This week’s inductee into the “Overrated Hall of Fame” is … platitudes for the bereaved.
I went to a memorial service last week for a six-year-old Down’s Syndrome boy who died of Leukemia. I’ve never witnessed such grief in person. For 90 minutes, the parents greeted a parade of mourners, nearly all of them crying. Somehow, the parents turned into the consolers, as they stood like two pillars of emotional granite while friends and acquaintances walked away wrecked.
I’m not sure what kinds of sympathetic sentiments the well-meaning mourners offered to the parents, but I’m guessing that most of it was meaningless, mindless drivel that served only to intensify the parents’ grief. At least that’s been my experience.
Most people don’t know what to say to grieving family members when they suffer a loss, so they often resort to rote religious drivel and illogical afterlife scenarios to try to make the loss seem almost like a good thing. I would guess that such platitudes over very little comfort.
How many times have you heard or said, “He’s in a better place now” or “She’s with her departed loved ones” or “Now she’s with God”? Sorry, but the living are the living because we’re selfish, and we don’t care what’s going on in some hereafter. We want our mother or cousin or brother with us here on earth.
There is some degree of solace in the old reliable “At least he’s no longer suffering.” Anyone who has watched cancer do a number on someone’s final days might appreciate those words, but it doesn’t make us see the bright side. We want the person here and healthy and whole. It’s true that we are glad that the suffering is over, but um, we already knew that. Your announcement didn’t set light bulbs popping over our grieving heads.
Perhaps the most offensive are those lines about how “Jesus has called her home” or “This was all part of God’s plan.” I’m sure the parents of the six-year-old heard this many times. Perhaps it even helped them to hear it, as any message might help when your beautiful boy is lying ten feet from you with a Big Bird doll in his casket. But I know it would just piss me off.
I’d downright hacked if I knew that Jesus used my kid as some sort of prop to teach people … what, to love Jesus even more? To remind them who wields the power in this cosmic crapshoot? I would think that if your God is really an all-knowing, all-powerful deity, he could gin up a just-as-effective lesson by taking an 87-year-old great-uncle instead of some six-year-old who looked, from the heart-rending montage of pictures that played on the big screen that night, like he sucked the marrow out of every single day of his too short life.
Yes, greeting and speaking to the grieving is hard, and anyone who even shows up at a viewing or funeral deserves karma props for being there for someone at their hardest moments, but if there’s ever a time to step up and put forth a little extra effort, this is the time. Scrap all your clichés and adages and Luke 3:13’s and Dr. Phil page 38.
Instead, try for something that will offer actual comfort to the afflicted. Tell a funny story about the deceased. Talk about how the dead person just made you feel good every time you were around them. Mention that little thing the person did for you that you’ve never forgotten, and how it was so indicative of that person lived most of her life. Just focus on the life that was lived, not some phony afterlife image that we all know isn’t really happening.
What, you think Aunt Marge or PapPap Paul is watching over you from some gilded Angel enclave just feet from your savior? Stop reading this right now, pull down your pants and start jerking off (or rubbing one out, as the case may be). Your aunt and grandfather still watching your every move? If you still think so, you’re a real perv. (And you can contact me at the email below!)
One of my best memories from my mother’s wake (and there were many) was when my old friend Tim showed up at the funeral home. The room was packed and loud and full of laughter, as I guess the people who know our family knew not to show up with somber, sober faces and mutter petty platitudes. Tim showed up and just talked. He didn’t pretend to have any warm memories of my mother, because he barely knew her. He didn’t act all depressed and ask how I was doing. That would have been disingenuous, and that’s what I’d have remembered, how bizarre and phony he acted. Instead, he just talked and we laughed a lot. That was worth more than 50 “She’s no longer in pain’s.” The next night I went to his house. We had a few beers and sat around bullshitting. We never once mentioned my mother. It’s a great memory from the week my mother died. THAT is how you support the grieving.
So next time you step up and do the hard work of trying to help a friend in mourning, can the clichés and scrap the platitudes. Instead, get the person talking about the deceased when he was alive. Tell a story of your own. Laugh. Tell how much you liked the person and how much you’ll miss her, if that’s the case. If not, don’t say that. But just be real. By just being there, you’re doing a great thing for your friend, co-worker or acquaintance. They won’t remember your God gobbledygook, but they will remember you showing up and saying something true and real.
If you simply can’t do that, maybe it’s best to just send a card. If all you have to offer me is some hokum about peace and heaven that will just piss me off, just stay home. Trust me, in my moment of grief, you’ll be in a better place.
Ned Bitters is, in fact, overrated. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.