Death Becomes Us (No, not really)

It’s ironic. By the time a child reaches the age of eighteen, they will have witnessed something like a thousand murders on television. Yet, in our society as in love of violence as we are, we do not know how to handle death.

A friend of mine called me up about a week after Wendy died and asked me how I’d been. He hadn’t been told the news. When I told him, he was suitably sympathetic, but I got the distinct impression that this individual, who usually liked to talk for long periods over the phone, wanted out of this conversation as quickly as possible. Death made him very uncomfortable.

I don’t blame him. And he’s not alone.

I sense a lot of discomfort around us. Part of it, I think, is a discontinuity of grief. It’s easy to forget, being as close to Wendy as Erin and her parents are, that those around us didn’t know Wendy as well. They’re not grieving. They’re seeing the fact that we’re still grieving, but they’re not. And that doesn’t feel right to them.

Even I didn’t know Wendy as well as Erin did, so my grief is different from Erin’s. My grief is more over how much Erin is grieving, and I must admit that I felt a little guilty about this discontinuity. It’s only recently that Erin pointed this out, and told me it was okay to feel this difference.

As a society, unless we’ve lost a close family member, I don’t think we know quite what to tell somebody who has suffered such a tragedy. Even after the loss of loved ones, most of us don’t know what to say. Everybody wants to help, but nobody knows how to make everything better. Everybody is afraid of being crass, or reopening wounds, or of not doing enough to make the pain go away.

My parents have been feeding us, cooking dinner for ourselves and sending us leftovers until our fridge is packed (we’re eating, folks, don’t worry!), but until we told them that this was how they could help us, I think they felt a little lost and shut out. Others have taken the approach of avoiding the subject, of being the strong, silent type. It’s all motivated by the best of intensions.

But for the grieving party, whose grief continues long after the sympathy cards stop, grieving can feel like one of the loneliest experiences of life. That’s what our grief counsellor told us, and it’s natural for the grieving party to sometimes feel abandoned. It can sometimes feel that everybody believes that we should stop crying and move on with our lives. It’s not rational, but when is grief rational?

The reactions, to help, or back off, are all motivated by the best of intensions, by a desire to make everything better. But nothing is going to make everything better. Whatever we do, Wendy has passed. And it will be a long time before we can deal with it. And we don’t know how; nobody has given us a roadmap.

But what helps most of all is our friends and family, who give us a reminder, now and then, that they are there. That they are willing to offer whatever support we need, even if it’s only a hug. Or telling us that it is okay for us to cry, or be angry at God, long after everyone else has stopped crying.

It may not seem like much. It may not seem like enough. But it’s the world. And for that we’ll never forget to thank you.

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