Grief expressed through butterflies

Members of Heartland Presbyterian Church in Clive, Iowa set out butterflies as a  memorial to COVID victims. Photo credit: Julie Olson, October 2020

Grief beyond words

A few notes for Good Friday

by Ken Rummer 


From the musical

“There’s a grief that can’t be spoken.” A young man in a high-collared jacket is singing.

I’ve channel-clicked into the middle of a replay of the 25th anniversary presentation of Les Miserables. (Is that Nick Jonas singing?)

At this point in the story, the uprising has been put down. The student revolutionaries who fought at the barricade? All dead. 

All save one. Marius, though gravely wounded, has been carried to safety and nursed back to health.

Now, returning to the cafe where he and his friends used to gather, Marius sees “empty chairs at empty tables” and he sings of “a grief that can’t be spoken.”

Sudden tears

I’ve heard the song many times, but on this occasion, after just a few lines, my throat tightens and tears threaten. What’s going on?

As far as I know, none of my ancestors lived in Paris during the troubles of 1832. And besides, the friends for whom Marius mourns are all fictional characters in a Victor Hugo novel. So why am I so close to weeping? 

Do I, too, bear a grief that can’t be spoken?

When I worked as a pastor, there were times I felt I had to postpone my own grieving in order to help a family through the events and emotions of a funeral. Afterwards I could catch up. 

But sometimes the funerals would come in bunches, maybe three in two weeks, and there wouldn’t be enough time to catch up, and the payments on all that backed up grieving would start to come due. 

Could my sudden-onset tears be coming from a backlog of grief?


The Heartland Presbyterian Church in Clive, Iowa started setting out butterflies on their lawn as a memorial to those lost to COVID in our state (pictured above). If I followed their lead, what would it take to remember two and a half million, the worldwide virus toll we just blew past?

Let’s see. If I set out a dozen silk butterflies a day, I would catch up to two and half million world COVID deaths in … 571 years. If I spaced those butterflies six inches apart, I would need to trade my front yard for a football field, and then secure … twelve football fields more, just to fit them all in.

Who can grieve such a grief? Who can even begin?

At the cross

A scene from the crucifixion narrative in the Gospel of John draws my eye. It’s the one that puts the spotlight on three women near the foot of the cross. John identifies them as  the mother of Jesus, her sister Mary, and Mary Magdalene (John 19:25). The three Marys—I see them standing there, grief-blitzed and unspeaking.

On this Good Friday, in a year of death beyond comprehending, perhaps the best I can do is to stand with them. In sorrow and in silence.

Ken Rummer writer

Ken Rummer, Teaching Elder PCUSA, Honorably Retired

Ken Rummer writes about life and faith from the middle of Iowa by the High Trestle Trail. Additional blog posts may be found at

Notes to the song “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables.” Original French lyrics by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel. English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer. Music by Claude-Michel Shönberg.