Jubilation in Unlikely Places


What does jubilation look like?

Does it look the same to the grieving as it does to those not mired in grief?

Jubilation is different in kind, and not merely in magnitude, from happiness–and happiness itself may seem out-of-reach to those who long for the lost.

(I do not think “jubilation” meant what “Cecilia’s” lover thought it did; in context, he seemed merely to have been besotted by her sporadic company.)

To Frederick Buechner, jubilation was joy, a “dance of unimaginable beauty.” He saw happiness as merely a pale byproduct of “things going our way, which makes it only a forerunner to the unhappiness that inevitably follows when things stop going our way, as in the end they will stop for all of us.”  He points out that the Last Supper was eaten with knowledge of Jesus’ impending death, and as an occasion “was in no sense happy,” but nonetheless was an opportunity for him to express, without irony, “that my joy may be in you” (John 15:11).

Today I saw jubilation in what may seem the unlikeliest of places, including a cemetery where dozens of people gathered around a headstone, linked our hands in a large circle, then looked up to see our earthbound configuration echoed directly overhead in a perfectly round rainbow that lingered until we let go.



On my still-healing leg, I walked with a fellow widow whose friend’s family had organized an event honoring a brother who died from pancreatic cancer, the same hideous disease that took my husband from us when he was barely out of his 40s.

One sister had made a wall of photographs selected by people who loved others who had died of cancer.  Each one of of those faces radiantly smiled into a camera, and it was impossible not to smile back at the memories of pure joy captured forever and chosen to introduce our loved ones to people they had never met: one young man cradled the smiling baby son who would turn one just before his father died; another, on a canted surfboard, caught an enormous teal wave; a woman smiled from underneath a wool winter cap; my Jim grinned as he soaked in the sun at an outdoor Richard Thompson concert. (No one other than the two of us could have dreamed he was terminally ill, and his fanny pack contained a continuous infusion of chemotherapy drugs plugged into his implanted port, underneath an orange T-shirt.)

I realized that no grief dwelled in these pictures of those for whom we grieve.

These were pictures of jubilation.  Each face and stance expressed complete joy in a moment, unfiltered by the tears and longing of the living who gathered today, or the weight of their survivors’ memories of their illnesses and pain.

“Joy,” Buechner wrote, “does not come because something is happening or not happening, but every once in a while rises up out of simply being alive, of being part of the terror as well as the fathomless richness of the world…”

During that last outdoor concert before he died, Jim was not thinking one whit about his cruel affliction.  He was feeling the late summer sun’s warmth, enjoying a cold bottle of orange juice, listening in a lawn chair at sunset to one of his favorite performers, playing one of his favorite songs.  He was jubilant.

“You can go with the crazy people in the Crooked House
You can fly away on the Rocket or spin in the Mouse
The Tunnel of Love might amuse you
Noah’s Ark might confuse you
But let me take my chances on the Wall Of Death….”


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