In the last week, several friends have been forced, suddenly — and even if it’s expected, it’s still always suddenly — to deal with death. Here’s the thing, though: there’s really nothing you can say to someone in that situation — nothing, at least, that doesn’t come off as cliched or awkward or reeking of empty social ritual. You say “I’m so sorry” or “I’ve been there” or (if it’s your thing) “I’m praying for you.” And you mean it. You really do. And, sure, it helps. Of course it helps. It’s certainly better than not saying anything. But the other person — the person who is really suffering — is still left with that overwhelming, inarticulate grief. And there’s really nothing you can do about that either. Which also sucks.
I happen to be reading Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies this week (which, coincidentally, should really be read by everyone, but especially by Christians who read this blog and worry about my soul because I’ve obviously become too liberal). A friend gave us this book a few weeks ago, and I’m now glad that I put off reading it for a while because doing so allowed me to read Lamott’s essay, “Ladders,” this week. This particular week. So this blurb is for my friends, who I hope will appreciate it.
Don’t get me wrong: grief sucks; it really does. Unfortunately, though, avoiding it robs us of life, of the now, of a sense of living spirit. Mostly I have tried to avoid it by staying very busy, working too hard, trying to achieve as much as possible. You can often avoid the pain by trying to fix other people; shopping helps in a pinch, as does romantic obsession. Martyrdom can’t be beat. While too much exercise works for many people, it doesn’t work for me, but I have found that a stack of magazines can be numbing and even mood altering.
But the bad news is that whatever you use to keep the pain at bay robs you of the flecks and nuggets of gold that feeling grief will give you. A fixation can keep you nicely defined and give you the illusion that your life has not fallen apart. But since your life may indeed have fallen apart, the illusion won’t hold up forever, and if you are lucky and brave, you will be willing to bear disillusion. You begin to cry and writhe and yell and then to keep on crying; and then, finally, grief ends up giving you the two best things: softness and illumination.
Gorgeous, isn’t it? You may remember that I recently became obsessed with Six Feet Under, watching the first season on DVD over the course of two weeks or so. If you don’t know this already, the show is set in a family-run funeral home, and so death is obviously one of its more prominent concerns. In the last episode, a young woman who has served as comic relief throughout the season loses her aunt — the only person in the world who really loves her — to a freak accident, and she’s left absolutely paralyzed with grief. Finally, she asks Nate, the prodigal son returned to join the family trade, the question that has lingered over so much of the season: “Why do people have to die?” The whole season builds to that moment. And Nate’s response? “To make life important.”
I know what you’re thinking. How Hallmark card, right? Sure. It is. And it rubs against the grain of so many of my core beliefs. But there’s also something unmistakably comforting and — I’m not sure yet why I’m drawn to this word — holy there. Can’t explain it. Maybe I’ll just go watch What Time Is It There? again.
I really am so sorry, friends, and I really am praying for you.