Western culture has a funny view on death. On a whole, it seems deathly afraid of it. People go to great lengths to extend their years and even try to avoid it all together. Those that are involved with death like morticians are viewed with suspicion. Why is that? When death does happen, we act surprised and don’t know what do with ourselves. The default is the “I’m Sorry”. Do we really mean it? If not, why do we say it? How do we handle death of someone close? Someone we kind of knew? Or someone we never met?
A Death in the Family – Mom
A little over 6 years ago, I lost my mother. She was up and moving around one minute and dead on the floor the next. She’d had a heart attack a few years prior that she didn’t know about that was giving her issues. She was taking steps and was on the mend.
For my siblings and I, my mom was the first big loss we’d experienced. Sure our grandparents passed away when we were young, but we hardly knew them. Some friends and acquaintances had died but no one this close. The day after mom died we started letting people know. There was the few family members, friends in Florida and in Washington.
We probably contacted about 50 or 60 people by the time it was said and done. The condolences and flowers soon started to flow in, at least a trickle then a flood. By the time my mom’s memorial was done 8 days after her death, the house looked like a florist’s shop, the people stopped coming by to see how we were doing at all hours of the day and most of all I was fucking sick of the words “I’m Sorry”. We realized a few things about death and how we has a family handle it. As the memorial came closer, we came to realize it was not for us, well for my father mostly, but for those who knew her. It allowed him to grieve the way he wanted too, for my siblings and I it prevented us from starting the grieving process. We were taking care of everyone else’s grief.
A Death in the Family – Dad
Just recently I lost my father. We’d known for about 2 years he wasn’t going to make it more than a few years. His issues kept piling up and he couldn’t quite recover from each bout that sent him to the hospital. The end came and we were there and go to say goodbye to him. We’d had time to prepare and knew if he made it into 2020, we’d all be surprised. It still hurt and we felt a great loss. This time around we did things differently. The only people that knew immediately were those we deemed important to know. That included our cousins on my dad’s side, one of mom’s brothers, dad’s best friend and our best friends. Maybe a total of 10 people.
It allowed us to do what we needed to grieve instead of having to deal with others giving us sympathy. We didn’t want a big affair, this time the memorial was for us and not the others. Dad’s funeral was a smaller affair but I think much more meaningful than mom’s. In the weeks since the memorial, we’ve doled our information about dad’s passing to other people including his former coworkers and our friend networks. Why? To spread out that inevitable fucking “I’m Sorry.”
I’m Sorry, I don’t know what do
Death is a personal thing for everyone. Each one of us has our own way of dealing with death. Some laugh, some cry, some engage in self destructive behavior, others withdraw into themselves and the list goes on and on. No two people have the same reaction to death, nor do they even have the same reaction to different people dying. How I grieved for my mother is completely different than I grieved for my father, which will be different than how I grieve for my brother, sister or significant other.
When it comes to the death of people we know or for the family of those we know it is a different animal. I’m Sorry is the easiest way to convey the sympathy to the other person. It doesn’t display empathy, it is more of “I’m sorry FOR you.” Its the de facto way of dealing with other people’s grief in the Western Culture for that very reason, its the easiest way to handle it. Otherwise, what do you say? “I didn’t know your (insert relation) so suck it up?” I’m Sorry works, its automatic like bless you when someone sneezes. It has become the cultural norm.
A lie or I’m Just Sorry
Saying “I’m Sorry” feels like a lie. I do not feel sorry for them. I don’t feel sympathy for them, I empathize with them. I understand the pain they are going through and depending on how recent the loss is, just how much “I’m sorry” just sounds contrived. Since my mom’s death, I’ve used “I’ve been there” and “I know that one”. Even if I don’t know what to say beyond that it gives me that personal connection to that person that let’s them know it is temporary and it is something that you can overcome. It works as well as a bond between us, also. It allows me to share my vulnerability with someone going through the same thing.
I don’t blame people who use “I’m sorry”. Death is a weird thing. Maybe just be aware that sympathy is not what the grieving person is looking for, but empathy. I know had a few more people been empathetic and used some other language than “I’m sorry” I wouldn’t hate the phrase as much as I do. Hell, things might have gone different with Dad, but I don’t know. Even if don’t know what to say to someone to show empathy, just offer up to be there for them. Establish that connection. That will do wonders for the grieving person instead of empty platitudes.