Last week I talked about dealing with death and not having a script to follow…especially when you’re younger and the people who’ve died are your own age. But as we get older the people our own age are also…well…older. Also, as we get older, the people we hang around with from work or other places may be older…or even younger…than us, but they’re somehow our contemporaries. You’d think that by now we’d know the script, but sometimes when it’s not there for us, things fall apart.
I’ve used the word “script” up to now, but other appropriate words are “ritual” or “custom.” Those rituals and customs help to guide us through difficult times, and help us to know what to do. And…as I said when I was talking about scripts, when that ritual isn’t there, when any ritual isn’t there, things can get uncomfortable pretty fast, because you don’t know your role, and you’re afraid of getting it wrong.
In my 19 years of teaching, it’s been my sad lot to deal with the deaths of the parents of at least five students. Where there was a ritual involved, things went smoothly and beautifully. I’ll never forget the funeral for the father of one student, who we all knew was dying. It seemed like every faculty member was at the church for that funeral, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the church. Because there was that ritual, and we all got to deal with the family within the guidelines of that ritual, there was no awkwardness with knowing what to say to the student in the days afterward. He wasn’t bombarded with every faculty member and student offering their condolences for the next two weeks, nor did he have to deal with the uncomfortable silence of people not wanting to talk about the elephant in the room.
I also remember my first Jewish funeral. This was a ritual that was outside of my tradition…but once again, this ritual gave us a framework for dealing with the remaining family members, and not having the kids bombarded day after day with condolences.
But then there were those deaths for which there was no ritual, no funeral…or at least none that I was aware of at the time, and one of these situations is where my biggest failing regarding death was. I don’t recall the details anymore, but the father of a student had died; and this father had taken an interest in my family. I don’t recall if there was a funeral that I didn’t hear about, I don’t recall whether or not I said anything to his son, but I do remember running into his widow at a graduation party for someone else, and not having a script, not having had the ritual of having already seen her and offering my condolences at the funeral, I pretty much avoided her. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to say. And I had heard so much about the totally wrong things people say.
I didn’t want to say the wrong thing, and so I said nothing. And that, I’ve been finding out, is perhaps the most hurtful thing you can do. And years later, I still regret that.
So I’m here to give you the script for when there is no script, the ritual for when there’s been no ritual. I’m here to tell you what no one has probably told you.
Say something. No one expects you to try to make it better. They know that you can’t. But just let them know that you’re thinking of them. Don’t ramble on and on, but just say something. As uncomfortable as it may be to you to do it outside of the confines of an established tradition or ritual, it’s hurtful to them for you to not do it at all.
And here’s the little surprise I learned by listening to, of all things, an episode of the Freakonomics podcast…despite what you may think, sometimes the bereaved want to talk about the deceased, and enjoy talking about the good times. So our worrying about upsetting them by bringing them up is unwarranted. In fact, bringing them up reminds them that for one bright shining moment, that person existed among us.
So take that chance. It’s part of the script now.