As a British-Irish person, I come from a very reserved background. As a person under 40, I don’t know a lot of people who have experienced grief. As a person under 40 who has experienced grief, I can tell you that our age-group are BAD at dealing with it. Grandparents and pets are about as much as we’ve experienced. We do not know what to say. We do not know how to be quiet either. Older people don’t know how to say the right things either though, so it all works out.
My uncle died unexpectedly. He was on his way home from an engagement party, some young men attacked him for no reason and he died. There was a funeral. There was a court case. He was a big man with a big heart and a big spirit and he left a big hole.
I did not have the language to explain this to people. My dad broke the news to me over the phone on my birthday. He didn’t have the words either and made a hash of it. It was all awful. My dad was a medic. He was not unfamiliar with trauma and loss and tragedy. It was all just dreadful.
Being Catholic, even culturally Catholic, was a relief for the weeks around this incident. There was a procedure. There were Things To Be Done. There were reassuring motions to go through to give your body something to do and your mind something on which to focus. The Church has it worked out. Grieving people aren’t good with decisions or thinking, but muscle memory is forever.
There was a church ceremony (“reception of the body to the Church” which sounds ghoulish to my mind, but is exactly that) the evening before the funeral. The coffin is brought to the church to remain overnight. There is a service with prayers and movements and everyone knows what to do. There is an activity. You have a leaflet to hold, you have a hymn to sing, you have reassurance for the next hour as to what you will be doing and what is required of you. The family (“chief mourners”) stand in the front pew of the church and the people attending the service queue up to give condolences and shake their hands.
We did that for my uncle. It went on for hours.
Irish people, myself very much included, love a chat. We’re not great at Twitter, we need more characters. These people I did not know shook my hand and shared a story about my uncle, how they knew him and what he had meant to them. This included an elderly couple he met in a supermarket and explained to them about reduced stickers and how to bag a bargain when the chap goes round with the sticker gun. He was a journalist, he had a lot of friends, he knew a lot of people. A lot of people knew him or of him.
That day I learnt a stunningly useful expression that the Irish have for funerals and wakes.
“I’m sorry for your trouble.”
It’s good isn’t it? Encompasses a lot. Doesn’t require a response.
When my dad died of brain cancer (there’s a sentence that never gets easier), I had to learn a script to give to people I met. It wasn’t for me. It was for them. People didn’t know what to say, so they said stupid things. How old was he? What did he die of? What kind of cancer? How long did he have? When did he lose the battle? I would be furious and there was nowhere for that to go.
Are you keeping a database on mortality? Why do you need those details? Why are you making me say these things? What on earth are you doing asking me this?
I developed a script so that I could say I was sad, but I was fine and then we could move the conversation onwards to less rocky waters. If I didn’t, there would be a hugely awkward pause where someone tried to apologise that he was dead (it’s not your fault, let me make you feel better about this), where they would share a story of cancer (it’s not a competition!), where they would suggest God had a plan (I doubt that very much, but let’s not begin a theological debate), where they would say “at least” we had some time (true! But not enough!), where they would say that “God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle” (oh, HELL no) or say things involving the words “better place” (to be frank, the only better place for my Dad would have been St Andrew’s Golf Club, so you are entirely incorrect there, stop talking immediately).
I’ve been that person. Awkwardly trying to let you know I understand you feel sad and I want to make that better. People feel pressure to fix things. They want to comfort. They want to make it better. That’s not for people to do. Grief comes and sits with you and it hangs around whether someone say something trite or not. Young (or younger!) people don’t like to wait. We want things quickly. We have iPhones and streaming and netflix and Amazon Prime. We are not excellent at waiting things out.
Worse than the people saying stupid things, were the people who didn’t say anything. Where I would tiptoe through conversations thinking, “Does this person KNOW he died? Do I have to break that news? Or are they just awkward?” and would try to drop it in “casually” (HOW IS THAT EVEN A THING) to see how they responded, so I knew what I was working with, so they wouldn’t feel bad. That says a lot about me as a person, I know, but it’s something a lot of Young Grievers (that’s not a real term, I just made that up) have to deal with.
When someone dies, you feel incredibly sad. For most of the time. But there are still laughs and smiles and anger and fury that there are never any clean tea towels in this bloody house. Grief binds people together. Outside people don’t necessarily understand that. They hide the fun away for fear of seeming disrespectful. Luckily, my family is quite crazy. We would take it in turns to be cracking bon mots about how my dad would be horrified at all the visitors or how my uncle’s funeral would predominantly be populated by ex-girlfriends. We had a proper Irish wake for my uncle with guitars and whiskey and Irish singing and spontaneous poetry (I kid you not, it was like something out of a Beckett play) and it was hysterical and tragic and helpful and made me wish I could play an instrument. The English don’t really go in for that. Too many emotions, perhaps. It’s a shame, because it helps. The emotions are channelled. Aired out.
The funeral is a ceremony. In the Catholic Church it’s irritatingly not about the person who died. It’s about GOD and the Church and the coffin is not the focus of the room and there is no Eulogy like you see in films. That’s what the church-less wake is for the night before. Where you don’t have to behave because the priest is there (or, in my uncle’s case, he WAS there and I got into a heated argument with him because “I’ve been writing prayers of the faithful since I was a child, I think I can write them now, thank you very much, Father!” and my nother kicked me under the table and I had to go drink outside with the Bad Cousins who smoke) and can say what you think and feel about the person who should be in the middle of that room, but is not.
I sent an email to my friends about my dad. It basically said “This happened. I’m going to be away for a while. Let people know.” Very modern. Very weird. How do you even find a subject line for that? Most people responded with something comforting and/or blissfully minimal. My friend Dan wrote a massive email about how he knew my dad loved me and it was perfect. He’s a dad to two little girls now and I hope no one ever has to write an email like that to one of them, but I see it now.
A lot of people did not know what to say.
This is what you say: “I’m so sorry for your loss. It must be terrible. I’m here.”
You have to acknowledge it. Don’t try to fix it. It is remembered when you don’t say something. It does not go unnoticed that you put your comfort above the social awkwardness you think you’ll feel. Be around for them. Check in with them. Check up on them. If you are not good with real time, send a card. Send an email. Maybe don’t send a text, it seems a little gauche, but if that’s Your Thing, then go for it. Do not make this about you. None of this is about you. Have your feelings somewhere else. F*ck off with YOUR feelings, it is not your f*cking turn to have a feeling.
It’s also very strange later. People think you’ll get over it. They expect you to be Done being sad now, because the funeral happened and that’s the end of that, right? That it’s three years later, so it should all be finished now. Circle of Life, etc etc. They aren’t totally sure what to do when you mention that person. Flinching occurs. You learn that’s a thing that happens outside books. They talk quickly to change the subject.
Newsflash: you do not stop being sad. It just becomes a little less unwieldy with time. I have school friends who grew up with one parent and I have only recently DECADES LATER talked to them about it. They’re still sad. I appreciate a little more how hard their being a child was. How hard their becoming an adult is.
I am not rebuking anyone here. This isn’t a massive subtweet to someone who wronged me and for whom I hold a grudge.* Humans are complex and messy. Emotions are hard. Maybe let’s not make it harder on those who are having a rough time.
*so few people read this it would be a particularly useless way of making that known!