There are constant reruns (again this week) of the 1994 romantic comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral starring Hugh Grant and Andie MacDowell. It is a feel-good film but why is it so popular? Maybe partly because it mixes joy with sadness…and a lot of humour as well, of course.
We have been to two funerals – no weddings - in the last week. One of a man in his 80s and the other a woman in her 90s. Their passing was no great surprise. We were not particularly close to either. So, it is not as if we are in great mourning. They were nonetheless sobering events. These two people had been there in the background of our lives for many years. Now they are gone and in some sense, we are diminished by their passing.
We have also made visits to two relatives who are struggling with dementia this week. Again, a man in his 80s and a woman just turned 90. In both these cases there is a family bond. There are precious memories of a shared past when each was at the height of their powers. Every now and then each of them has a moment of lucidity. Something of their former selves surfaces fleetingly. And then, frustratingly it is gone as quickly as it had come. We feel we have lost or are losing something.
An outside observer might think that in each case we were the strong ones - the ‘carers’. The elderly relatives seem to be the ones who need what we have to give. But it is not as simple as that.
What we have lost or are losing gradually are people who for a long time have helped us to triangulate our lives. What is triangulation? Surveyors use it. They use a network of triangles to calculate distances and relative positions of points spread over an area. It is also a method used by people who are exploring unfamiliar territory. It is also used in psychology to discuss how the emotional needs of different members of the family relate to each other. In other words, triangulation is a way of getting our bearings.
These people who have recently died or who are slipping away from us in some significant ways have for many years helped us to get our bearings, spiritual or moral. Sometimes they simply offered everyday reactions to the wider world. We have seen how they have lived and perhaps admired it and wanted to emulate it. At other times, we may have looked at aspects of their lives and decided to make different choices. When they pass on we are left with fewer stars to steer by.
In a world which has become so very complex we need help to get our bearings. The fixed points are shifting fast. We need triangles of people who can help us find meaning, direction and stability. Triangles, after all, are supposed to be the most stable of all shapes.
There has been a mix of sadness and joy at these funerals. And there is a strange privilege in being present towards or at the end of precious relatives’ lives. Maybe we also can offer something in the way of triangulation points for people we rub shoulders with every day. We can give some joy. You don’t necessarily need a wedding for that.