Monday, March 30, 2009


I always leave a visitation or funeral hoping I haven't said anything inappropriate, something that would increase the sorrow of the family member to whom it was said. And I realized this morning that we are all inept, bumbling fools in the face of death.

We ask, "How are you?" and the person thinks, Not well, not well at all, thank you.

We say, "I'm sorry" and the person thinks, So am I.

We don't know what to say. That's the bottom line. We don't know how the person feels, even if we've lost our parent, spouse, sibling, child just as they have. We don't know if things will get better. We don't know if they can be happy the person lived a good life or doesn't have to suffer anymore. We don't know if they can find comfort in knowing they were a good parent, spouse, sibling, child. We just do not know.

If I could sit with the person and take the time to compose my words, I would say this (and I use "she" and "her" in the interest of brevity):

"I acknowledge that someone very dear to you has died. Today, I feel such sadness for that loss, partly for my loss, but mostly because of the sorrow I see in your eyes. If the person was old, I acknowledge that you loved her a very long time, that she has been part of your life forever. If the person was young, I acknowledge the tragedy of a life lost too soon. If the person was sick and you took care of her, I know that you have spent a lot of time caring for her, thinking about her, dealing with doctors and hospitals and medicine, hoping for a miracle. If you were estranged from the person, I recognize that you may be living with regrets.

"I admit that today, I'm with you in your sorrow. I cry too. But I also admit that in a few weeks, the loss won't be so acute for me, the elements of my life will conspire to crowd out my feelings of loss. I do recognize, though, that your loss is a permanent part of your life, that every day will bring reminders of the person you loved, that you will still be dealing with the seemingly endless legal and financial details of death long after we all walk away from the funeral. I know that you will always miss your loved one, see the empty chair at the table, smell her unique smell in random places, wish to hear her voice one more time, cry when you hear a song or poem or walk on the beach alone. I promise to try to remember that you're still grieving and call or write every now and then to let you know that I'm aware of that."

Death leaves us speechless, really, because in the end it is the great unifier. We all lose loved ones to death, and each death forces us to face our own mortality. We can only offer our sympathy and honesty, and hope that we have been a small comfort.

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