Grief “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride
I used to hate funerals, I never knew what to say to the family of the deceased because every pithy phrase that I rehearsed in the parking lot sounded trite as soon as I took my spot in the receiving line, so I usually ended up just saying “I’m so sorry”. In addition to my ineptness with those elusive comforting phrases I always felt hypocritical trying to comfort the family since (at that time) I never really experienced grief.
In 2010 I lost my niece Samantha to cancer, followed in quick succession by the death of my mom, my father in law, my brother, my wife and my dad. Today, I feel confident that I have gained enough grief experience to offer an observation or two on this thing we call grief:
If there is one constant in grief it is this: every person and every experience is different. I have known people who found great comfort in a single quote or a scripture uttered at just the right time during their grief, but for me at least, a dear friend’s handshake or hug meant more than anything they could have said. In my experiences, being a friend before, during and after a loss is much more valuable than saying the right words.
At the risk of fueling the politically correct speech movement and being mindful of different grief experiences, the following is an attempt to explain how “words of encouragement” can sometimes be interpreted by our grief-stricken brain.
I know what you mean when you say, “She is better off now” or “She’s in a better place” and on some level I agree with both of those statements. Sometimes though, a grieving heart (especially after an extended caretaker situation) translates that statement to mean, “You did the best you could, but your efforts fell short”. The rational part of my brain is telling me that you meant, “She is in heaven and she has been made whole”, but in general it’s never easy for a grieving person to hear that their spouse, whom they loved more than life itself, is somehow happier and ” better off” now that they are no longer with you.
I know what you mean when you ask, “How old was she?” I know that it often used as a filler question in a funeral home and maybe its the smell of gardenias that triggers the question, but the devil voice in my head is saying, “What is that magic number of birthdays that satisfies the full life requirement?” The little pity party happening in my head often includes a quick calculation as I plot my own age on a bell curve to see if I fall within the standard deviation.
I know what you mean when you say, “You’re young or you’re attractive”…(awkward pause)…, “You’ll find someone else”. No, on second thought, I really don’t know what you mean when you say that, because the only time you should say, “You’ll find another” is when you are trying to comfort a five-year-old child after their puppy gets hit by an SUV.
And finally, I know what you mean when you say, “You were so lucky to have found your ‘true love’and experience a ‘storybook marriage’.” What I hear is, “You lucky dog, you happened to find your ‘soulmate’ and because of that you had a ‘perfect marriage'”.
The truth is Libby and I were blessed, not lucky, to have found one another, but we didn’t simply stumble into a great relationship, we fought for it, and when I say “we fought for it”, I mean that we literally argued and fought over a variety of meaningful core beliefs and embarrassingly trivial differences, but we also worked very hard to resolve those issues and keep our disagreements to ourselves as we worked through them.
The relationship between Libby and I took 37 years to develop and was not “a match made in heaven” as has been suggested. It was, however, a match made at the dinning room table where we each apologized after an intense argument and joking around during our meal on date night and taking long rides to discuss a major decision.
Ours was a relationship between two flawed people, both of whom often insisted on getting their own way and both of whom had to learn to give up some independence, pride and stubbornness, over and over again. Libby and I both jealousy guarded our time, our minds and our hearts to preserve and grow our terribly imperfect “perfect marriage”.