Death is ugly no matter how it’s delivered. And the entire notion of “death with dignity” completely baffles me. I can find nothing dignified about it. It’s awful. It’s tragic. And it hurts like hell. Death is totally FUBAR regardless of its setting, reasons, or duration. Even martyrdom and the noblest of sacrifices are hideous and dreadful. The emotions surrounding a death are so raw and vulnerable, so peculiar and personal, and even difficult to identify, that it’s extremely difficult for well-wishers to comfort the mourners after such a loss. And yet humanity, and social conventions, dictate that it has to be done.
Death, and its close cousin Grief, often cause bright, beautiful, well-meaning people to say the most stupid things imaginable. Since time immemorial, companions have grappled with the appropriate words to offer those who are grieving. Even in the Bible, Job chastises his frenemies for being such “miserable comforters” with their long-winded platitudes. Now, in this Brave New World, we have the Internet … which sadly has the side-effect of generating and encouraging not only stupidity and callousness, but it records it. Forever.
I actually started making notes on this post about two months ago when my brother-in-law died quite unexpectedly from an aneurysm. His death was so sudden that practically everyone he knew was left reeling, confounded and on fairly shaky ground. I was struck by how many offerings of “Life is so fragile/fleeting” and “gone in the blink of an eye” were volleyed among family and friends, both in person and online. Sudden death causes a great deal of self-reflection. I believe it’s being able to strongly identify with the fact that, “crap, that coulda been me” that causes people to take pause before speaking, or typing.
Last month, my father-in-law died after an extended hospital stay battling double pneumonia and cardiac issues. Because of his age as well as current and past health conditions, no one was at all surprised when he breathed his last … in fact, the pain of watching him struggle and linger was so frustrating and disheartening to watch that I suspect some were finally relieved to witness an end to his suffering. Of course, complete strangers assumed this, too, and decided the appropriate response would be cheer. Well meaning people pointed out that “he’s in a better place” and has “received complete healing” and even assumed “he’s fishin’ in Heaven now.” What?
Most recently, two of my sister’s grandchildren burned to death in a house fire. This is the sort of tragedy that no euphemisms can cover. When the young die, people really don’t know what to say and their reactions and comments appear to be the most grievous … and the most genuine, regardless of how clumsy or clunky they may be.
We’re living in a strange time. Grief is always difficult to manage in ourselves, and much more so in others that we care about and want desperately to comfort. When we stumble over our own inability to reach out to others gracefully, we feel doubly impotent. We haven’t enough experience with Internet Compassion, if that can ever be a reality, to really know how to behave appropriately.
I suppose the best thing to do is to realize that everyone grieves in their own way; likewise, everyone offers comfort in the way they think best. I know that I will do well to remind myself of that.