrested Development and something made me chuckle. Even when my grief was still raw, eventually I knew moments of comfort again. When I was pregnant I downloaded some meditations for labor- and one of them was to go through every part of your body that wasn’t in pain in order to take attention away from the contractions. “My shoulders are fine. My shoulders are fine. My shoulders…are…fine,” you would repeat to yourself with each body part. And I did use this during my 26 hour labor- and it did help. Small comforts are like that- they don’t mask or repress pain- they just take awareness someplace else that doesn’t hurt as much for a little while- a necessary reprieve.
Small comforts aren’t just material things, and they aren’t just a way to be grateful. They are a means to contentment. They are souvenirs of self-care. They can be a way to connect body, soul, and mind. Joan Didion, in a piece called “In Bed,” spends most of the piece describing the torture of her regular migraines, but in the final paragraph, she explains what happens directly following a migraine. If you’ve ever had a migraine, or even bad cramps, you understand what she is talking about.
Then the pain comes, and I concentrate only on that. Right there is the usefulness of migraine, there in that imposed yoga, the concentration on the pain. For when the pain recedes, ten or twelve hours later, everything goes with it, all the hidden resentments, all the vain anxieties. The migraine has acted as a circuit breaker, and the fuses have emerged intact. There is a pleasant convalescent euphoria. I open the windows and feel the air, eat gratefully, sleep well. I notice the particular nature of a flower in a glass on the stair landing. I count my blessings.