How Can You Think of Beauty at a Time Like This?

Right before Thanksgiving her husband died, leaving her alone with two small children.  I knew Sara* from work, a tall, intelligent and lovely woman in her early 40’s, who managed to come into the office even when her husband was on hospice care.  I admired her strength and courage.   But she deflected my compliments, admitting that going to work was her respite, a mental break.  Still, I wondered how she had the fortitude and presence of mind to focus on the details of running an office, given her situation.

At his funeral, she was tearful, yet composed, even though men and women were crying around her.  After the service, we gave each other a long hug.  She listened intently as I managed to find some meager words of comfort.  How could I begin to help her?  A husband dead at 47?  Two children under the age of 12 who depended on her?  Her needs and worries had to be vast and overwhelming.

A few days after the funeral, a co-worker, (I’ll call her Judy) started a collection for Sara.   We signed the card.   I was certain the money was going to be put to a practical use—such as a college fund for her children.  But instead, Judy had purchased a large pane of stained glass.   She explained, “I was shopping with Sara last summer and we saw it in a store window.  She fell in love with it.  It meant something to her.”  I nodded and contributed some money, but privately I questioned her decision to buy something so frivolous, so irrelevant.  How could such a gift help  assuage some of Sara’s fears, concerns, and needs?  How could it truly help her?

Two weeks ago, Sara came back to work.  She was smiling, but pale.  A few of us gathered around her and Todd, one of the VPs, announced, “We have something for you.”  Judy stepped forward, revealing the large panel of stained glass patterned with sunflowers, gleaming green and gold in the light.  At first, Sara simply stared.   “I can’t believe you did this,” she murmured, her eyes filling with tears.  “You have no idea…. It’s beautiful.”

“You can hang it in your living room window,” one woman offered.

“Look at the colors when the light hits it,” said another.

Sara nodded, her head low, fumbling for composure.  One woman put her arms protectively around her.  Another handed her tissues, creating a circle of comfort while Sara cried.

Her reaction surprised me, but as I thought more about it,  I realized I had forgotten one important  truth…that even in times of pain and suffering, it’s important to remember beauty.

Etty Hilesum, a Dutch writer during the Holocaust, echoes this in her diary.  She writes that friends chided her for buying tulips one spring day in 1944 when the Nazis were filling the streets of Amsterdam.   “How can you think of tulips at a time like this?” one of her friends demanded.  In her diary, Etty had written that in times like this, times of great darkness and despair that we must remember beauty.  In fact, she wrote, we need it now more than ever to remind us that goodness and beauty still exist in this world.  This is what Sara already knew and what I have learned from her, in her grief.

* Not her real name.

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