Good Grief

Yesterday I went on a website dedicated to obituaries and to providing information about funeral arrangements and donation options so friends and “loved ones” (weird phrase in my book) can get the scoop and appropriately honor and mark someone’s loss or passing.

And there’s a section in which you can leave a comment for the bereaved family, expressing condolences or memories about the deceased.  No problem so far, right?

Yet I gasped when presented with words to choose from that expressed my grief. Maybe because I’m a writer, I take it for granted that I could figure this out myself. There was even a plural version of the exact same sentiment in the singular voice. In case I needed a ghostwriter to get me from “I” to “We” thoughtfully.

I know that expressing grief is something we all dread, fearing that we will sound callow, shallow or trite.  And I know that it’s better to say (almost) anything than to say nothing when faced with someone’s loss.  So maybe this is a useful service.

Yet I was sickened by the cheapness of these sentiments.  Unless they’re your sentiments exactly, in which case you could probably think of and say them.

I think we’ve become inured to the experience of death in America.  We sanitize it, avoid it, “euphemize” it, rush through it.  We “wish (people) the comfort of friends and family” as a panacea, instead of BEING that comfort for them.

We tell people that “our thoughts and prayers are with (them)” — in a passive voice, disembodied from actual prayer.  I know I have no right to say that anyone doesn’t actually pray.  I’m simply talking about myself and how easy it is to glibly say “I’m praying for you” and how much I hate it when I do that if I’m not going to actually pray for this person with some regularity and with some expectation that the prayers are effective.  I do believe prayer is effective in stirring up God’s comfort; I believe it deeply.  But because I believe it, I only want to say it if and when I mean that I will do it, vs. because Hallmark (or a website) suggests that those are comforting words to hear or say.  Actually they are words that annoy me when thrown out flippantly.

And this website suggests a lovely poem that I could send as a greeting to my grieving friend putting a very happy spin on death and heaven.  But what if 14 friends took that suggestion and the family of the deceased person got 14 identical messages with the same poem.  A poem that may or may not be comforting and could even be offensive to some.  Hmmm… I’d rather offend someone with my own words than with borrowed words.  Call me crazy.

I think that India has a better concept, throwing oneself on the funeral pyre.  Or maybe we need to revisit the custom of wearing a black arm band for a year so people will know we are grieving and give us a wide berth — knowing that we might be tuned out, distracted, distressed, addled, or just in need of a meal and someone to sit with us as we cry.

Carl Jung said that “neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.” Perhaps America has no more neurotics overall than other nations, but I’d guess otherwise. Sanitizing death, pulling our socks up and getting on with it when we should be grieving (ourselves and with others as needed), and consoling others with platitudes that are suggested to us… these all smack of a land where it’s not okay not to be okay, where we have to adapt the best we can (addictions anyone?), and where we are often left alone in our grief even though many people would love to know better how to comfort each other in rough times.

We haven’t learned it well.  We don’t teach it well.  We don’t do it well. I want to grow in this… good grief!

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~ by Cary on July 23, 2009.

One Response to “Good Grief”

  1. Absolutely beautiful. Spoke much of what I’ve thought lately but have yet been able to articulate! Thanks for writing this.

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