In the face of death, we don’t know what to say. We fumble with phrases.
She lived a good, long life.
Time heals all wounds.
You’re strong. You’ll get through this.
These are actual statements; spoken in good faith; offered for comfort; the last said to a friend when her husband died. Four years later, it still astounds her.
Are words inadequate, or do we just think it is too difficult to find the right words?
I vote for the latter. For most of us, the topic of death is unwelcome, disturbing, even terrifying. We do not want to think about it. So we mumble a cliché, put our signature on a card and hope to God we never have to mention it again.
But I believe in words.
I am not saying it is easy to find the right words. In fact, it is as tough as it gets.
But words make a difference.
I still think about an email I received the day after my Mom died:
I can only hope that in my old age, my daughters show the dedication, love, and attention to me that you have showered on your mother…Please know that I have admired and appreciated your relationship…all these years, and many little things you have shared with me remain detailed in my mind…as things that my mother might enjoy in her later years…
Through this message and others, my friends helped me get to the other side of the deep, numbing pain that engulfed me.
It is possible to find words that heal. When my dad died, one of his business colleagues sent a long letter filled with funny stories and incisive observations. He wrote:
“A friend in the office remarked to me that he had no enemies in the world; a man without malice or rancour, but with a sweet and philosophical temperament that was a warming influence on all of us who have followed him.
From my office in London, I always looked forward to his letters. His opinions were so well thought out and so eloquently expressed that one could look back on them years later and find that they remained true…
He was one of the outstanding original men that I have had the privilege to know in my almost twenty years with the company. I am grateful for his friendship and his guidance, and will always think of him…”
Each time I read that letter, his words bring my dad back to me.
And I was deeply moved when, about a month after my Mom died, a friend sent a letter filled with recollections, both humorous and poignant. She observed:
She had a wonderful outlook on life, it seems to me…so alive and funny, and dear to be around. I felt lucky to have known her, and there is such a warm quality to your mother…such graciousness and acceptance. I felt very accepted by her, and was always overjoyed by her visits…”
My friend apologized that she had taken a long time to finish the letter. I told her that a month is not long; in fact for me, there is no such thing as “too long.” I would welcome that letter today.
Why are these messages comforting?
In my view, it is because each friend took time.
Each thought about and conveyed a sense of the person, describing fond and funny memories as well as sorrow for our shared loss.
And the friend who had never met my Mom told me our relationship had inspired her.
Buoyed by their words, I felt heartened by the legacies of both my parents. I felt better.
But what do you say to a grieving person? You are standing in the church and there they are and you are; you have dreaded this moment. What do you possibly say?
A friend who recently lost his dad proposed a simple and elegant solution: “I am sorry for your loss.” I agree, and yet I must add that I am grateful to people who told me–some through tears–how much my Mom had meant to them. I appreciated hearing stories that I had not known. And I enjoyed this comment by a fellow resident of my Mom’s nursing home:
“If your Mother could die, then it could happen to anyone!”
Words made me laugh.
Words made me wistful.
Words made me feel less alone.
“I know that she had a full life and two wonderful daughters but moms are never supposed to die.”
“I will always think of him…”
Words can express.
(Quotes used with permission)