Yesterday morning I got a completely unexpected, and not at all pleasant, telephone call informing me that someone I knew back when I worked for CWRU had quite unexpectedly died a few days ago. I also became responsible for passing word on to some people I know who also knew the deceased, including Kat’s brother Neil (who’d already heard). In Neil’s case, he’d really lost a friend. For me, a former co-worker with whom I’d been friendly had died. It isn’t nearly the same thing.
So Jim Nauer, who’d also known the deceased, and I went to the calling hours last night. I went for a number of reasons: I’d known him, I’d known several of his friends, and I had Neil’s condolences to pass on to those who were left behind. I also went with a tinge of fear, because it would be the first memorial service I’d attended since Mom died in April, and I wasn’t sure how I might react.
As it turns out, I focused on the people who were grieving more deeply, who really needed the support, and did my best to express my sympathies without dwelling overmuch on the situation. Because, as I’ve discovered in the past six months, in the face of a loss so great, all you can really say is, “I’m sorry.” And the only real response is, “Thank you.” Anything else said beyond those two things is an awkward attempt to better express everything we’re feeling at those moments—but in the end, it comes down to expression of sorrow, and acknowledgment of that expression.
I found myself thinking that I would never be able to talk with this person again, never hear them laugh, and I remembered that the same thoughts came to me at Mom’s memorial service. The feeling of a vast gulf suddenly discovered was hard to shake. My mind kept trying to reject the situation, to decide that nobody had died—they’d just stepped out for a little while, and would one day be back. I wanted to deny the finality of what had happened, and kept having to force myself to face it.
In a way, it’s almost impossible to reconcile the person who was with the absence that is. We keep trying to escape into delusions of temporary separation. But that way lies anger toward the absent party, since if they could come back, then their continued absence must mean that they don’t want to come back. It also becomes impossible to move on, because you keep waiting for them to end their own exile.
I’ve had occasion to wonder if perhaps one of the great comforts of religion is that it gives you someone to blame, and then someone to forgive, for the death of a loved one.