I’m not exactly a stranger to death. In my relatively short life, I’ve had to deal with the deaths of three grandparents, two aunts and a father. But it wasn’t until my father’s death a month ago that certain nuances of the grieving process became a bit clearer to me. There are things about the way Americans “do” death that bother me, and as is my SOP, I’m going to share them under the principle that misery loves company, and if it’s bothering me it’s for darned sure going to bother you as well.
Someone said to me last week, “I was so sorry to hear that you lost your father.” And I thought what a funny thing to say. I didn’t lose him; I know exactly where he is. But that’s how it’s always put, isn’t it? A loss. I lost my father. He lost both his sisters. It sounds so careless. And while I appreciate the sentiment, it sort of bothers me. It’s another way that we distance ourselves from the reality of death. We don’t call it death; we call it loss. I’ve read that the more uncomfortable a society is with something, the more euphemisms there are for it. I believe it. Think of how many different ways we have of referring to the two big ones: sex and death. But no one will say the words, “your father died.” He did! He died. He is dead. We got a death certificate, not a “loss” certificate or a “passing” certificate. Let’s not mince words, ok? He’s dead, and saying it pretty won’t make it any less painful.
Of course, the person who accused me of misplacing a family member then moved as if attracted by magnet and hugged me much tighter than I’d allow even my mother to do. I am like my father in many ways, one of which being that I can’t abide by strangers touching me. I barely know this woman. I can’t even remember her name, and that didn’t stop her from mauling me. Yes, I’m grieving. That doesn’t mean I want random strangers turning into affectionate barnacles. Especially not during flu season (and as far as I’m concerned, it’s always flu season). Don’t pat my shoulder, my arm, or my knee, and please don’t hug me tight enough that you can glean both my cup and band size from your own body fat displacement. Some things just need to stay private, capisce? And FYI, I carry pepper spray for the specific reason that I’d rather not be molested. Thank you.
My sister said something funny when we were bringing seven vases of flowers in the house after the funeral. She said that it’s funny how people give live flowers when someone has died. “It’s like saying, here, these are pretty, but soon they’re going to die, just like your husband did!” We had a good laugh about it, but when you think about it, giving flowers is an odd thing to do. I’m sure it’s a tradition rooted in the middle ages when a dead body would stink up the house or something equally unpalatable like that. But really, what good are flowers to a grieving widow or child? The best thing that we got after my dad died was a big basket full of paper plates, bowls and cups, plastic spoons and forks, napkins, paper towels, Kleenex, toilet paper, trail mix, cookies, and bottled water. We didn’t have to wash dishes or run out to the store, and we had pick-me-up snacks and drinks at hand. I went on-line and, in a fit of morbid curiosity, looked up some of the bouquets we were sent. People spent a LOT of money on flowers. I wish they’d have given it to the hospice or to Barrow instead, where it could do good instead of wilting and shedding on the carpet.
I’ve noticed something else. Before the funeral, people are all phone calls and dinners and visits and flowers and sympathy. After the funeral? Nothing. It’s like, okay, he’s in the ground, that’s it. Back to your life. And the thing is, after the funeral is when we need the attention the most. Before the funeral, we had the funeral to get ready for. After the funeral, there’s nothing, just a lot of emptiness. Phone calls and flowers and visits would be nice around now, but everyone else has moved on. We got so many flowers the week of. I sort of wish they’d been spaced out a bit more. I could do with a pretty bouquet about now.
Death is a sticky situation; I think we’ve established that. So people tend not to know what to say. And so they say the wrong thing. Many wrong things. I would like to suggest here and now that we adopt some sort of official words of condolence and mourning. Something along the lines of, “I heard what happened. I’m so sorry.” Nothing else needs to be said. I don’t need clichés or platitudes or half-witted advice or, worst of all, “I know what you’re going through.” Because no one, not even my siblings, knows what I personally am going through. I’m the only me out there and I’m the only one who had the relationship with my father that I did. So no one can rightly claim to know anything. Other people have said to me, when I have expressed the slightest bit of unhappiness or remorse, “Well, do you think your dad would want you to feel/act this way?” Sorry, I don’t know how he would want me to feel or act just now, and since he’s dead and I can’t very well ask him, can I. Thanks though.
There are other things that no one should, under any circumstances, say to someone who has just experienced the death of a family member, and I’ve decided to pepper-spray the next person who says any one of them to me:
-“It was for the best.” (Best for whom, exactly?)
-“God needed him more.” (I’m sorry, but God doesn’t need any of us.)
-“It was his time to go.” (Even if this is true in a fatalistic or religious sense, he was only fifty-two so frankly “his time” sucks for all involved.)
-Anything beginning with, “You probably don’t want to hear this now …” (Well then do me a favor and can it.)
-“He’s not in any pain any more.” (He wasn’t in any pain before he died, either. His tumor wasn’t painful, and in the hospital after the stroke he was unconscious and sedated. But thanks for playing.)
-“Everything will get back to normal before too long.” (Really? Will my father be less dead in a few months?)
-“This Christmas will probably be hard for you.” (Gee, ya think?)
-“Put your trust in God.” (I did that already, and God took my father away.)
-“The best way to get over your grief is to step outside yourself and do something for someone else.” (K, first off, you never “get over” grief. You learn to live with it. Second of all, I can barely get out of bed in the afternoon and choke down 700 Calories a day, on top of which my father just died. What good am I to anyone else when I can’t even take care of myself at the moment? I think I should probably start brushing my hair regularly before I start any big service projects, just so I don’t scare the less fortunate.)
I know that people mean well, and I appreciate that. But we mustn’t forget that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. A simple, “I’m sorry,” means so much more to me than a lot of flowery words or proverbs. And if you step away after you say it you’ll be out of my pepper-spray range a lot faster.