A time for laughter - not forgetting

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I HAVE been reminded again this week how bad people are, especially perhaps the English, at dealing with the newly bereaved. I suspect that the reason is nothing more than embarrassment but the fact is, we shun people who are grieving. We retreat behind evasions such as, 'We must get together when - you know - all this is over' and behave as though sorrow were a full-time job leaving no time for anything else, blotting out the need for company, conversation, news and gossip.

Sorrow is full-time, at least for the first weeks and months; but warmth and affection are the only ways to alleviate it. Yet even when we do bring ourselves to talk to people who are grieving, we murmur in low voices, as though energy and laughter were somehow in bad taste; an insult to the dead.

This social isolation can last for months, years even, to the point where old friendships have been obliterated by silence. A young widow I met recently had been astonished to discover that some of her friends offered no comfort at all, while others were generous with imaginative sympathy. 'I could never have guessed beforehand,' she said. 'Some of my oldest and closest friends just disappeared, yet others I hardly knew have been wonderful.'

There may be an element of 'there but for the grace of God go I' in this unintentional callousness, but I suspect the real reason is that death has become a social taboo. People will exchange intimate details of their sex lives (unimaginable a few decades ago; unthinkable to the Victorians) but cannot find the words to discuss death. We use circumlocutions; we try to avoid seeing, let alone touching, the recently-dead; and after donning black for the funeral and writing a formal letter of condolence, we retreat from those grieving

as though they had become untouchables.

The rigid panoply of mourning has gone: which is probably all to the good. Funerals used to be as expensive as weddings - their negative image as it were, one black, one white. For months the entire family would wear unrelieved black and even jewellery had to be jet. People were expected to stay at home, avoiding society and eschewing entertainment. All that is left of this now is the convention of wearing a black tie to funerals, and perhaps for a week or so afterwards. It is no longer possible to distinguish those in mourning from anybody else, which makes it all the more important to give them extra attention and especial kindness.

My friend Mazella in Paris, whose husband died a month ago at the age of 49, finds herself utterly isolated. Her circle of friends has dwindled to two - though those two, she says, are wonderful. Everyone else is leaving her alone, to 'get over it', promising to 'be in touch when you feel better'. Even at work she has been told to put on a cheerful face; people don't care to look at a sad expression.

Thus, unwittingly, we add to the isolation and shock of the newly bereaved. They don't want to be left alone: they need, as never before, to be surrounded by affection and contact. They can be telephoned at any hour of the day or night. They long to hear about the world outside their own dismal treadmill of sadness. It is not heresy to make them laugh. Above all, they yearn for stories about the person who has just died. First, they want your fund of memories; anything that will bring him or her back, however temporarily or incompletely: an anecdote, a characteristic turn of phrase, a joke. Then they want to share theirs.

The questions with which to prompt them are simple and obvious: How did you meet? What's your first memory of him/her? What made you fall in love with each other? What did he/she look like in those days?

My mother, it transpires, has been recalling vividly for my 22-year-old daughter - her grandchild - her life as a young married woman in the Thirties. Not only is this valuable family history; it convinces my daughter better than anything else could that her granny was once a young woman just like herself. It shrinks the generation gap and gives them both enormous pleasure. My daughter is astounded to find how much they have in common and they are closer now than they have ever been. This is how experience should be passed down: by memory, nostalgia, laughter and confession.