Joy and sorrow can live in the same house: Lessons in grief from an Irish wake

I got caught up in an Irish wake recently when my husband and I stopped in to a familiar restaurant for a quick bite. We pulled up to the only two seats at the bar, ordered, and settled in to talk.

Then we noticed the mounting noise – deafening volume, male and female voices, some shrill.

We looked around – a young crowd, much younger than usual for this place, all dressed up, sport coats and ties for the men, dresses for the women. Instead of talking to each other, we eavesdropped instead, the only option with the animated conversation all around and storytelling with bursts of laughter at the punch lines. Arms waved in the air to order more drinks. It was like the room was revving up for something big.

These people knew each other, that was clear, as there were long hugs, and pats on the back. There was a quality in the room that spoke of more than socializing, more than alcohol-fueled hilarity. What was the reason that these people were all together, on a late Tuesday afternoon?

A few midlife couples sat at one end of the bar, similarly dressed. They mostly watched the young people while absently stirring their cocktails. They looked tired.

Then the story started to come out. A young man walked up behind us and leaned in to ask for six drinks. The bartender replied, “Sorry, I’m told we can’t fill any more drink orders.”

“Oh, come on man, just give me the drinks. What’s it going to hurt?”

“No can do,” the bartender said, and went back to his glass polishing.

The young man went straight to the elders at the end of the bar and said, plenty loud enough to hear, “Are you kidding me? They cut us off. Do something.”

The dapper man rose and approached the manager. He looked to be getting the same answer.

The waiter brought our food. “So, what’s up?” we asked.

He spoke quietly, “They had a luncheon in the banquet room after a wake, open bar. You know, like an Irish wake. Things got a little out of hand and my boss decided to stop serving them over there. So they migrated.”

Ah, a wake. Grief + cultural tradition + alcohol = this.

I’m only somewhat Irish myself (and somewhat a lot of other things), so even though I grew up on the South Side, I can’t claim to be South Side Irish by any means. Those folks lived in the next neighborhood over, and I didn’t even know they existed until I was all grown up. (I might have gotten a clue when the cute new boy who transferred in from Brother Rice gave me his class ring, and took it back three days later on orders from the priest to not get mixed up with a non-Catholic girl. So much for my whirlwind romance, which admittedly was based on his soulful blue eyes and the fact that he could draw cartoons. It never would have lasted, but who, I thought, lets their clergy person decide who they could date?)

(The answer: A South Side Irish guy, at least back in the day.)

The confab between the dapper man, the manager, and the bartender, joined by the well-dressed woman at his side, continued in the corner. I heard the work “rowdy.” There was a little fist-waving, but management, consistent with their potential liability, wouldn’t budge.

The man stomped back to his seat to finish his own drink, and the woman went from group to group suggesting that they wrap it up and start moving out to the bus that idled outside. No one moved. The laughter, the storytelling, the back-slapping continued.

She made another pass, and one young man led his group out the door. Gradually a wave of departure took hold. The last young fellow out of the room stopped to speak to us.

“Listen, I’m sorry. They don’t mean any harm. Our grandpa died, and we’re not all together that often, and…”

“It’s no problem,” we said. “So sorry for your loss.”

He waved over his shoulder and headed toward the bus. It really was no problem, as it was the greatest demonstration of what I’ve said a thousand times – joy and sorrow can live in the same house. Which they have to because you can’t have one without the other. It’s a secret about loss that is often missed – there’s a lot of joy to find while you’re grieving, if only you know to look for it.

What will they remember about that day? Missing their grandpa, getting to see each other, hearing the stories, enjoying the comfort of togetherness. And when somebody tells the story about being cut off from all the drinks they were sure they needed, I bet it’ll get a big laugh. Always that day will be about both joy and sorrow, family and tradition, losing and loving.


Click here for a related post from 2014 also about grief but from a very different angle.

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