I read these words two months after learning of the untimely death of my stepson, John:

“It isn’t absence that causes sorrow. It is affection and love. Without affection, without love, such absences would cause us no pain. For this reason, even the pain caused by absence is, in the end, something good and even beautiful, because it feeds on that which gives meaning to life.”

Insightful. Comforting. Profound. But the words’ source was an unlikely one. Not penned by a poet or a philosopher or a best-selling grief counselor, these deeply moving words were written by Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli. They appeared on Page 121 of his book “The Order of Time.” When I read these words, time stopped for me, and I had to catch my breath.

I never expected to be confronted with my innermost emotions while reading a geeky science book. Like all so-called “triggers,” they caught me off guard. But these words, so unexpected in these pages, were so powerful, so beautiful, so meaningful, I couldn’t help but be moved.

I read that passage again and again. I shared it with my wife, John’s grieving mother, carefully handwriting these scientist’s words on the blank page of a cheerful card designed by a local artist friend. These amazing words resonated deeply with her, as well.

When people tell you, after a personal tragedy, “there are no words,” they are speaking truthfully and from the heart. I’ve said that more than once myself and meant it (all the while thinking, “And you call yourself a writer? How pathetic”). Some events in people’s lives are just so terrible that language alone cannot heal the pain, stem the sadness, assuage the grief. Sometimes a simple physical gesture, like a smile or a hug, is the better remedy – at least in the immediate, fragile moment.

But having said that, and having experienced what our family has gone through, I have to say I appreciate the effort. More than that, I marvel at our friends’ and relations’ abilities to convey their real, raw emotions and their love and concern for us in a few well-chosen words, whether face to face or in their thoughtful cards, letters and phone messages. Truly, their heartfelt words console and comfort us. To everyone who shared them, thank you.

At John’s celebration of life, there were many memorable moments. Friends and family members told loving and funny stories; a boat captain sang Jimmy Buffett’s “Son of a Son of a Sailor” in honor of John (also a man of the sea and charter boat captain); and John’s mother created a moving tribute slide show.

While it may be true that a picture is worth a thousand words, what many people remember to this day are a few simple words from John’s obituary: “John’s eyes were as blue as the ocean, his smile as bright as a summer day, his heart as big as the ships he sailed.”

Words matter. Simple words. Loving words. Healing words.


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