“Tell me something GOOD.”
My mother sometimes answers the phone that way, when she has reached her limit of political bickering, Hollywood scandals, televised terrorist acts and heard-it-through-the-grapevine rumors about the terminal illnesses of acquaintances.
I know the feeling. After a long stretch when all the obituaries I read were for total strangers, I’ve been hit by a string of Deaths That Demand A Response: a former neighbor (whose son-in-law had passed away only weeks before she did), a co-worker’s father, a lady I’d attended church with since I was six days old...
Death notices make me self-conscious and force my rusty mental engines to lurch into motion. I beat myself up when illness, overcommitment or ignorance causes me to treat different losses so differently. Sometimes I get dressed up, drive to the funeral home, watch the slideshow, hug multiple survivors and absorb the eulogy. Other times I run into a single member of the family three weeks later, offer a perfunctory message of encouragement and babble some sort of excuse.
Alas, it’s part of the Human Condition as we must juggle, prioritize and ration our resources when dealing with the loved ones of the deceased. We have to make hard decisions about who gets our presence at evening-before visitation, who merits our appearance at the funeral, who gets our comfort at the graveside service, who gets a wreath of flowers, who gets a sympathy card, who gets a signing of the online register, who gets an outburst of “So he was THAT Herkimer Aloysius Grindelbaum from the Class of ‘65! If I had known for sure, I would have been there for you,” etc.
People grieve differently, and people comfort the grieving differently. Some of us would get off our own deathbeds to console the widow of our childhood milkman, while others become adept at rationalizing their “no show” status. (“I wish I could have been there for you, but I had to look at the crowd’s welfare. My internet was down, so I couldn’t check WebMD to make SURE my tennis elbow wasn’t contagious...”)
Yes, we all have our own way of honoring the dearly departed. (“I was inspired by the deceased. I never heard him say a cuss word. I never heard him criticize another person. I never heard him complain about his own ailments. And, come to think of it, I never heard him SPECIFICALLY tell me to miss the big game on Sunday just to attend his memorial service...”)
Even some of us who make the effort of paying our respects can have mixed motives. We pay our respects but EXPECT A RECEIPT. We crave recognition for our effort. (“Lydia, that dress is gorgeous, even prettier than the one you were wearing six months ago when I drove through the blizzard to see you after your husband got squashed by the garbage truck!”)
It can be physically and emotionally exhausting to offer face-to-face condolences, but I’ll keep on trying my scattershot attempts at offering a shoulder to cry on.
As the apostle Paul told the Galatian church, “Be not weary in well doing.”
Of course, Paul could have expanded the advice to include “...especially if there are free calendars and nail files! And you haven’t SEEN persecution until you read the epistle by the widow who names names of everyone who didn’t bring a casserole!”