Thursday, July 09, 2009

A time to weep and a time to laugh

Today I had both the honor and misfortune to attend the wake of a good friend's grandmother. It was an honor because I love my friend dearly, and her Nana -- though I never met her -- sounded like a wonderful person. She sounded a lot like my Grandma Welcome, to be honest -- a woman I loved and respected more than anyone else I have had the privilege of knowing. It was my misfortune, of course, because death is never easy and it is harder still to find the right words, to say the right things.

For all of my wishing that I have the right words to say when necessary, my track record is pretty poor. At the memorial service for a high school friend's father I blurted out "I'm happy to be here!" when my friend's mother thanked me for coming. And when I heard on Monday that someone's beloved Nana had died all I could manage was a hollow-sounding "I'm so sorry."

Of course, the people dealing with loss don't know what to say either. The mother of my high school friend smiled and nodded, as though she was happy that I was happy. My friend today laughed nervously and smiled a lot to keep from crying. What does it say about our society that we can't just cry together and let the sadness out? From whom are we hiding our true feelings? For whom are we trying to be brave?

The facade of bravery always surfaces after a death, trying to shimmer its way past the sorrow. Sometimes it is self-inflicted, other times it is pushed on the grieving by uncomfortable -- if not well-meaning -- friends and family members. But the cascade of well-intentioned she's-in-a-better-place-nows, at-least-it-wasn't-unexpecteds, and cheer-ups that inevitably follow a loved one's passing, are inappropriate. Perhaps more so than even my nervous and foolish I'm glad to be here! These overly optimistic fronts of bravery do not allow the grieving to actually grieve.

I think finding a way to let people mourn is what perplexes people the most when attempting to comfort someone. Maybe it's a soothing nature of our own, since we don't want to see friends suffer, but I suspect that it's more likely our own vulnerabilities that make us nervous and uncomfortable. It’s hard to watch a person grieving, and it’s harder still to be the person who can come right out and say "If you need a place to cry until your mascara runs, come find me!" Or, conversely, "If you're tired of being miserable and need a giggling spell, come find me!" Or, finally, "If you want someone to simply listen to how great a person your lost loved-one was, come find me."

In the end, I want to say all those things. After all, how often do we hear the words of Ecclesiastes at a funeral? For everything there is a season... a time to weep and a time to laugh... I don't have all the answers, but I want my friends and family to know that I'm there when they need me. I'll bring the tissues or the Chris Rock DVD or the scrapbooking supplies and we can wade through the grief until it’s gone, or (at the very least) until it’s more manageable.

In the meantime, I'll try to keep my bumbling comments to myself. I'll make sure that my friends and family know that I love them and that I'm not so much happy to be there as I am happy to be there for them. If I have done my best I will count it as a success, because surely, it is not what we say so much as what we do, that makes a difference in comforting our loved ones during a time of loss.

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