The Profound Power of a Simple Eulogy

Moderator’s Note from Sally Quinn: Every once in a while we see or hear something at a funeral or a … Continued

Moderator’s Note from Sally Quinn:

Every once in a while we see or hear something at a funeral or a wedding or a ceremony that so touches us, that is so seminally powerful that we gasp in recognition. “Yes”, we say. “This is right, this is what it is about.”

Such a eulogy was given last week for Amy Rosenblatt Solomon. Amy was the 38-year-old daughter of my good friends Roger and Ginny Rosenblatt. Amy was beautiful, smart, kind, funny, decent, loyal and hard working. She was a pediatrician. She was married to a doctor as well. But most importantly, she was the devoted mother of three amazing children, ages 6, 4 and 1. Amy dropped dead inexplicably, with her children beside her, running on the treadmill.

How can you live with that? What do you say? How to explain it? How to comfort her inconsolable husband, her children, her parents, her two brothers her loving friends? As soon as heard I called my friends and left a garbled, halting, incoherent message of condolence. I didn’t know what to say.

But at Amy’s funeral Erik Kolbell knew exactly, and he left us all feeling a sense of wonder at how words really can be meaningful in a situation that seems so meaningless.

Erik was a minister of the United Church of Christ. He officiated at Amy’s wedding. He is now a psychotherapist. He was faced with a particularly difficult task: to give a eulogy for a family that was not religious. The service was held at the chapel at Gawler’s Funeral home. It was overfilled with mourners, some religious, some not. One might have thought that to give a eulogy to this family, invoking God and yet not seeming to be pious would have been impossible.

“…we must believe in something, “ he said. …”Sisters and brothers, if this is so, let us believe then in one another.”… Remember, he added, “that a bad theology is no match for a good casserole or a stiff drink.”

Imaginably, it was an emotional funeral. When someone’s child dies it is almost too much to bear. But Erik Kolbell’s words seemed to give everyone a glimmer of hope that perhaps that by looking after one another, Amy’s loss and the memory of her, will, after all, be bearable.

Here is Erik Kolbell’s eulogy:

By Erik Kolbell

For Amy Rosenblatt Solomon:

We dwell for a time in the midnight of our souls, pitch black and bitter cold. Absent of dimensions so that we do not know how much distance is yet in front of us, what monsters lurk behind or beasts beneath, or how tentative or sure-footed our next step will be. Without boundaries we are also without logic, or reason. Efforts to explain tragedy are heresies because they cheapen it, deprive it of its primal, awful power. They treat it as though it is a thing to be swallowed stoically, a bad bounce of the ball, an unlucky break, or, what always boils my blood, the mysterious act of an inscrutable god.

In fact tragedy is none of these things – if God is to be discerned amid such profound sadness it will not be found in pious explanations or hollow reassurances. A woman of such grace and kindness does not die because of a natural order of things. Children are not denied their parent nor parents their child, a husband is not denied his wife, brothers their sister, or friends their companion because forces are at work that we are incapable of understanding. Sometimes, too, too many times, the arbitrariness of life rises up against us and deals us a blow so stunning as to freeze us in our place and then render us forever changed. And this is what we are now; forever changed. Whatever particulars might have previously either bound us to one another or distinguished us from one another are now so secondary as to be meaningless. Now we are bound by Amy, by loss, and by all of the feelings that attend that loss. And that is no small thing on which to hang our pain, because if nothing else it tells us that in that immeasurable darkness, that midnight of our souls, we do not wander alone.

It is easy, particularly now, to feel terribly alone, especially in a season that bludgeons us with the expectation that joy will ring throughout the world, that hope will spring from the lamp in an ancient temple or the child in a Bethlehem manger. It is the time of good cheer because religions have deemed it so, because the days continue to shorten and the nights lengthen, and still, we must believe in something. Because the lilies have long since withered and gone underground, the willows have shed their filigree leaves and hang fragile and naked near the pond, itself frozen still with black ice. And still we must believe in something. Because the bitter wind batters the old shutters and blows through the eaves, the creaking house a refuge under assault from winter’s way, and still we must believe in something.

Sisters and brothers, if this is so, let us then believe in one another. In a world so torn by hatred, in our world, now caved in upon itself by this one unbearable loss, let us bear it together. What better remembrance of Amy’s inextinguishable light than that we now illuminate each other’s lives, look after one another, be exceedingly patient and unreasonably kind to one another. Look after the kids who were in their mom’s eyes the very essence of all that is good and pure in this world. Extend our love for Harris beyond these walls, this time and this place, and more so, beyond mere sentiment. Keep him in our hearts, and in our minds, but also in our lives. Remember that a bad theology is no match for a good casserole or a stiff drink. Hold tight to Ginny and to Roger, to Carl and John, be quick to listen and slow to talk, long on comfort and short on advice. And when words fail or are not called for, when they can only settle like dust in a twilit room, be willing simply to sit with the silence, as the poet Rilke said, and keep company with the one who is sad. It is in doing this that we heal those who have suffered most greatly here, and in so doing it is how we come to heal ourselves as well.
But when I say healing I do not mean that we will remove our pain as though it is a demon once and for all exorcised. What I mean is that we will at least soothe that pain the way cool water provides momentary respite for parched lips. The memory will stay with us. Amy will stay with us, as will her death, until it becomes a part of us – nerve and fiber and glance and gesture, never far away, but, with one another’s help, bearable.

And this is the privilege of what we must do for one another. No one else will do it for us. God has no hands on earth but ours. In helping each other in this midnight of our souls, lurching forward into a dark unknown, in Amy’s name we love each other a little bit more. As an old friend who also lost a child at a young age once told me, such love does not make the loss worthwhile, but it makes it worth something.

Nine years ago, on the eve of her wedding, Roger wrote a wonderful essay about Amy in which he included these lines from Yeats’ “A Prayer for My Daughter:”

“How but in custom and in ceremony
are innocence and beauty born?”

Let me close with the words with which Yeats opened that poem. They are for Amy, and they are for us.

“Once more the storm is howling, and half hid
under the cradle-lidded coverlid
my child sleeps on.

Closing

This concludes our service but not our celebration, our remembrance. That is something that will stretch from here on out into the future, into the weeks and months and years and miles to come. It is a small and cooling fire that will be rekindled any time any of us are gathered around a meal or a school or a workplace or a playground, and a memory is sparked. A glint will come across your face, you’ll smile a smile of recognition and gratitude, and you will tell the other, “This reminds me of a time not so very long ago, I was with Amy Solomon…” In the event you will remember it being better because she was a part of it. And you will be better because she was a part of you. And in our own way, I hope we will be there with you. One small recollection of my own: when Amy and I first met it was to discuss my participating in her and Harris’ wedding ceremony. After introduction and small talk I mentioned my love of the Grateful Dead. Her eyes lit up, a big neon grin crossed her face, and she said, “A Deadhead minister. Yeah, you’ll do just fine.” So with that in mind, let me close with a benediction not from the Book of Prayer but from Jerry Garcia and the song “Brokedown Palace”:

Amy, fare thee well, fare thee well. We love you more than words can tell. Listen to the river sing sweet songs, to rock your soul.

Amen.

Erik Kolbell is a United Church of Christ minister, formerly on the staff at The Riverside Church in New York City. He is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist. He is the author of three books: “What Jesus Meant,” “Were You There,” and “The God of Second Chances.” All three are published by Westminster Press, with the latter one scheduled to be released in March of 2008.

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  • Beth-Ann Wolfson

    I have a friend who is going through treatment for fourth stage ovarian cancer. Her prospects are very dim and I’ve been thinking how could someone so sweet, so caring, so loved by family and friends possibly leave us.

  • Alex

    This was a very moving article and full of words of encouragement that I will remember for a long, long time to come. Some people are gifted in expressing what the rest of us feel and Mr. Kolbell is one of those people. I now feel as if I knew Amy if only through his words.Thank you for that.

  • frank collins

    when its your time you go. how is that for an ultimate truth. lots of good people die.

  • Nice One

    Way to add an intellectual, emotional, and heart felt sentiment about bringing the world together, Mr. Collins. I hope that expressing your sentiment has somehow eased what appears to be an agonizingly painful pressure on your soul.

  • Amy

    I am equally intrigued and disgusted that someone would be willing to tie their name to such a seemingly ignorant statement, as Mr. Collins has done above. Yes, death is an inevitable force that all of us will one day face. But just as each person has the right to his or her own opinions, so does each grieving family member have the right to feel some sense of tragedy when a loved one is lost. I was terribly moved by this piece, and only wish that my own grandmother could have received such a heartfelt eulogy in exchange for the rushed sermon spoken at her recent funeral, chanted off a laminated sheet of paper by a military chaplain-cum-auctioneer. I commend Erik Kolbell for his eloquence, spirit, and depth of understanding.

  • DoTheRightThing

    It’s sad for those who knew or knew of Amy that she died so young. The sermon sounds very stoic. A decade ago I would have been surprised to find such words fairly devoid of hope written by a Christian minister.

  • Amy

    I am equally intrigued and disgusted that someone would be willing to tie their name to such a seemingly ignorant statement, as Mr. Collins has done above. Yes, death is an inevitable force that all of us will one day face. But just as each person has the right to his or her own opinions, so does each grieving family member have the right to feel some sense of tragedy when a loved one is lost. I was terribly moved by this piece, and only wish that my own grandmother could have received such a heartfelt eulogy in exchange for the rushed sermon spoken at her recent funeral, chanted off a laminated sheet of paper by a military chaplain-cum-auctioneer. I commend Erik Kolbell for his eloquence, spirit, and depth of understanding.

  • Anonymous

    CONDOLENCES from Brookly, N.Y., U.S.A, To Sweet Sistar AMY , a real ROSEN… & America’s FINEST folk too! Ya Ya!

  • Luke

    What an incredibly beautiful eulogy. It must be even more difficult for a man of faith to reconcile the mortal cold of the universe with an ever-loving God. Good luck to him, and heartfelt condolences to the family.

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