Monday, October 20, 2008


I must have re-written my condolence card 500 times.

“I wish there were something I could do…” Too hopeless.
“I’m so sorry for your loss…” No. Sure it’s true, but it sounds so impersonal.
“This is horrible…” Yeah, that’s a great opening line. Why not just say, “Sucks to be you” and tie it to a bottle of gin?

When the aliens land, let’s hope they don’t mistake the rolling green hills of a cemetery for a landing pad. Because if they do, their first impression of us will be that we’re a stupid, stupid species.

After someone dies, we have clearly defined rituals – crystal clear instructions about what to do: Order a quick burial, sit shiva, recite the mourner’s kadish. We know how to mourn, but we have no clue what to say to those in mourning. And so, inevitably, we say all the wrong things.

When my father passed away 13 years ago, I sat aghast as one of my
mom’s friends told my then 12-year-old sister that the pain Sis was
feeling “will never go away.”

“It will just get worse. Every day.”

The woman – a psychologist, I feel compelled note – then rambled on and
on about how she has never gotten over her own father’s death and how
Sis’s loss would be like a giant hole in her heart for the rest of her

I’m amazed she didn’t underscore her point by handing my sister a rusty
razor blade and bottle of sleeping pills. Saying “it’ll get better in
time,” might have been reductive, but telling her she’d never be whole
again doubled her losses – first she loses our father, then she loses
all hope. We throw dirt on the caskets, do we really have to throw mud
on the bereaved?

I was furious at the woman (and still haven’t quite forgiven her), but
less than a year later, I was confronted with my own awkward moment of
post-death wishes. A co-worker was in her office, next door to mine,
when she learned that her mother passed away. I heard her sobbing and
rushed next door. When she told me the news, I stood dumbstruck.

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

“Thank you,” my colleague said.

“I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you.”

“Oh! I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you.”

“I’m so …” it went on and on like this for several minutes before I
realized what I was doing. I was at such a loss for words that I kept
repeating the few I could think of. Finally, I left the poor woman
alone – truly sorry for forcing her to play bereavement volleyball.

So, when a friend recently lost her newborn twins, I was determined not
to say the wrong thing. Everyone around her was making all the usual
funeral faux pas: “They’re in a better place.” “Everything happens for
a reason.” “This will pass.”

My friend was getting more and more agitated. She was clearly touched
that people came out to support her and her husband, but did they have
to say such patently stupid things? When it was my turn to approach
her, I just grabbed her hand and let her dampen my shoulder with her
tears. She spoke to me of her anger, of her numbness, her shock, her
confusion. I spoke little. Just hugged her and stroked her hair.

I didn’t end up finding the right words to say in a bereavement card,
so I didn’t give her one. Words may be my living, but in the end, I
discovered the only right thing to do was to shut up and listen.