Writing about something that’s both intensely personal and universally shared should be a gift, right?
So today’s topic is bereavement.
Not so simple, huh?
Phil Adams is worth reading. His wife Rachel died. There’s an excerpt below, but you should definitely click on the title and go to the full piece, which is called…
My wife’s death was not unfortunate.
Time hasn’t healed but it has enabled me to put a lid on things around other people.
The struggle, bizarrely, has been telling it straight to a bunch of complete strangers. Resisting the temptation to sugar the pill with vacuous, inappropriate platitudes.
Hello, my name is Philip Adams. My wife and I have a joint policy with you. Unfortunately she died at the end of March…
Where did that come from?
What possessed me to say that?
Unfortunately is what I say to a client when I can’t make a meeting.
It has no place in a conversation about the death of my wife.
Unfortunately scarcely hints at the alternating currents of lethargy and vertigo that define my days. Nor the insomnia that curses most nights.
Unfortunately doesn’t come close to the heartache and the as yet unseen damage that the denial of motherly love will cause to my daughters. Rachel was devoted to them – gentle and selfless.
My wife’s death was not unfortunate. It was catastrophic.
And yet I have had to coach myself before each call, or during each email, not to say “unfortunately” or “I’m afraid that” or “passed away” when we both know that I mean “died”.
There’s more. You should read it. It’ll take three minutes. Phil’s blog – Sawdust is here. He writes about social media, culture and marketing. I read him.
My mate Rudy Noriega lost his Dad longer ago. He’s funny and moving about it. As he says: “All Saints Day comes but once a year but every day is Fathers’ Day.”
His short tale takes place in Spain. Here’s how it begins, but you can read the full version by clicking on the title…
The Day of the Dead: Asturias / CantabriaMiguel put his wine glass down on the bar and wiped his mouth.“Do you know about tomorrow morning – 10am?”Yes, I did. A couple of my neighbours had mentioned about the “All Saints Day” Mass and I have to admit that I wasn’t particularly looking forward to it. I had no problem with either going to Mass or mourning the dead but I was rather hoping to give it a wide birth this year. I’d gone to the bar to avoid thinking about it.Miguel’s words seemed to hang in the air like stale cigarette smoke, and an unintentional long silence followed it. I was too lost in my thoughts to respond.
“I’m not religious,” he continued, “but it’s an important day for the village and you should be there.” He lifted his glass to his lips and paused. A rare smile formed on his face. “And anyway, the priest’s a bastard”.
Rudy’s blog Gullible’s Travels is here.
And here’s something beautiful and perhaps oddly appropriate. (Norwegian speakers can confirm this or not – I only have three phrases in Norwegian.) It’s Siri Nilsen singing Alle snakker sant (They all speak the truth). I heard it on the World Music blog.
So thanks to Phil and Rudy. I know many (all?) of you have been in similar situations. Me too – here and here.
Just one more thing (to quote Columbo) – another tough thing is knowing what to say to someone who has been bereaved. But better to say something, huh?
14 responses to “Death is not “unfortunate””
It is always difficult to know what to say to a bereaved person.
When I was bereaved I discovered that, in one way, it didn’t matter what you said. Once you said something, or shook the bereaved person’s hand, or gave them a hug. The verbals were the icing on the cake. The thing that mattered was to be there or to take the trouble to make the contact.
Having said that, I have had the experience in recent years, of two colleagues dying. They were on the board of a multilateral bank (EBRD) with me and I had also had a lot of contact with one of them in the negotiations setting up the bank. They both left widows.
I really wasn’t sure what to do. I had not had contact with them for a number of years and I did not know their families at all.
The first one to die was a Spaniard. As far as I was concerned his great moment was during a board meeting when he got the better of Jacques Attali (then President of the bank) in a clash of verbals. I wrote to his widow and recounted this story and got a very touching letter back from her. She was glad to have another memory of him, and one about which she knew nothing, but which his colleagues clearly appreciated. An English friend told me that when she recounted this story to her friends, they remarked that only an Irishman could have written such a letter. I don’t say that looking for praise, in fact I wondered when I heard it first was it a criticism of me. But they were really, I suppose, pointing out that the Irish are storytellers at heart.
The second colleague was an Austrian, and I told his widow of the high regard in which he was held by those who I considered mattered. He was the conscience of the board, which didn’t always make him its most popular member. I told her that he and I had clashed many times in the negotiations setting up the bank, but that I held him in the highest regard. I got a lovely letter from her also. I suspect that what I had said was important to her as he could get up people’s noses, particularly if they were trying to take short cuts, an I suspect that many people just thought him a pernickity old bollix.
So the lesson for me from this is, celebrate the deceased person’s life, or that part of it in which you yourself figured. Tell the stories. They are precious to the bereaved. And remember you haven’t come to make them feel worse, but better, sad and all as the occasion may be.
Anyway, that’s my tuppence worth.
No – definitely a shilling’s worth there Póló.
But seriously – good kind advice.
Phil’s post was heartbreaking- the practical side of ones worst nightmare so beautifully articulated. Thanks for sharing – I shared it too.
That practical side is an aspect I hadn’t really considered – nor how long and repetitious it could be.
My mother will have passed one year on Sept 17. I can’t believe how the time passed so quickly. I feel a tide of emotion rising.
It’s been anniversary time here too.
I once heard a stylist say that someone’s style choice was “unfortunate”. I think that was a much better use of the word. What a great article you shared!
Yes it was.
Hi Paul. I’m deeply touched that you felt the post was worthy of sharing like this. Thank you. Phil
Ah no – thanks to you Phil for sharing it in the first place.
I share the same opinion as Phil. Thank you for including me. Rather oddly I read it on the anniversary of my dad’s death. 28 years today.
You always have good timing.
Poignant and something that I can relate with. I find it difficult to find words of condolences too. If in person, I simply stand or sit around, but when it comes to writing a letter, I find words hard to come by. It is worse on the telephone.
Yes the telephone is the worst. Odd that, because one is able to hide from view. But perhaps being face to face is necessary to allow one’s expression and body language to compensate for the inadequacies of words.