When Words Fall Flat

I’ve had a whirlwind of a weekend to contemplate mortality.

My grandmother passed away last week, and Karen and I were subsequently away to be with my parents for the funeral and related events. I was surprisingly numb during the proceedings…I didn’t cry during the funeral service itself, or internment, which was reduced to mere minutes by freezing weather and snowfall. To be honest, I was disturbed at my ability to remain clinically detached from the entire event. My only near-tearful moments were during the initial Skype call last week when I received the news, and the day after the actual funeral while I joined the family in sorting through my grandmother’s personal effects. The absence of her in her own home, the same home she had lived in throughout my life, was striking.

I did receive a hard education, however, in our culture’s detachment from death. Of all the hands I was forced to shake and the countless transparently forced pleasantries I was forced to endure for my parents’ sake, I was astounded that Karen and I were offered genuine condolences only about 3 or 4 times, out of what must have been a hundred greetings, conversations, and handshakes. I also failed to understand the point of morbidly drawn-out ceremonies that stretched from Saturday night through Sunday afternoon: a viewing that was four hours of nihilism with bad music looping in the background, the afore-mentioned funeral with internment, and reception at my parents’ community of faith that, while extremely well-intentioned, was ultimately vacuous.

I fail to understand the honoring of a shell, the morbidity of forcing family members to re-state and acknowledge their loss over and over. There is nothing cathartic or therapeutic about this. Grieving occurs while the family is with each other, supporting each other. There is no point of public ceremony here. What had happened with her soul had already happened. Nothing that occurred prior to the actual service and internment offered any sense of closure. I found solace only in the fact that honoring words were spoken by the minister presiding, and that the brief internment (abbreviated by exposure to northern weather) actually did offer closure to our loss.

Now, I’m left to ponder the darkness of the entire event, the confronting with loss when it seems to me we should be celebrating an end to pain, a continuation of grandmother’s soul with Christ, the nature of which we can only speculate.

Perhaps most memorable about the weekend was a passing conversation with my father about moments in which the failing of language to express condolence is so palpable. He described one person simply shaking his hand in silence and conveying compassion with his eyes. That, I think, is so much truer than trite expressions or verbose wishes that do nothing but leave the grieving emptier after they are said.

And, of those who also offered similar silent condolences to me, I learned that my only response could be “thank you.”

I find it amazing that, as one who loves to craft words, I could find none more poetic than that in that moment, and yet, that those were far more cathartic and effective in their simplicity than the emptiness vocalized repetitively by so many.

I resolve after this weekend that, in the future, when I don’t know what to say to comfort someone, I will say nothing, because to attempt to encapsulate that moment with words reduces the moment to something flippant, and is the cruelest of affronts to the grieving.

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