Comfort by Sarah Barnett

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shadow of a feather on fabric

Judy takes comfort in the feathers her dead husband leaves for her to find. Brenda says she’s comforted by her deceased son-in-law’s return to her home as a talkative, attention-seeking crow. “Nothing,” says Hank, whose wife died three months ago. He shakes his head, wipes his eyes.

In a few moments it will be my turn. I have no idea what I will say.

We’re at session five of the bereavement group I recently joined. My daughter Michele died almost five years ago. I’m giving “Grieving 101” another try. We sit in a circle on folding chairs in the cluttered craft room of the Senior Center where shelves are lined with pottery projects. Air conditioning comes and goes. I shift in my chair, cross and uncross my legs.

Like Hank, I can’t say what, if anything, gives me comfort. I do know that I’m mystified by the answers Judy and Brenda gave. My conception of death doesn’t include the idea that our dead loved ones send us physical signs of their presence.

When the group leader turns to me, I say the first thing that comes to mind. “Michele’s friends. They visit, send flowers on Mother’s Day, remember her birthday with notes on Facebook. Their children call me Grandma Sarah.”

I’ve never found it easy to talk about my feelings, especially on the spur of the moment, so I know that I’ll keep asking myself this question–what gives me comfort?

Later, as I walk my dog, a line from a novel I’ve recently read arrives in my head: The strangest things console me. I think of the framed poster that was the last birthday gift Michele gave me—the Brooklyn Bridge in winter. It hangs over the landing between the floors of my townhouse. Every time I walk down the stairs, I imagine that I’m crossing the snow-covered bridge, walking behind the lone figure in the image—a woman dressed in black, holding a red umbrella over her head, the only jolt of color in the scene. I grew up in Brooklyn and I love the poster, especially the way the silvery grays and winter whites contrast with the cool blue of my walls.

The woman in the poster wears boots and a shawl over her jacket. Why does she walk across the bridge in forbidding weather, I wonder?

What I really want to know is this:  When did I notice that the woman in black looks just like Michele? Same round body, same slope to her shoulders, same shoulder-length dark hair. I can’t remember if the realization arrived before or after she died. I only know that on every trip I take down the stairs, I focus on the figure and think of her.

I receive a text from Suzanne, one of my honorary granddaughters: “Hey Grandma Sarah. Look who paid me a visit today!” She’s attached a photo of a ladybug that landed on her dashboard. Michele loved ladybugs, believed they brought luck.

What do I say to Suzanne? The truth, or some version of it? Incredible! I write back. Thanks for sending. I love you. I add a few heart emojis for emphasis.

Does Suzanne really believe that Michele paid her a visit? Perhaps. Do I believe that our dead loved ones send us messages in the form of feathers, birds, or bugs? Or that Michele somehow inhabits my poster of the Brooklyn Bridge? No. But I’m happy that some people derive comfort from such thoughts. And I’m grateful for what my daughter did leave for me—this beautiful second family, the people who remind me that like that red umbrella, Michele’s memory stands out, a brilliant burst of color amidst a black and white landscape. I wish I could walk with her as she crosses that bridge, my steps landing in her footprints as I follow close behind.

Before retiring to Delaware and discovering the joys of writing creatively, Sarah Barnett had careers as teacher, librarian and lawyer—a period she refers to as “killing herself by degrees.” She enjoys leading Free Writes, teaching writing classes and composing essays and short fiction while walking her dog on the beach. Her work has appeared in Delaware Beach Life, Delmarva Review, and other publications.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Franklin Hunting

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