Monday, March 18, 2013

vocabulary lesson: mourning

We say some weird shit to people when someone dies.

Like, "I'm sorry." I used to hate this one. I always thought, "Sorry for what? You didn't kill them." Of course, what they mean is, "I feel sad that you are sad," but that's an awkward thing to say. Maybe just don't say anything? Maybe just give them a hug and bake them cookies or something? Because a huge part of caring about another person is being sad that they are sad. Which means that, when someone dies, it's sort of implied in the nature of your relationship that you feel sad that they are sad. So maybe instead of making awkward and incomplete statements about your feelings, just put your feelings on display. Show, don't tell. And if you're not so close that you hurt when they hurt, maybe just say something like, "That's so sad."

Another weird one is when you (the mourner) are crying/distracted/otherwise upset, and you apologize. I was talking about this one with my pastor yesterday, actually. He was saying how messed up it is that when someone you love dies and you express appropriate emotion over that fact, you somehow feel like you have to apologize to the people around you, who presumably didn't have a relationship with the deceased, or they would be crying too and would therefore require no apology? It's so weird! Like, "I'm sad because of something in my life that doesn't really touch you, and I'm sorry that --" What? Sorry that I'm sad? Sorry that i'm expressing my feelings? Sorry that i have feelings that you are not a part of? There is nothing to apologize for. So my pastor has decided that he won't be apologizing for that anymore, and neither will i.

Here's my favorite: the empathetic backdoor . . . It's not really a backdoor brag, i guess, but it's a backdoor something. Like this morning, when i was talking to some people in my office about taking time off of work to go to Bryan's funeral. One of the people i had to talk to outranks me, but isn't my boss exactly, but she runs campus visits and i sit at the front desk, so when i'm out and people visit it's awkward. So we were talking, and she knew Bryan a little, so she was like, "I didn't even know he was sick, it's so sad, blah blah blah." And i'm like, "Yeah, he was diagnosed about a year and a half, two years ago. Colon cancer. It was stage 4 when they found it, so we knew he probably wouldn't make it." And she's like, "Yeah, I have a friend who was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer, too, about a year and a half ago. And they did all kinds of treatments, and chemo and surgery and everything, and they ended up removing most of her liver. Because the cancer had spread to her liver. But, you know, she made it, and she's doing okay now." Um. Congratulations on your friend being on the other side of the statistic? What the fuck is the point of telling me this story?

Let people have their grief, okay? If you want to let them know that you know what they're going through, just say, "I know what you're going through," and don't elaborate. Especially if your story demonstrates that you DON'T, that you CAN'T, know what they're going through.

Also awkward is all of the euphemisms we use. I know that just saying "He died" is too harsh, too abrupt, but sometimes the euphemisms make you downright incomprehensible. When we got the news about Bryan, i texted one of his friends to let her know. At a loss for words, i said, "Bryan went home." "Home?" she asked. "His forever home," i clarified. On the other side of it, i once wrote a Facebook status update about my brother's progress in the hospital, and i said that he had passed a test, and someone told me that i scared them because they saw "Adam passed" and thought he was dead. Do all of these death euphemisms actually make people feel better? And if so, why? Which one is the best? "Passed, passed on, gone, gone home, passed over, left us, no longer with us, gone on," etc., etc.?

I mean, that's the reality, is that they're dead. And honestly, some of these euphemisms are almost worse. Bryan went home, huh? I know that theologically it's sound, but it's also kind of a shitty sentiment: was he so out of place here that it wasn't a home for him at all? Ever? Not even a little bit? Was there no moment in 27 years when he thought, "I belong here"? Or when we say that someone has passed, i always think of ghost stories where they talk about spirits passing over. It seems creepy and impersonal. Death is so black-and-white, so cut-and-dried, and i find that comforting. There's no room for equivocation, no room for political correctness or white lies or tact or passive-aggression. It simply is what it is. Everything else in life is so fraught and angsty and layered, but death is just death.

In other words, it's been one hell of a month, and i have lost the ability to talk about it "appropriately". The vocabulary i use and the stories i hear or tell don't change my feelings, and it's not my job to protect anyone else's feelings from reality.

1 comment:

  1. First, I want to thank you for your blog and your honesty. I do read you regularly, and appreciate your writing.

    Second, I agree. People say weird shit when other people die. When I say to someone that I'm sorry (after someone has died), I usually mean that I'm sorry that you lost someone you loved. I'm sorry that you have to miss someone. I'm sorry that we (the universe) weren't able to heal this person and keep them here.

    I am sorry you lost your friend. Peace be with you.