This January, two close friends and my wife lost people close to them. As a result, I have become more-than-usual introspective about death, and comforting those whose loved ones have passed on.
Two mornings ago, I drove The Lady to a co-worker’s house so they could carpool to the boonies and attend a funeral and a memorial service. I hadn’t seen her co-worker in quite some time, and since he also happens to be a good friend (as well as a main reason we moved to Virginia in the first place) I stepped inside the house for just a moment to offer my condolences.
He wore black pants, a dress shirt and a somber necktie, and was signing a sympathy card. He was shaking slightly, and seemed incredibly distracted. We exchanged pleasantries (I recall saying something about not working today), and quietly backed out of the house. I don’t recall even saying “I’m sorry for your loss.”
I’m not saying this because I was offended by it. To the contrary, I think I confused myself in the situation, realizing pretty quickly that I didn’t belong.
There’s the crux of it.
You don’t have to be a Christian, or even religious, to understand this problem. You want to help, but it seems as if death has erected a wall between you and your loved one. It’s not intentional. Grief can sometimes be so impenetrable—like swimming through Vaseline—that you are just extremely uncomfortable and getting nowhere toward your goal of comforting the living.
I’m sure I’m not the first one to experience this, and certainly not using the most flowery writing to explain myself.
Grief makes you an outsider. The best I can describe it is when I returned from France. People I loved would ask “How was France?” Yeah. How can you begin to describe the emotions accrued over a year’s study? The love, the passion, the anger, the loss, the happiness, the hurt, the language struggles, the minor cultural victories where you understood something you never thought you’d get. So you say it: “France was fine.” And France was so much more, but I’d bore you and probably even embarrass with the details. I’d have to describe my host parents, and Astrid, and Todd, and Solfrid, and Aurélie. I’d have to describe the school. How can I do all that in response to a three-word question? So, yeah. “France was fine.” I erect a wall.
Grief is personal. Running through their minds are all the experiences—good, bad, and indifferent—with the deceased. Grief makes sharing a tactile, hard thing, like finding a forgotten pin in a new shirt. Kind, probing questions seem trite and unnecessary. You don’t want all that bared until you’ve had time to process it all.
They say time heals all wounds. I guess that’s true. Maybe it takes a whole lifetime to share the experiences of a lifetime. To say anything more would be a gross discredit to the feelings of the person you want to comfort. Yet, to say anything less would be rude. Sometimes all that can be said is “I’m sorry for your loss.” Sometimes only silence and time can perform the rest of the work.