Commentary: Comfort in sorrow takes many forms

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 27, 2007

By Sharon Randall

Scripps Howard News Service

From the better angels of our nature comes a longing in times of sorrow — a need both to comfort and be comforted.

It’s a package deal, two for one; to get it, you give it away.

Every morning for 15 years or so, my brother, Joe, who’s been blind all his life, started the day by calling our stepfather.

They talked about everything and nothing — the weather, the Braves, the price of chewing tobacco and the quality of the latest crop of tomatoes.

More than father and son, they were the best of friends.

But one day, when Joe called the rest home as usual to ask in his chirpy, cheery voice, “Will you please transfer me to my daddy’s room?” the nurse fell silent, then said, “I’m so sorry to have to tell you… .”

She said other things, too, details and such, but that was all Joe needed to hear to know this: His “daddy” was gone and life would never be the same.

It was not how we wanted him to hear it. When Mitchell, my nephew, arrived at Joe’s door minutes too late to break the news, he tried to think of some way to offer comfort. So he took his uncle to meet a horse.

Joe had never seen or touched or smelled a horse, let alone felt one slobbering on his hand. Now he has. It made him grin like a mule eating briars. And I would wager it did the same for my stepfather.

When it comes to offering comfort, not everyone is as gifted as my nephew. Most of us rely on words — something we can say or write in the hope that it will convey how we feel.

I love words. I had dozens of e-mails from readers who sent their condolences. Each one felt like a balm on my head.

Words are tricky; they can mean different things to different people, especially in times of grief. It helps, I think, to listen beyond the words and try to hear the intentions.

Food is different story. Nobody is ever offended by food. Even bad food is good.

My friend Martha lives in Texas, but we grew up in the same town. When she heard about my stepfather, she called her brother John, who lives near my sister, and told him to take a roasted chicken to my family.

John swears he tried to bring us that chicken, but found no one home, and was forced to eat it. It was a comfort just to hear him explain himself.

The day of the funeral, when we gathered for the visitation, we were greeted and hugged by a mortuary full of friends, some I’d not seen since high school.

A young couple who knew my stepfather at church came to pay their respects with their baby, Nicholas, who was starting to fuss. I’m not good at everything, but I know how to comfort a fussy baby.

“Give him to me,” I said. I walked about the room visiting with guests, bouncing Nicholas on my shoulder, sniffing his head the way my brother had sniffed that horse.

After the service, we drove to the cemetery that holds most of my family and buried my stepfather alongside my mother.

One cousin didn’t attend the service because she was mad at her sisters. So she watched the burial from across the street, bless her heart, hiding in the bushes at the Exxon station.

Comfort comes in all sorts of forms — consoling words and stolen chickens, slobbering horses and fussy babies, a mortuary full of familiar faces or the privacy of a bush.

It makes no difference, really, what form it takes. All that matters is the giving and the taking. We do the best we can. We prop each other up. And sometimes, it is enough.

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Syndicated columnist Sharon Randall can be contacted at P.O. Box 777394, Henderson, Nev., 89077, or at