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).
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).
What 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.
Instead, 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.
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.