That Awkward Conversation in the Face of Death

Like so many others before me, I spent my teenage years working in a pizza joint after school and on weekends. We were not well off, so if I wanted the things that mattered to me in high school—a car, date money, an occasional change of clothes—I had to work for it. Over my six or seven years slugging pizza, I met dozens of different people at various stages of their lives. Like me, they were tossing pizza dough and manning ovens and running little red-and-green-decaled Honda Civics around town to make sure people go their pizza fix. The place, the people, were formative in my teen years.

My pizza place job popped into my brain a while back. I walked into our faculty office at the university and saw one of those “Supporting Colleagues Through a Loss” kind of brochures. I’m not certain who had suffered a loss, of it was an employer-driven campaign of some time. But as someone who has had someone important die, the last thing I would want to see upon returning to work is a “How To” sheet left lying around the office.

I know, I know. It is always hard to know what to say at these kinds of times. Impossible really. But can a photocopied brochure really address the awkwardness that is our conversations after loss? The brochure at work suggested that instead of saying, “I know how you feel,” say, “I’m very sorry”—perhaps the lamest, least sentimental, most fully inauthentic advice I can imagine.

I remember when my father and brother died. Thousands lined up in the freezing Canadian February weather to give their condolences in the torturous East Coast ritual we call a “wake.” Each pink-cheeked and puffy-eyed mourner trudged through a greeting line in vinyl jackets and knit wool hats and limply shook my hand, mechanically repeating the phrase “I’m sorry for your loss” until I thought I could hear no more. And then we had casserole for lunch at some relative’s nearby home.

Don’t get me wrong—I appreciate that people wanted to connect with that moment. But at fourteen, I found it tremendously awkward. I still do, and I am somewhat relieved that my mother decided not to have a funeral.

Yet, I am exactly the same when it comes to other people’s loss. With each keenly felt death, I find myself doe-eyed and ineffectual when it comes to talking to the bereaved. In the awkward space where I am supposed to say something, I finally offer that weak handshake and grim smile of comfort. My only hope is that I will be either accidentally helpful or forgotten in the masses of mourners waiting to share their condolences.

I felt that painful nothing-to-say struggle for months after my own childhood tragedy. Consistently, teachers, neighbours, old people I didn’t know—they all had to say something “meaningful” to me. Typically, I grimaced shyly at them, hoping their condolences would stop, and they would find another victim to comfort.

All too often, I had to comfort them, for it was their friend or cousin or neighbour or student they had lost. It was an experience I absolutely hated, which may be why I am frozen with inaction when faced with a grieving friend or neighbour.

As I was reading through C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, a journal of his thoughts and experiences in the months after the death of his wife, I discovered I was not the only one who felt that awkwardness keenly in a time of grief. In the journal, Lewis pours out his feelings into the pages, and we can feel the pain of his incisive self-reflection. He comments that he wants to talk to no one at all, but fears being alone—he simply can’t be satisfied. And when it comes to his wife’s children, he was at a loss:

I cannot talk to the children about her. The moment I try, there appears on their faces neither grief, nor love, nor fear, nor pity, but the most fatal of all non-conductors, embarrassment. They look as if I were committing an indecency. They are longing for me to stop. I felt just the same after my own mother’s death when my father mentioned her. I can’t blame them. It’s the way boys are (18).

celtic cross shoreSaying nothing doesn’t satisfy, yet there is nothing to say that works.

Lewis was on the receiving end of the awkwardness, and saw in the faces of the people around him.

It isn’t only the boys either. An odd byproduct of my loss is that I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet. At work, at the club, in the street, I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll ‘say something about it’ or not. I hate it if they do, and if they don’t. Some funk it altogether. R. has been avoiding me for a week. I like best the well brought-up young men, almost boys, who walk up to me as if I were a dentist, turn very red, get it over, and then edge away to the bar as quickly as they decently can. (18-19).

While he ends the passage with humour, he still feels the pain—only too evident in his final reflection of the paragraph:

Perhaps the bereaved ought to be isolated in special settlements like lepers (19).

by C.S. Lewis, Signature Classic SeriesWhat has this to do with my brief career as a pizza maker? As I reflected on the brochure I found at work and thought about what I had read in Lewis’ journal, one of my pizzeria stories popped into my brain. I was sweeping the floor in a brief lull in the supper rush. I began a conversation with an older guy named Lole, who was busy chopping vegetables at the prep table. He began asking questions about my life—really personal questions. Though I thought he was weird, I didn’t mind so much. It was something to pass the time.

Eventually, he came to the inescapable question: what does your father do for a living? It had been months since Dad had died, and I was in this new job with people who mostly didn’t know my story. I felt I was in control of my emotions, and told him that he had died a year earlier. He had been a farmer. Lole stopped chopping his green peppers and looked at me with wide, sad eyes, his cleaver hanging limply beside his stained white apron. He took a moment to contemplate what I said, and then asked a crucial question: “how do you deal with that?”

I reeled backwards. How do I deal with it? I had quickly learned how to talk about the event of their death. I’ve spoken about it dozens of times in speeches and lectures and testimonies—it was easy for me. I found new friends, a new faith, new habits, big dreams, and a part-time job that filled voids that existed in my world. But I was startled by his question: no one had ever asked me that before, and I really had no idea how to answer it. Even now, two and a half decades later, I am still processing what the loss meant for me, and who my dad was, and how I deal with it. Emotionally, I no longer limp, or wince, but them-not-there is still present with me.

I later found out that Lole was a Pentecostal Christian, and if you know real life Pentecostals you know they have the peculiar ability to get to the heart of things so they can view a person’s spiritual life from the inside. In our further conversations, where I typically peppered him with theological questions he was entirely unequipped to answer, one time he asked me what I thought God was doing by allowing so much tragedy in my life—the kind of question strictly forbidden by the bereavement brochure I found at work.

I never answered him. I still don’t know the answer even as I am now grieving another essential loss. Coincidentally I am reading Job, which seems to me a book that spends 40 chapters of poetry asking that question and never managing to answer it.

Yet the question put me in mind of an event that occurred in that long wake line on that cold February afternoon way back when. I was standing next to my mother, who was burying her little boy. A woman, a nun I believe, reached out and said something absolutely shocking. She looked at my mother and spoke compassionately: “God must really care about you to give you so many troubles.”

I don’t remember Mom’s reaction—the whole event is fuzzy to me even now. It occurs to me know that I can never know. But what struck me about the nun’s comment was not the theological impact—I had no belief in God at the time. I wasn’t offended by the possibly crass or petty nature of what many would interpret as a facetious religious platitude. C.S. Lewis had experienced that himself and struck out at those who carelessly spoke in empty religious language:

…. don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand (26).

And as I reflected on the nun’s comment, I certainly wasn’t fazed by the fact that she had broken rule #4 on the “Supporting Colleagues Through a Loss” talk sheet.

jesushugInstead, and here my experience was a little different than Lewis’, I was struck by the sheer authenticity of the moment. She spoke not out of bumper-sticker Jesus smiles or a trite washing out of emotion or out of a robotic cultural response to the awkward impossibility.

Instead, she spoke from her gut, a word that was warm and hard and would haunt me for decades. It may have done damage to my family, I don’t know. But for me it was a brief escape from the legions of undead condolences I had to face that day. Wake goers–and the bereaved–are the closest thing I’ve seen to zombies. At least, that’s how it feels.

And here was a real live person suddenly in front of me.

Now, what to do about that awkward silence in the face of death? My mother’s recent death after a fairly rapid descent means I am once again experience these sorts of conversations.

Now that I’ve sufficiently demonstrated myself as completely unsuitable to give advice on the matter, here is my version of the “Supporting Colleagues Through a Loss”. Be authentic. Be real. Be present. Don’t speak if you don’t have real words. And if you do speak, take courage, and make sure your word resonates with the spirit of the moment, and the Spirit’s voice in the colliding universes of grief we all experience. Consolation and advice and hope need not be hypocritical platitudes, after all.

Stepson of C.S. Lewis; Introduction to "A Grief Observed"

Douglas Gresham, C.S. Lewis’ Stepson and the Son of Joy Davidman, Lewis’ wife who died

And you never know when you may have an effect, or that you may help someone—or yourself—see things from another angle. Writing the introduction to A Grief Observed, Douglas Gresham took the time to clear of something that is misunderstood in Lewis’ journals:

He did not understand, which was very unusual for him. I was fourteen when Mother died and the product of almost seven years of British Preparatory School indoctrination. The lesson I was most strongly taught throughout that time was that the most shameful thing that could happen to me would be to be reduced to tears in public. British boys don’t cry. But I knew that if Jack talked to me about Mother, I would weep uncontrollably and, worse still, so would he. This was the source of my embarrassment. It took me almost thirty years to learn how to cry without feeling ashamed (11).

The geography of the griever is complex terrain, often unexplored and misunderstood by the one grieving and the ones closest to him or her. So whatever your response is, let it be authentic.

And, finally, my last piece of advice, shake hands firmly. A grieving teenager who spends his weekends tossing pizzas would expect nothing less than a solid grip. Now, a full grown man with more knowledge but not much more wisdom, I still feel the same.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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27 Responses to That Awkward Conversation in the Face of Death

  1. Jen says:

    Brenton:

    Grief sucks. That’s all there is to it. I lost my mother two years ago. It was the single hardest loss in all my life. My father-in-law was killed in a car accident three months before my mother died. He was the man my husband is most like in all the world. It was a significant loss for him and for me. My brother died two months after my Mom. It was a tough six months.

    Even though I am a strong Christian with a solid faith, searching for beauty is the only thing that kept me sane. And ultimately, my search for beauty led me full circle back to the source of beauty, Christ himself in whom dwells all truth, all goodness and all beauty.

    I’ve only recently discovered your blog. I love your writing. I love your honesty. People need honesty these days. Anything less is hollow and empty. We certainly don’t need spin which is what all those “grieving niceties” that people tend to say seem to me to be.

    God’s gonna use you, Brenton….he is using you. So belly up to the bar and learn all He has for you to learn in this season of grieving the loss of your precious Mom.

    Wish I could give you a firm handshake. This virtual one will have to do.

    Jen

    Like

    • Dear Jen,
      Thank you so much for this note. That does sound like a rough 6 months.
      Can I make an inappropriate suggestion? Change the “Even though” to “Because.” Beauty can become a god, but as a nurse it can be a profound thing.
      Thanks for the very nice comments and the digital handshakes.
      Best,
      Brenton

      Like

  2. janetawel says:

    This essay is beautiful and true. Thank you for digging deep and writing. Thank you for living outloud in the questions and The Answer.

    Like

  3. Craig Gallaway says:

    Brenton, Thanks for sharing, as Lewis did, your own continuing observations about the way of grief, and the difficulties of achieving a settled understanding of it. As Lewis said, it’s a process, not a state. As you suggest, there probably are no hard and fast rules; but there are some things that are usually not very helpful (for example, theological though unscriptural clichés, even well-meant, such as “Since we are Christians and have faith, we don’t really have to grieve” c.f., 1 Thess. 4, Romans 8, etc.). In the early months of my own grief over the loss of my twenty-year-old son, Zachary, I did experience something many times that I found (and still find) significant. The care of close friends and family, no matter how expressed in words, was often like a door into a room with a sign, “Welcome, come in, it is alright to grieve here.” One of my mentors, Jim Houston (whom I think you know from Regent) also said to me, “Bring your grief before the Father. It will never be wasted there.” And he urged me to avoid stoicism.

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    • Dear Craig, thank so much for this personal note. The loss of a child…. I wouldn’t know what one could say. That you had space and spaces for that grieving is a beautiful gift. I knew Jim but he would not know me, just another student in a pretty large crowd. I wonder how much of our relationships now–as much as they are focussed on tasks or the friendship itself–is really a shoring up of support for that future loss.

      Like

  4. wanderwolf says:

    I understand what you are writing, and I believe that taking a step back to think about how I would feel in the grieving person’s shoes and listen to what they are showing me about what it is like for them, is what allows me to be authentic, but what suggestions do you have about how to respond to posts online? It’s an awkward, impersonal forum, because the authenticity can get lost in the ability to press “backspace,” change words or phrasings, consider the “best way to say things,” get absorbed in our own response and forget that we are responding to a person’s life and thoughts.
    But I still want to reply. You sharing how you deal with the death of your family members is a reminder of things I’ve dealt with in the past and things I must still learn to work with. To know a writer so intimately as to know about all his letters and experiences, and have him to draw on when in a similar situation is something to be grateful for and something I am still preparing for. Through blogs like yours, I am learning more about life through the words of of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Chekhov, Fitzgerald…and your own.
    But I don’t know how I will feel a few weeks after my mother dies, and whether I’d be ready to put it into words. I especially don’t know if I’d be able to put it into words for people whom I didn’t really know, or who didn’t know her. I wouldn’t know if I would just want to get my Durcharbeitung out there, or want interaction and replies. There’s a certain amount of faith you show in your readers by posting these things, and I want to be able to honor it. Ignoring seems wrong, but without being able to offer a firm handshake, and without being in the situation (both physcially, and by not really knowing you) to speak about it personally, I’m not sure I can honor it in the “Leave a Reply” space…
    It’s difficult; to completely express our most painful moments and greatest joys in the virtual world may be impossible. And then, to try to respond to it in a real way?
    Is it possible to be authentic online? And if not, should one still try? <– this is a broader question, but one that your post made me ask… I of course don't expect you to have the answer, but I'd like to know your thoughts on the matter.

    Like

    • It has been a while, but I am emerging from the fog. “Leave a reply” is not an amazing way to share deepest thoughts, but your note is testimony that it can be a place where you share poignant ones: single, simple interventions of the soul.
      Can we be authentic online? I don’t know. I try to be “real,” part of the reason I don’t run a fan site. But I am also cognizant of my identity. I think all digital communication is in some ways mitigated (and perhaps augmented) by the avatars we create of ourselves online.

      Liked by 1 person

      • wanderwolf says:

        Thanks for the reply! I’m glad you still saw it.
        Yes, identity is difficult (would argue impossible, really) to define anyway, and this is made more true by the number of identities we scatter in different forums. But it is nice to know that it is still possible to mindfully engage, even if it takes a second to engage the mind across virtual boundary.
        Hope this is a good week for you,
        Dorothea

        Like

  5. Baynes, Leslie A says:

    What a wonderful essay, Brenton. Thank you. The nun’s comment to your mother, and your reaction to it, were particularly touching.

    Leslie Baynes
    Associate Professor
    New Testament and Second Temple Judaism
    Department of Religious Studies
    Missouri State University
    901 S. National Ave.
    Springfield, MO 65897

    Like

  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you for this – I have been – typically – paralyzedly (and, to my way of thinking, cowardly-ly) – thinking about trying to respond, and not yet responding, to your previous most recent two posts. Something that ‘speaks to me’ (and which, wisely or not, I then sometimes pass on to others, as now) is Charles Williams saying in his essay on the Cross, “Life (experience suggests) is a good thing, and somehow unendurable; at least the Christian faith has denied neither side of the paradox.” I have also been thinking (without trying to look it up) that George Grant somewhere says something about the general applicability of the words to Peter, “When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not.” I remember George MacDonald, who suffered so many losses, having written things well worth reading and pondering, too, but I haven’t tried to look any of them up, either.

    Like

  7. L. Palmer says:

    Thank you for sharing your insight as you go through this.

    I recently went to the funeral of a family member of a friend of mine and made sure to show my support to that person – mainly to show that there are people to care. I’m sorry and “I understand” don’t show genuineness. Expressing sincere emotions and that you care, while giving the person the space to grieve is the most important.

    Like

  8. Brenton:

    Thank you for writing this and for allowing me and your other readers to see into your grief to some extent. I really appreciate this post.

    Here’s a scholarly query it raised for me: Who do you think “R” was, who avoided CSL for a week? Do we have any evidence on his identity?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hannah says:

      Could it have been Roger Lancelyn Green? He was around, “visiting the Killns three months after Joy’s demise. perusing reading the Grief Observed manuscript”, according to the Zaleskis in “The Fellowship” p. 269.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Hannah and Sorina,
      Thank you for this great discussion. I missed it as I navigated that foggy period.
      “R” could have been Roger, but in reading the letters and biographies, I found him more present. I always thought “R” was Ronald (which I pronounce as “Roland” in my brain, so if I ever type that, let me know). I never doubted that Tolkien was the man–he didn’t even go to the funeral.
      Of course, that’s what makes this discussion forum good. I may have been wrong–and thus may continue to be!

      Like

      • Hannah says:

        I had not thought of Tolkien but might it then not rather have been a ‘T’ instead of ‘R’ as they always called him Tollers?
        And Green did seem to be making up for having avoided Lewis those first weeks, staying at the Kiln, being there for him and helping him with Grief Observed?

        Like

        • Yes, they called him Tollers or Tolkien, not Ronald (or Roland!). And they called Green (by this time) “Roger”.
          I don’t now about the Green part, whether he felt like he had abandoned them. I know that Doug Gresham has said in Lenten Lands that everyone abandoned them, except the Sayers family and a couple of other.
          I thought of R=Tollers because H=Joy in the manuscript. “Helen” was Joy’s proper name, and “Ronald” was what his family called him (and how he introduced himself to others).

          Like

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            I don’t know that I ever thought about this identification until Sørina’s comment, above – I don’t recall seeing anyone discuss it before.

            A part of the context is the discussion I have encountered bits of, about the form of A Grief Observed both (a) as published and (b) as written.

            On the one hand, it appeared as by, ‘N.W. Clerk’ (in the U.K. in 1961, again in the U.S. in 1963), and ‘R.’ could be as easily cryptically (though not impenetrably) concealing: it need have nothing immediate to do with any part of anybody’s real name.

            There is, beyond this (a), the (b) of how Lewis was giving it form. Is there any revision between what Lewis was writing as he went along and what he published pseudonymously, later?

            There is all sorts of ‘real stuff’ reused in Letters to Malcolm, but there is no real simple single ‘Malcolm’ and no unified body of real letters.

            Could Lewis have recast – or even initially cast – what he was recording of what he was experiencing, in a semi-fictionalized form? It is not something I’ve ever tried to look into properly. But, conceivably, ‘R.’ could be a fictional/fictionalized, borrowed, proto-‘Malcolm’-like detail added at some point to a largely accurate account.

            Then again, as noted, ‘H’ really is the initial of one of Joy’s names. So, ‘R’ could equally simply be first, last, or middle initial of someone.

            Who? How about Lewis’s parish priest, Father Ronald E. Head (1956-1990)? I can’t remember what he has said about that time, and my memories of him in the 1980s-90s are not such as would lead me to expect him to have “been avoiding [Lewis] for a week.”

            I don’t have the sense that Lewis and Tolkien were in regular contact, then, in a way which would make “R. has been avoiding me for a week” an obvious way of putting it. But perhaps I am wrong in seeing there a picture of departure from a ‘pattern’ (or whatever) of regular, even daily contact.

            Did Lewis go into college regularly, then? (I can’t recall what his post-Cambridge-‘move’ relation to Magdalen College, Oxford, was.) If so, it could be someone there. Or it could be someone in the parish. Someone part of his daily life, but (largely) unknown to Lewis scholarship.

            I also have to echo you in saying, “I don’t now about the Green part, whether he felt like he had abandoned them.”

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